Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Building border walls during hurricane season is dangerous

By K. Rod Summy

Most of us who live here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas were very relieved when the Secretary of Homeland Security recently thwarted a potentially dangerous proposal by the Border Patrol to check the immigration status of all persons leaving this area in the event of an emergency evacuation.

This idea may have sounded good on paper, but it would have very probably placed a lot of people in harm’s way if it were ever implemented during an evacuation. We applaud Mr. Chertoff for recognizing this danger and for making it clear to all that “…the safety of American citizens is and will remain a top priority of the Department of Homeland Security.”

There is another DHS plan in progress which also sounds good on paper, but is probably more dangerous and potentially destructive than the one mentioned previously. The mandate to begin construction on the border wall in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties in the very near future and to finish it by year’s end essentially guarantees that much or all of our flood-control levee system will be under construction during the height of the 2008 hurricane season, which extends from early-June through mid-October.

The potential danger of this plan should be obvious – the LRGV region is located within a major hurricane zone and, during an average year, our probability of experiencing a major tropical storm or hurricane is about 1 in 7 (14%). Although the majority of these storms develop during the late-summer and early-fall period, some of the most destructive hurricanes on record have made landfall on the Texas coast as early as June – e.g., Hurricane Alice during June, 1954 and Hurricane Audrey during June, 1957.

In addition to their highly unpredictable pathways and awesome destructive power, one of the major concerns relating to hurricanes involves the rapidity at which these storms may develop, intensify and move across the Gulf of Mexico. For example, the recent storm which ravaged much of the Gulf Coast area and essentially destroyed the city of New Orleans, Louisiana (Hurricane Katrina) developed as a tropical depression near the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, strengthened into a tropical storm the following day, intensified to a Category 1 hurricane by August 25 (winds greater than 74 mph), further intensified to Category 5 status by August 28 (winds greater than 155 mph), and made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane (winds of 140-150 mph) near Grande Isle, LA, on August 29 – a total of 6 days between the time the storm formed and the date of landfall on the Louisiana coast.

What this means in practical terms is that if a major hurricane destined to hit the Rio Grande Valley develops this year over the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico, we will have about a week or less to prepare for it. While this short time interval is probably sufficient to organize an orderly evacuation of human residents, it almost certainly does not provide sufficient time to “batten down the hatches” of any flood-control levees under construction at the time a hurricane warning is issued.

If a major hurricane associated with torrential rains does indeed impact the Rio Grande Valley region this year, our levee system will have to withstand water currents capable of washing out dams, knocking down bridges and uprooting large trees. Therefore, we need to be very cautious in believing any claims by DHS or their contractors and engineers that initiating major levee construction projects at the beginning of our current hurricane season is okay and will pose no problems.

If we are impacted by a major hurricane and our levee system holds (including those areas under construction), then the experts will indeed be correct and the story will end happily. On the other hand, if they are wrong and the levee system fails, the Rio Grande Valley will very probably be subjected to massive flooding and we may well find ourselves living in the midst of drowned and ruined cities similar to those that are now commonplace in Louisiana and other areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

The flood-control levee system of the Rio Grande Valley is our primary defense against such a disaster, and allowing anyone tamper with it during the annual hurricane season is tantamount to giving them a pair of dice and allowing them to play a game of “craps” with our lives and property as the stakes.

The obvious solution to this problem is simply to postpone construction of the border wall project until the 2008 hurricane season ends during mid-October, or to limit construction during the hurricane season per se to levee improvements in areas in dire need of repair.

This common-sense approach might be somewhat inconvenient as it would require extending the completion deadline by a period of several months, although this delay would probably be in the best interests of everyone involved as it would allow sufficient time for DHS contractors do the job right and to avoid the tendency by some to view work on our critical levee system as a “rush job,” which we cannot afford under any circumstance.

The legal precedent for such an extension already exists – the DHS Secretary waived 37 Federal laws in order to expedite construction of the border wall in Texas, and a simple waiver that would delay construction until a safer time of year would not only be perfectly legal, but would also reinforce Mr. Chertoff’s previous commitment that “… the safety of American citizens is and will remain a top priority of the Department of Homeland Security.”

K. Rod Summy is an associate professor of entomology. He lives in Weslaco, Texas.


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Anonymous said...

That is an excellent article. I believe that the case Dr. Summy made is indisputable. This article is recommended reading.