After leaving devastation in its wake in Cuba and the Caribbean, Hurricane Ike is making its way toward the Texas coast and is expected to intensify in the warm waters of the Gulf before it arrives Saturday morning. If Texas officials order a mandatory exodus, it would be the first large-scale evacuation in South Texas history-more than 1 million residents could potentially be in the storm's path, the Associated Press reports.
The storm path may also have a large impact on Texas' immigrant population in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley. Facing South reported on this vulnerable immigrant population during our coverage of Hurricane Dolly:
...like New Orleans, the people who live on the Gulf's Texas-Mexico border are not economically well-equipped to withstand a storm's devastation.
Outside the cities, most residents are tied to the Rio Grande's agricultural economy. 90% of the population is Latino, largely Mexican-American. A close-knit region with a strong cultural identity (and a rich labor organizing history), most live in the low-lying 2,000 colonias that often lack basic utilities and water, making them uniquely vulnerable to a storm.
Facing South reported last week that during the Hurricane Gustav many immigrants did not evacuate due to deportation concerns. The same fears are present in Texas's immigrant communities this week. As the AP reports:
Federal authorities gave assurances they would not check people's immigration status at evacuation loading zones or inland checkpoints. But residents were skeptical, and there were worries that many illegal immigrants would refuse to board buses and go to shelters for fear of getting arrested and deported.
One reason for the skepticism: Back in May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Border Patrol would do nothing to impede an evacuation in the event of a hurricane. But when Hurricane Dolly struck the Rio Grande Valley in late July, no mandatory evacuation was ordered, and as a result the Border Patrol kept its checkpoints open. Agents soon caught a van load of illegal immigrants.
... the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a massive construction project that not only makes levee failures [in Texas] more likely in the short term but could also worsen future flooding in the region.
DHS plans to incorporate 18-foot concrete walls into the levees along the [Rio Grande]'s edge in coastal Cameron and Hidalgo counties in order to hold back both immigrants and floodwaters.
Congress mandated that the construction of 670 miles of wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, including 70 miles in the Rio Grande Valley, to be finished by Dec. 31, 2008. So far, only two segments of the wall - both in Hidalgo County - have actually been started, and construction on the other five Hidalgo County segments is expected to begin by early next month, reports The Brownsville Herald.
As we reported:
After the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined the 40-year-old levees along the Rio Grande were inadequate to handle potential floods, DHS - FEMA's parent agency -- saw the need for repairs as a way to advance their goal of a border wall.
Although many Texas officials from the affected counties have fought against the border wall, many have come to support the plan that combines the border wall with the much-needed levee repairs that would hold back floodwater from a swollen Rio Grande. FEMA announced last spring that if the levees weren't repaired, much of Hidalgo County would be designated a special flood hazard area.
But the Texas Border Coalition (TBC), a collective of Texas border mayors, county judges, and economic development commissions, has criticized the dangers of the wall's construction in the middle of hurricane season.
"The footings of the levees are being destroyed in the construction process so that the Department of Homeland Security can erect 18-foot concrete walls in their place. It is incredibly short-sighted that the government would open the levees at the same time that the danger is highest for devastating floods in the middle of hurricane season," Eagle Pass, Texas Mayor Chad Foster said in a press release following Hurricane Dolly.
TBC has also criticized DHS' plans for a moveable wall, something they argue is not a sustainable or a realistic option during a hurricane evacuation. According to a recent TBC press release:
...DHS says it will construct 14 miles of fencing that can be removed when a hurricane bears down on Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos in Texas. The movable wall would be made of 89,000 steel bollards, each 18 feet above ground. Each bollard, filled with concrete to 10 feet high, would weight about 1,700 pounds. To achieve its goal of removing the wall during a hurricane, DHS would have to haul away 151 million pounds of unwieldy pipe filled with concrete in 24 hours.
"No one with experience managing an evacuation in advance of a hurricane believes that the DHS plan has any foundation in reality," Foster said. "DHS planners have engineered a fantasy."
With the Texas coast's large number of poor people and immigrants, and questionable safety of border wall and levee projects, the risk posed by Hurricane Ike continues to grow.