Hurricane Norbert Expected to Flood Presidio

October 13, 2008

With Hurricane Norbert headed toward Mexico’s Baja California coast, West Texas officials are preparing for more flooding in the already saturated border town of Presidio.

State and local officials plan to activate an emergency operations center Monday in Presidio, about 250 miles southeast of El Paso, Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton said Friday.

With winds of 100 mph, Norbert was expected to hit Mexico early Saturday. Its remnants were expected to cause problems for West Texas next week.

“It’s going to be a lot of rain, most of it in the upper Conchos water shed, and the reservoirs are full, so the water has to come out through Presidio,” Ponton said.

Residents of Presidio have already spent weeks wondering if an earthen levee holding back the swollen Rio Grande would break.

Last month, the river eclipsed it’s banks, filling a nearly quarter-mile wide channel between levees on each side of the border. That flooding was blamed on heavy rains that filled rivers and reservoirs in Mexico.

Fearing a dam break, Mexican officials released flood waters into channels that feed into the Rio Grande near Presidio and the Mexican town of Ojinaga. The result was record flooding in the Rio Grande, which peaked about 29 1/2 feet high on Sept. 15, Ponton said.

Several levee breaks along the Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande in Mexico sent water cascading into Ojinaga. At one point, officials in Mexico reported that water levels were as high as 14 feet in parts of that city.

An international bridge spanning the river in the area was closed until last weekend.

A levee break on the U.S. side, east of Presidio, flooded hundreds of acres of farmland and swamped an 18-hole golf course, Ponton said.

Emergency crews built a makeshift dam along a railroad trestle to keep the flood from reaching the town and parts of that farmland remain under water because the water table is now saturated, Ponton said.

More rain in Mexico could cause another levee break, closer to populated areas of Presidio, he said.

Officials with the International Water and Boundary Commission, the binational agency responsible for maintaining the U.S.-Mexico border levees in Texas, have been monitoring the levees for weeks and plan to send more people to the area in the coming days.

Sally Spener, an IBWC spokeswoman in El Paso, said the biggest threat now is “seepage” from underneath the saturated levees or “sand boils” that could further weaken the levees.

The National Weather Service issued a flood warning for the area Friday, saying that flooding was possible in both Presidio and down river at Lajitas.

The lone highway connecting Presidio, Redford and Lajitas via the Big Bend Ranch State Park also remained closed Friday. Parts of Highway 170 were flooded last month and chunks of the road were washed away, Ponton said.

“There’s one major area east of Redford that has disintegrated,” he said. “The road material just sort of went away. They were making plans to completely reconstruct that area, but that area likely would be back under water here in a few a days.”

Officials will continue to monitor river levels over the weekend and don’t anticipate significant new flooding until the middle of next week. Until then, they will have to wait and watch, Ponton said.

“This isn’t like standing around watching a wreck. This is like standing around, waiting for a wreck,” he said. “You know exactly where it’s going to happen.”

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