On Wednesday, over 500 citizens gathered at Weslaco City Hall to demand answers from city officials regarding their handling of the recent June flood that left 20 percent of the city underwater. Concerned residents crowded the main chamber and overflowed into the lobby, blaming the city for their lack of action.
At the request of Gov. Abbott, President Trump issued a federal disaster declaration for Hidalgo and Cameron County on July 6. Over 20,000 homes were damaged throughout the RGV, with Weslaco receiving the brunt of the storm.
In Abbott’s letter, he urged the president for federal funding, remarking that, “Texans are resilient, but few can recover without assistance when disaster after disaster hits in the middle of recovery from multiple disasters.”
Wednesday’s Flood Forum began with a presentation by the city, claiming the recent 12 to 18 inches of rain over two days excused the city’s lack of disaster preparations. However, their analysis was quickly overshadowed by the subsequent three hours of testimonials from 33 exasperated residents. “You’ve turned us into a swimming pool!” one resident exclaimed.
Flooding seems to be a recurring problem in Weslaco, as residents cited examples from 2008 with Hurricane Dolly, 2015, 2017, and now again in 2018.
In 2015, remnants of Hurricane Patricia flooded Weslaco with over 11 inches of rain, yet city officials replied that “there was little to be done.” The city then claimed their new drainage ditch expansions would prevent any future overflow.
There have been two floods since.
This time, however, Weslaco locals have been more vocal in demanding change. One resident, Raul Trevino, took his frustration to Facebook. “The city profits all the money they could get; everybody knows it,” he wrote. “And if the residents of Weslaco want to say ‘I lost everything due to mother nature,’ then they’re too blind to see the corruption.”
Another resident, Israel Coronado, has created a Facebook page called “Make Weslaco Drain Again,” calling for the city to improve flood prevention.
Israel also spoke during the forum, calmly encouraging residents to “demand the results that we deserve.” Yet oddly enough, the live stream of his testimony was disconnected for those watching in the overflow areas, angering citizens outside, as they attempted to break down the doors trying to enter the main chamber. Israel was interviewed about what occurred inside, saying, “Enough of excuses! They lowered my mic!” So far, this video has reached over 60,000 views online, giving the group more momentum moving forward. As of Friday morning, the “Make Weslaco Drain Again” Facebook page has been hacked and deactivated, according to page administrators.
“How can we ask for accountability if the city doesn’t let us talk?” said Vidal Zamora.
City officials maintain that they lack the financial resources and capability to prevent flooding. Some residents called it a bluff, noting that the nicer neighborhoods didn’t have any drainage issues.
Tommy Bradford, owner of Bradford Farms, said he lost $40,000 from damaged crops, which were underwater for six days. Bradford, who also sits on the Board of Directors of Hidalgo County Irrigation District 5, is very familiar with drainage issues and recognized the city’s mismanagement over the years. “They’re not fixing anything. Nothing has changed,” he said, “It’s the same problem over and over.”
Marge Phagat showed Texas Scorecard the sewer drain that’s sprouting greenery outside the metal grate, “The cars keep it trimmed. It’s been like this since 2015. It’s sad that the city has money to make improvements to an airport but can’t clean our drains.”
As a solution, Hidalgo County is levying a bond issuance in the November general election for drainage projects. Hidalgo County Commissioner Precinct 1 David Fuentes stated the decision will be determined within 30 days. As the county is proposing a $50 to $120 million bond election, Hidalgo County officials have been curiously silent on their “rainy day” fund (unrestricted reserve balance). According to the Hidalgo County 2018 Budget, $28 million was specifically allotted to safeguard against “emergency conditions.” Texas Scorecard has inquired as to how much money is left and where that money has been spent. Thus far, there has been no indication that any of that fund has been or will be used for this natural disaster. If past spending habits are any indication, this fund might have been used to cover budget shortfalls last year, and in preparation for the construction of a new $150 million county courthouse.
Fern McClaugherty, spokesperson for the O.W.L.S., claims the construction of a new courthouse is the top priority for the county. “The people are not a main concern for Ramon Garcia, except that courthouse. Put this courthouse on hold, and help these people. We are barely going into hurricane season,” she stated.
“These people don’t work for us,” continued Zamora at City Hall. “The only changes that come are in our property taxes! We want accountability. Invest in our drainage system. It wasn’t the rain or a historical event, it was a lack of infrastructure. This is a disappointment of my city.”
However, the City of Weslaco may not have much time to act, as meteorologists predict more activity than usual this hurricane season, in addition to expected Zika outbreaks along the Rio Grande Valley.
Another city commission meeting will be held Tuesday, July 17 at Weslaco City Hall at 5:30 pm.