THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY
One year after the devastation left in the wake of what the National Weather Service dubbed the Great June Flood of 2018 in the Rio Grande Valley, many who were affected by last year’s storms are still recovering.
In observance of the first anniversary, we set out to learn more about life after the flood, and how local residents and officials are preparing for similar, or stronger weather events.
* * *
WESLACO — Their home lies in the quiet Las Brisas neighborhood off Mile 9 North Road in Weslaco — a cozy two-story brick house where Del Oro South and Steffy Drive meet.
A large oak tree shades the front yard and cheery yellow daisies painted on the slats of a gate that leads to the backyard seem to be soaking up the sunshine of a quiet June morning.
A year ago, however, the scene looked much different. A year ago, the dream home of Raul and Elma Reyna was underwater and the couple were being evacuated by the National Guard.
‘JUST ANOTHER RAINY DAY’
The Reynas had spent the day before the deluge working on their backyard garden. Elma had laid down paving stones to create a meandering walkway and had applied mulch around the base of a tree.
Together, she and her husband had planted fresh mats of grass on soil Raul had turned with a brand new tiller. It had been hot and dry in the preceding days, so the couple irrigated the new grass to help it grow.
As evening came, the clouds broke open. Summer rainstorms are nothing new in the Rio Grande Valley, though, so the couple retired to bed.
“We went to bed that day thinking it was just, you know, just another rainy day,” Raul said.
When he got up later that night to use the restroom, his feet met with water. Thinking the water heater had broken, he and Elma set to work with towels and a mop. The nature of the looming disaster had not yet dawned on Raul — until he looked outside. “As soon as I walked out on the back porch, nombre,my whole porch was flooded,” Raul said.
“We saw the water coming in through the back,” Elma said. “That’s when my husband said, ‘Ya, just leave it alone. We’re not going to be able to stop it,’” she said. Their backyard had turned into a lake; the drainage canal just beyond their fence line no longer visible.
Thunder had awoken the couple’s two grandchildren. The family spent a sleepless night watching as the water crept farther inside, soaking into furniture that was too heavy to move upstairs. Dawn revealed over a dozen inches of water inside the home.
By mid-morning, a military truck began making its way through the neighborhood. It was the National Guard. “They were calling out on those megaphones … that people needed to evacuate,” Raul said.
At first, Raul didn’t want to. He assumed the water would soon recede, but his wife feared they wouldn’t get another chance. They grabbed bags they’d been packing for a vacation and their pets — three Chihuahuas and two Yorkshire terriers.
Each evening, they would return to the respite of Hannah House. “There were some times that they would just sit in the living room and cry. Just cry because it seemed like “It was really scary. When you have to leave and leave everything behind and not know what it’s gonna be like when you come back,” Elma said, her voice breaking in the retelling.
By the time they left the floodwaters at the end of the driveway were up to Raul’s chest.
They were taken to a church downtown where other evacuees were gathering, but there, they got more bad news. They couldn’t stay with their pets.
“I said, ‘Man, come on. Don’t be cruel. They’re innocent little animals,’” Raul said.
They were distraught, unsure what to do next, where to go, or how to get there. Too, their daughter — mother to the two granddaughters they had with them — had been working an overnight shift and was trapped on the other side of town. It would be days before they would be reunited.
In desperation, Raul called his pastor, Ubaldo Jacques, of Mercedes Christian Church. Jacques braved the floodwaters along Business 83 in a brand new pickup truck to rescue the family. He took them to Hannah House, a property owned by the church and which it uses to help those in need.
The family would end up spending several months at Hannah House while they rebuilt their home.
Residents of the Las Brisas neighborhood weren’t allowed to return to their homes for nearly a week. When the Reynas returned, they found nearly everything downstairs destroyed, from the furniture to the walls. “It stunk like a sewer,” Raul said.
The foul water had also soaked into some unfinished cabinets Raul had made. “ Me dolió el corazón because I made them myself,” Raul said. The sight hurt his heart.
Raul had spent a career as a mechanic at a local car dealership, but had been nearing retirement last June. His wife is a homemaker with a knack for crafts. Locals often come to her to bake cakes or design centerpieces for their bridal and baby showers. With their modest means, the couple wondered how they would afford repairs, especially since they didn’t have flood insurance at the time. They do now.
They decided the best course of action was for Raul to retire early and to do the work themselves. Already handy with tools, Raul began to look up do-it-yourself videos online. Between the two of them, a nephew and their church, they set about rebuilding.
Through the help of a sister church in Iowa, the Mercedes Christian Church was able to buy building materials for the Reynas and nearly a dozen other families whose homes had been damaged in the flood. The $30,000 donation funded the purchase of sheet rock, insulation, screws and more.
Ultimately, the Reynas gutted their home, tearing out the walls up to 4 feet high, removing the tile and much of the cabinetry. Their street soon became a sea of discarded furniture.
Each evening, they would return to the respite of Hannah House. “There were some times that they would just sit in the living room and cry. Just cry because it seemed like they were never going to finish,” Pastor Jacques said. “And we would just sit right next to them and weep with them and rejoice with them,” he said.
The pastor struggled with his own moments of despair at the magnitude of the disaster, but found strength in a psalm. “The scripture that came to my mind is, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.’ — Psalm 119:105,” Jacques said.
He shared the verse with the Reynas, telling them God would light their way to recovery.
Indeed, providence shone down on both the family and the church, which soon became a staging area for disaster relief efforts. After finishing the repairs on their home, the couple in turn lent their hands to repairing other damaged homes.
A YEAR LATER
Today, it’s nearly impossible to tell the Reyna home has ever flooded. There are no visible seams where the new sheet rock was installed. The walls are again decorated with Elma’s crafts, including floral arrangements and decorative crosses. But the serene scene hides a lingering sense of disquiet.
“We have a Las Brisas page on Facebook and everybody panics,” Elma said, speaking of when the local forecasts call for rain.
“It’s scary because, pos, we’re barely back to normal and then for it to happen again?” she said.
Recent rainfall has prompted questions from their granddaughters about the house flooding again. “Every time it rains now, man, we can’t sleep,” Raul said. “We’re afraid.”
The flood has spurred myriad improvement projects since last June; however, Raul says they’re more cause for concern.
Crews widened the canal behind the house, and added terraces from which excavators can scoop debris. But, the new canal bank means surface water now flows towards his home rather than the canal. And just feet away, a new detention pond is under construction as part of a $190 million county effort to improve drainage. Yet, Raul wonders if — in the midst of hurricane season — the project’s construction pace is too slow.
Since last year, many people have urged the Reynas to sell their home and leave Las Brisas. They’ve discarded the idea, saying problems exist everywhere.
“My youngest daughter said, ‘Dad, sell the house. Come over with us,” Raul said.
“ Dije, ‘You got flooded, too.”