Presidential disaster declared, FEMA funds approved

Residents deal with the high water in their neighborhood after hard rains covered the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in Monte Alto. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Residents affected by last month’s heavy rains will soon get some much needed relief in the form of “individual assistance” from FEMA after President Donald Trump approved a Presidential Disaster Declaration last Wednesday.

“I am grateful to the President and FEMA for granting Texas’ request for assistance following severe storms and flooding in the Valley,” Gov. Greg Abbott said via a statement last week.

The federal disaster declaration applies to residents in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, which were battered by heavy rains and strong winds June 24 and overnight into June 25.

The six-hour rainstorm came almost exactly one year after a similar heavy rain event caused tens of millions of dollars in damage throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

With the declaration, homeowners without flood insurance will be eligible to apply for up to $34,000 in “individual assistance” through FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program. Residents can apply at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.

“This declaration will bring desperately needed aid and relief to our communities,” Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said via a statement.

Local officials also responded to the news Wednesday.

“That’s fantastic news for our area,” Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes said. “We’re hopeful that this individual assistance will help homeowners get back to where they belong.”

“We think it’s great news. I think it’s going to help everybody in the area that was affected by the flooding,” said Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez.

In the Delta area, which bore the brunt of the storm’s impact in Hidalgo County, Edcouch City Manager Victor Hugo de la Cruz said he’s glad the Valley’s flood woes are getting noticed. “We’re happy about that,” de la Cruz said. “I’m happy about that — that at least our citizens are going to be able to get that help.”

Fuentes reminded residents who wish to apply for FEMA assistance to gather proof of damage to their homes, including photographs, receipts and expenses.

The county commissioner also cautioned that some residents may not be ineligible to receive federal assistance if they received such assistance after last year’s storms.

“It depends. Some of them may have been denied in the 2018 (event) because they got 2015 assistance. The people that didn’t get 2018 assistance will have the ability to apply for this assistance,” Fuentes said, explaining that homeowners are ineligible to apply if they’ve received help within the last three years.

While local leaders were grateful to learn that residents will be able to seek federal relief funds, many are still concerned about the recovery that lies ahead in regard to public infrastructure.

De la Cruz said FEMA representatives were set to tour Edcouch last Thursday. The city manager hopes the federal agency will also provide public assistance funding to shore up issues in the county’s drainage systems.

“More than anything, I would say that we’re more concerned with the infrastructure,” de la Cruz said. “I would want to be able to provide maintenance on the current drainage system,” he said.

In the aftermath of the rain, several canals in the Delta region could be seen overflowing their banks, including one that contributed to the prolonged inundation of the Casa Messina apartment complex south of Edcouch.

It’ll still be some time before officials know whether public assistance funds will also be granted. Commissioner Fuentes said county and city officials are still tallying costs from last month’s storm.

“We’re still in disaster recovery, so we’re still accumulating costs. We’re doing debris management. We’re picking up trash,” Fuentes said.

“All of those costs accumulate and once we get to a final declaration … that’s when we tally up all the numbers and see whether we’re going to meet the threshold that the federal government has for public assistance,” he said.

Indeed, post-storm analysis is still very much underway. When reached by phone last Wednesday, Fuentes was in the midst of assessing drainage canals near Monte Alto. “We’re still out here doing assessments. We’re still getting calls from residents in our area that have concerns over the things that they saw a few weeks ago,” he said.

Officials are also reaching out for the state’s help to fix infrastructure issues. This year and last, standing water along the expressway cut off access to the region’s primary evacuation route.

“Individuals could not enter or exit several state system roads and evacuation efforts were hampered due to the road issues,” State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-39, wrote in a June 27 letter to the Texas Transportation Commission. “Additionally, IH-2 could not be accessed by emergency vehicles.”

Martinez said Hidalgo County is willing to commit $21 million of the $190 million approved by voters last November to help resolve drainage issues near the interstate and implored TxDOT to approve additional funds for the efforts.

“I do not understand why there has only been minimal progress by TxDOT since the flood of 2018,” Martinez said.