WEBB COUNTY, TX – When Hurricane Alex made landfall on the northeast Mexican Coast in the summer of 2010, causing extensive flooding along the Rio Grande River in Texas, mitigation actions previously taken by the city of Rio Bravo certainly paid off.
Rio Bravo is a border town separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande River. The city started as a colonia, where construction was unregulated, and later, was incorporated into Webb County. Its history brings with it many challenges. In 1998, several homes that were located along the river were severely flooded. The city applied for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) for the acquisition of those homes. A total of 17 homes were purchased. The cost for the project was $365,603 with 25 percent being the local share and 75 percent covered by FEMA’s grant.
“If there were still homes there (during hurricane Alex), they would be gone,” said Andres Butler, Webb County emergency management coordinator. “The water was so high.”
FEMA’s HMGP is a state administered grant available to local eligible communities to implement long-term mitigation measures following a major disaster declaration.
“The state is very much in favor of buyouts,” said Marsha Rutherford, mitigation specialist from the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “It provides a permanent solution to the problem.”
Since the cleared land must remain open space in perpetuity, the area was turned into soccer and baseball fields.
“The flood took them (the fields) away but they are probably coming back,” said City Secretary Omega Delgado. “We don’t have a lot of stores and things to do for fun here.”
A raw water intake structure that provides water to the cities of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo is located next to the cleared land by the Rio Grande River. “It is very important that it doesn’t go out,” said Butler. He added that around 13,000 people depend on it. In order to comply with floodplain regulations and to continue in good standing with the National Flood Insurance Program, the county elevated the structure in 2006. The cost was covered by a grant from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), according to Butler. The elevation proved itself invaluable during Hurricane Alex by keeping the raw water intake equipment above the floodwaters and avoiding interruption of the water supply to the people of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo.
Rio Bravo’s Mayor, Nora Rivera, said they are looking into other mitigation projects to protect their citizens. One of the projects is the installation of an alarm to warn residents of weather emergencies; another is applying for a second HMGP grant for the acquisition of homes that were flooded in the latest floods of July 2010.
Prince Aryee, FEMA Hazard Mitigation Planner, encouraged the mayor to add projects such as home elevation, acquisitions, and retrofitting the city hall structure to their mitigation plan. “If you have projects in the mitigation plan, it makes the review process for funding easier and faster,” said Aryee. “The state of Texas awards points for projects listed in the local mitigation plan and can increase your chance of getting the projects selected.”