MCALLEN — Damage to public and private properties in two of the counties most affected by flooding of the Rio Grande is estimated at $40 million and counting, according to public officials in Starr and Hidalgo counties.
Agricultural losses and restoration will only add to those amounts once damages have been assessed, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel.
“We will have losses to crop yield and quality, crops that have been destroyed and possibly to crops still at risk, said Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension economist in Welsaco.
Recovery from the floodwaters will add millions more, he said.
“Debris cleanup and land leveling in both counties will cost around $9 million,” Ribera said. “Fence restoration and other extensive repairs farmers and ranchers will incur will only add to the cost of this devastation.”
Hurricane Alex’s landfall in northern Mexico on June 30, followed by a tropical depression and heavy rainfall since are straining the flood control system and piling up losses in South Texas, Ribera said.
“The remainder of the grain sorghum and corn crops not yet harvested are taking a beating, and the entire cotton crop is also at risk because bolls are now open and highly susceptible to quality losses or complete ruin by flood or rain,” he said.
Ribera pegged the value of the area’s cotton crop at $44 million.
Brad Cowan, an AgriLife Exension agent in Hidalgo County, said, “Cotton harvesting should start next week. We haven’t given up on that crop, but it’s not looking good.”
Grain elevators are turning down loads of crops being brought to them because of quality issues due to rain and flood damage, he said.
Enrique Perez, the AgriLife Extension agent in neighboring Cameron County, said flooding there has not been as severe as in Starr and Hidalgo counties, but there have been damages that are still being assessed.
“We may not have gotten as much flooding and rain, but all crops are going to suffer yield and quality losses,” he said. “The quality just won’t be there, and sorghum yields are down by as much as half in some fields.”
Perez said rains are hampering the harvests of sorghum and corn, but the harvest is “moving along.”
Cowan said 70 percent of the grain sorghum and 30 percent of the corn in Hidalgo County had been harvested. Perez said as much as 80 percent of the sorghum and half of the corn had been harvested in Cameron County.
But practically none of the cotton in the entire Rio Grande Valley has been harvested. Any damage to area citrus and sugarcane crops can only be determined later, Ribera said.
“We’re running out of places to put all this water,” said Yolanda Morado, an AgriLife Extension agent in Starr County.
Starr County, one of the poorest areas in the nation, is located just below Falcon Dam on the Rio Grande and the hardest hit county in terms of populated flooded land, she said.
“Homes and businesses are flooded, and mosquitoes are getting to be an awful problem,” she said. “I drive a white car and the entire hood was black with mosquitoes this morning. It looked like caked-on mud.”
The few foggers available to county personnel just can’t keep up with the growing and potentially health-hazardous mosquito populations, Morado said.
“What we need is aerial spraying, but funding for that won’t happen until we get a federal designation of a disaster area and that hasn’t happened yet,” she said.
In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry earlier this month, Starr County judge Eloy Vera wrote that flooding in Starr County constitutes a public health and safety hazard of such a magnitude that “an effective response is beyond Starr County’s capability to recover without supplementary state and/or federal assistance.”
Perry declared Starr County a disaster area but the county is still awaiting a federal declaration, Morado said.
“We estimate losses so far in Starr County at about $18 million,” said State Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City.
Guillen said the State of Texas has deployed all of its resources throughout the flooding event, but that his heart goes out to those flood victims unable to return to their homes.
“I look forward to the day when the floodwaters recede completely and when the federal government proclaims Starr County a disaster area so that the proper officials can go in and make assessments and assist those who need it,” he said.
Starr County is in a flood plain, not protected by a system of levees and floodways found in downstream Hidalgo and Cameron counties, according to Tony Pena Jr., the emergency management coordinator in Hidalgo County.
“We estimate about a $22 million loss in our county so far,” he said. “But I can’t imagine the flooding and devastation we would have had if not for the floodway, which seems to be working and holding up well.”
Public employees successfully shored up a section of levee in the Penitas area of Hidalgo County that could have been catastrophic had their efforts not succeeded, he said.
“Had that effort failed, we would have had the river free-flowing through Mission, McAllen and into Edinburg, Katrina-like,” he said. “By shoring up that levee, we also kept some 250,000 residents from losing fresh water supplies.”
Pena said 15 to 17 counties in South Texas have so far been affected by rains and flood from Hurricane Alex, and the priority now is to prepare for any future rain events.
“We’re only in the early stages of the tropical storm season this year, so it’s important that we bring Falcon Lake down to conservation level so it can handle any storms that might develop,” he said. “If we were to get a tropical storm, even in Mexico, that brought even 8 inches of rain, we’d have lots of run-off coming right to us.”
The conservation level at Falcon Dam is 301.2 feet above mean sea level. It peaked July 11 at 309.3 feet and as of July 28 had dropped to 304.56, some 3.36 feet above conservation, according to Erasmo Yarrito Jr., the Texas Commission on Environmental Qualityâ€™s Rio Grande watermaster.
“We’re dropping about a half foot per day,” he said. “But that was before it started raining again. Inflows are also tapering off from upstream Amistad Dam which is also dropping considerably and is now at about 5 feet above conservation level.”
Conservation level is the dividing line between a full reservoir and its flood level, at which point the International Boundary and Water Commission assumes flood control, Yarrito said.