Dateline: West Texas

Desert Storms flood the border.


PRESIDIO COUNTY – Is a disaster that doesn’t quite happen still a disaster? In Presidio County, the answer is yes.

The events of September tested the fortitude of Presidio County’s leaders and residents. Danger? Check. Fear? Check. Damage? Some. Worry? Lots of that. Death? Heartbreakingly, yes.

Southern Presidio County is one of the most isolated areas in the state. The town of Presidio and its sister city Ojinaga, Chihuahua, sit across the border from each other, tucked just below the spot where the Rio Conchos tumbles out of Chihuahua and joins the Rio Grande.

Most days, the Rio Grande isn’t particularly grand as it flows past Presidio. Muddy and sluggish, it’s narrow enough in a lot of places that anyone with a decent arm could stand in Texas and throw a rock into Mexico. It’s shallow enough in spots that you could splash from one country to the other without wetting your pant legs above the knees.

That’s not how it looked in September. A quarter-mile across, swift-running and deep, the Rio Grande was at flood stage for most of the month, lapping the outskirts of Presidio, inundating Ojinaga with 13 feet of water, paralyzing the economies of both towns and utterly isolating the Texas community of Redford. And as of early October, the troubles aren’t over.

“I’ve seen the river at flood stage,” said state Rep. Pete Gallego at the height of the waters’ rise. “But I’ve never seen the river like this.”

The trials of September actually started the month before, 80 crow-flying miles into Chihuahua, where rainfall-reportedly as much as 8 inches within 24 hours-dumped into the Rio Conchos. The water moved downriver and swelled the state’s system of dammed reservoirs, the last of which is Luís León Reservoir. As Luís León filled to capacity and the rain continued, Mexican officials authorized the release of excess water, huge volumes of it, all bound for Presidio and Ojinaga.

The International Boundary and Water Commission is the binational agency with responsibility for some of the Rio Grande’s levees, including those at Presidio.

“We do regularly exchange water data with Mexico,” said Sally Spener, spokesperson for the U.S. section of the commission. “We got into a situation where that water was coming to Luís León. The Mexican section advised us of the planned releases so we could prepare. By September 5, we were basically in flood operation and over capacity at the big dams. We started to see the water rise.”

Thus began a disaster in slow motion, a drawn-out standoff with the river. The 30-foot levee at Presidio can contain a maximum flow of 1,200 cubic meters of water per second. The river began creeping up from its typical flow of 70 cms on September 1 to 151 cms on September 5 and 414 cms a few days later. Even with the heavy-hitting late-summer downpours then rolling over the Big Bend, there was still plenty of room in the river at Presidio. That wasn’t the case in Redford, a hamlet of 100 people about 18 miles downstream.

The rising river topped Redford’s locally maintained levee on September 7, and the levee failed, sending water flooding into the community’s irrigation canals and fields, and threatening a few homes. FM 170, the river road, was closed between Presidio and Lajitas, cutting off access to Redford except by helicopter or a bypass cut through private land for locals and emergency workers only.

As the releases from Luís León continued, so did the rise of the Rio Grande. It takes about 30 hours for water from Luís León to reach Presidio. When word came, in mid-September, of 1,400-cms releases on the way, city officials in Presidio and Ojinaga ordered mandatory evacuations on a Sunday afternoon.

“The authorities gave us about 24 hours’ notice,” said Ojinaga Mayor César Carrasco, who added that his city’s unavoidable flood was better than the alternative: a burst dam upstream. “Ojinaga and Presidio would disappear if the dam collapsed,” he said.

Ojinaga and Chihuahua government workers hustled 1,000 residents out of their homes in the municipality of more than 20,000. Many went to stay with friends and family on higher ground in town, or evacuated to Presidio or Odessa. About 170 moved to three shelters in the city.

In Presidio, population 6,000, families were directed to find higher ground or bunk at a shelter. City and county officials waited for the water they knew the river couldn’t hold.

“The capacity is 1,200 cms,” said Presidio Mayor Lorenzo Hernandez. “They were releasing 1,350; 1,450. We knew it wouldn’t be able to hold.”

A buzzing command center was set up at a Presidio school administration office. September 15 was rainy, with clouds low and silver. The roiling Rio Grande slid by, 24 feet deep and rising.

In El Paso, Carlos Marín, the head of the U.S. section of the IBWC, climbed into a chartered Cessna, joined by Mexican IBWC Commissioner Arturo Herrera and Jake Brisbin Jr., executive director of the Rio Grande Council of Governments, based in El Paso. Brisbin was a native son of the Big Bend, a Marine veteran of Vietnam who had served as Marfa city councilman and mayor and Presidio county judge before taking the El Paso job. The three men, with pilot Matt Juneau, planned to survey the flooding rivers by air before joining an interagency meeting on the situation in Presidio.

They never made it to the meeting. By early evening, a search was under way, involving dozens of law enforcement and emergency workers who had already been called to Presidio for the flood. Any missing plane would have led to an urgent search and rescue effort; with Brisbin on board-locally well-known and friends with the people looking for him-the air and ground search took on profound personal significance.

Permission to extend the search into Mexican airspace was secured the next day. Meanwhile, the levee protecting western Ojinaga from the Rio Conchos was overcome, as was the Mexican levee on the Rio Grande. Water from the two rivers filled Ojinaga’s neighborhoods and forced the closure of the international bridge. The Mexican levee break initially caused the river level to drop in Presidio. Then it rose again, to within a few inches of the American levee’s lip. Presidio waited on the other side.

The afternoon wore on. After hours looking for a small plane in the desert scrub, Border Patrol agents spotted the Cessna’s wreckage on a cliffside in the remote mountains of Chihuahua. There were no survivors.

Throughout the ordeal, Presidio’s levee held. For days, the city’s residents, state and local emergency workers, schoolchildren and prison inmates filled sandbags, 40,000 of them. Two miles of plastic sheeting was laid, and giant Chinook helicopters dropped “supersack” sandbags the size of Volkswagen Beetles to reinforce key sections of the levee. The flood did breach one section of levee, infiltrating Presidio’s Loma Paloma golf course and giving some residents a temporary lakeside view. Although the water came close to town, few buildings were flooded.

The few people who stayed in Redford received airdrops of mail, prescriptions, homework, and food. Redford’s residents are safe, but their alfalfa crop is ruined and FM 170 remains closed indefinitely.

Luís León eventually slowed its release, lessening the flow past Presidio. Two weeks after it opened, Presidio’s shelter was shut down, and children were given a day and a half off from school so families could exhale and regroup.

Across the river, Ojinaga’s mop-up is in progress. “We are disinfecting the area,” Ojinaga’s mayor said on September 23. “Houses are being cleaned with bleach, furniture is being washed with vinegar, and we are throwing lime into water puddles and fumigating with insecticides that won’t harm the public. Protección Civil is checking houses for damage and making sure they don’t cave in. The gravest problem presenting itself now is the desperation from the people who want to get into their homes.”

Plans for a new dam between Luís León and Ojinaga, which would provide additional water storage in case of another flood, are being given a higher priority, according to the Mexican consul. The Mexican levees are being rebuilt, and the mayor is working to secure federal financial assistance for flood victims.

Releases from Luís León are expected to continue into October, and the Presidio levee is still fragile.

“I’ll never forget this,” said Hernandez, Presidio’s mayor. “There’s still tension. Those levees are saturated big-time, and they’re seeping. I don’t want people to get complacent. It’s still dangerous.”

On October 5, the bridge reopened to non-commercial traffic. Lacking their Mexican customer base, some Presidio businesses say they saw an 80-percent decrease in sales while the bridge was closed. Ojinaga took an economic hit, too.

“These are the most dependent sister cities on the border,” said Hector Raul Acosta Flores, the Mexican consul. “We rely on both sides. The maquilas have stopped completely sending products. Nothing can go through the border.”

No flood-related injuries, aside from the people in the plane, were reported in Presidio or Ojinaga. Only a few Texas homes took in water. Health officials in both countries are working to head off mosquito-borne illnesses and inoculate against tetanus. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a report on Presidio’s levees, and the county has asked the state and FEMA for help.

A heroic effort to bolster the levees has saved Presidio from a devastating flood, for now, but it has been a supremely trying and wearying experience. Some have whispered that Luís León was too full of water at the outset of the rainfall. Could it all have been prevented?

The border and water commission says no.

“It’s been said that this is a man-made disaster, with pointing fingers at the Mexicans,” Spener says now. “It was natural, due to incredible rainfall in the state of Chihuahua. The fact that there are dams on the Rio Conchos is a benefit, in that it can be controlled coming down. Unfortunately, there was too much water, and in order to maintain the integrity of the dam you have to do releases. There was no place else for it to go. Presidio and Ojinaga happened to be at the end of the line.”

Sterry Butcher is a Marfa-based reporter for The Big Bend Sentinel and the Presidio International. Rosario Salgado Halpern contributed translation services for this article.

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.