I woke last night to the sound of thunder

This post is by Emily Rickers.

I woke last night to the sound of thunder

How far off, I sat and wondered

–Bob Seeger

As other parts of the state literally burn and the Governor calls on Texans to implement a critical part of his disaster response program, prayer for rain, here in the Valley rain clouds are rolling in.  As I’ve been writing this post, the lights in my downtown Edinburg office have gone out, interrupting my work.  The city streets flood terribly with even ordinary rainstorms like today’s, but colonias have it much worse.  Residents of the Lucero del Norte subdivision struggle with septic tanks that fill with groundwater and back up into their yards even when it doesn’t rain.  Water stands in colonia streets and yards for weeks or months after major storms.  When it rains here, no matter how dry it’s been, I worry about my neighbors in colonias, whose homes still haven’t been fixed from Hurricane Dolly and whose neighborhoods are still going to flood after all the disaster recovery money has been spent.

Colonia residents face resistance from every level of government that continually sends them to the back of the line for housing and infrastructure to protect them from the environment.  FEMA penalizes them, like all low-income homeowners, by denying them emergency home repair benefits because of its vague determination of “insufficient damage” or its unpublished disqualification for “deferred maintenance.”  In both cases, that seems to mean something like, “your house was damaged because you’re too poor to build it well and maintain it, not because it suffered a hurricane.”  Sunday and Monday’s posts (speculating on Governor Perry’s reasons for vetoing TDHCA, and reporting on the transfer of disaster recovery funds to the GLO), as well as this one from January 11, 2010 criticizing the Governor’s original disaster recovery plan, outlined some of the state-level obstacles to an equitable distribution of Texas’ disaster recovery money.

Local officials are no better at looking out for colonia residents, broadly speaking.  Many can’t or won’t figure out how to comply with requirements that CDBG Disaster Recovery funds primarily benefit the low- to moderate-income families hit hardest by Hurricane Dolly.  Drainage officials say the flooded city streets are proof that the whole region’s drainage system is inadequate, and they plan to use the CDBG money to implement a regional drainage plan, rather than using it for community-level projects in colonias.  Godfrey Garza, Hidalgo County Drainage District Manager, recently insisted in a meeting with TxLIHIS staff and local resident advocates that “it wouldn’t be fair” to prioritize colonia residents over wealthier subdivisions.  His position is undoubtedly shared by other local officials in many areas of the state.  I appreciate the fact that Mr. Garza and his colleagues face a difficult dilemma—grossly inadequate funds to upgrade a grossly inadequate system.  But his position is exactly wrong, precisely the opposite result from the intended use of this money.

By statute, CDBG funds are intended to “principally” benefit persons of low and moderate income “by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment and expanding economic opportunities.”  CDBG Disaster Recovery funds have the same focus, and not only must their aggregate use principally benefit low and moderate income families, but the State must give “maximum feasible priority” to these activities.

All federal housing and community development funds, including CDBG funds, must be used in a way that reverses historical patterns of discrimination and marginalization of certain groups of people. In the case of colonias, recent immigrants of Latin American descent were deliberately sold land agriculturally worthless, flood-prone land, informally subdivided and intentionally excluded from public infrastructure grids that serve the more Anglo, native-born population in incorporated communities.  Following statute to prioritize these marginalized communities is, in fact, inherently fair.

In Round One, the region spent 87% of its funds on infrastructure money. Half of each County’s allocation was divided based on population, like patronage spoils, instead of based on disaster damage.  With Round Two funds, regional drainage plans apparently will take priority.  Yet despite a clear mandate to prioritize low-income disaster victims, colonia residents are sent once again to the back of the line.

What should happen instead?  Local officials should compile existing information on colonias with the worst drainage problems, and collect it from areas where data is sketchy, especially older colonias platted prior to enactment of the model subdivision rules.  Colonia residents should have an opportunity to help identify and prioritize projects, understanding the need for a better region-wide system in addition to community-level improvements and repairs.  Most of the money should go toward those projects the residents identify as priorities.  If very little money goes toward universally-beneficial regional improvements, so be it.  That’s not what the CDBG funds are for.

The full cost of effective regional drainage is exponentially greater than the roughly $60 million available in disaster recovery funds. The region will still have to look for alternative sources of funding for its drainage needs whether or not CDBG Disaster Recovery funds are spent primarily to benefit colonia residents hard hit by Hurricane Dolly.  This time, it’s their turn, and their turn can’t come soon enough.  It’s supposed to rain again tomorrow.