By K. Rod Summy
During the past year, numerous articles have appeared in the local and national press regarding problems associated with construction of the Border Fence or Wall along the U.S.–Mexico border.
In one recent article, I expressed my concerns that the initiation of Border Wall construction in Hidalgo County, Texas during the middle of the 2008 hurricane season was inherently dangerous and could predispose our region to massive flooding if we were impacted by a major storm while such construction was in progress.
As examples of levee disturbances caused by Border Wall construction, I included a series of images acquired in the city of Granjeno during early-September of this year which showed firstly, deep unconsolidated (loose and friable) soil on both faces of the flood-control levee, and secondly a five- to six-meter gap between an uncompleted section of the concrete Border Wall and the remnants of the destabilized levee located to the south.
Border wall under construction in the levee in Granjeno, TX 9/21/08
I discussed the ramifications of each type of disturbance, and recommended that major construction of any type which provides a potential to disturb or destabilize flood-control levees should be curtailed or prohibited during the annual hurricane season, which extends from early-June through late-November.
In response to my article, an unknown person (hereafter referred to “Anonymous”) posted the following statement on the No Border Wall blog on Sept. 22, 2008:
“Deceiving commentary on the engineering that is going on here. First the existing levees (small molehills) are raised using fill material. That is what the author calls "unstable" and "friable." Then the flood wall is constructed in front of the raised levees on the side facing the river, with space between so as not to disturb the newly upgraded earthen levee. After the wall is complete, the space is backfilled and consolidated agatinst [sic] the back of the flood wall. Please explain how the upgraded earth levee would provide less protection during a major storm than what was originally there?? (the original earth levee is still there underneath the built up levee). This makes no sense to me and it's a deceptive way to get an audience for this site's border wall bashing.”
Levee / border wall diagram from the Marfa Sector draft Environmental Assessment
The engineering details of the Border Wall provided by “Anonymous” are informative but irrelevant. How effective the Border Wall might be as a flood-control structure once construction is complete has nothing to do with the concerns expressed in my article – the real question is how it may be expected to perform if we are impacted by a major tropical storm or hurricane while construction is in progress.
All phases of Border Wall construction were in progress by September 7, 2008, the beginning of the week in which Hurricane Ike entered the Gulf of Mexico and intensified into one of the largest and most dangerous storms in Texas Gulf Coast history.
This included extensive excavation of the south levee face, the embedding of pilings and metal panels along the top of the levee, and construction of the partially-completed concrete wall which now extended approximately 150 to 200 meters west of its original point of origin.
Levee / border wall construction in Granjeno, TX 8/01/08
All areas of the south levee face located to the east of the partially-completed wall were characterized by numerous gouges and other types of excavations which produced abrupt changes in surface contour of the levee face, and several large openings between the vertical pilings which revealed the earthen levee on the opposite side of the structure. The apparent stability of the concrete wall was a dangerous illusion – it merely concealed from view the existence of a 5 – 6 meter wide “gap” between the inner surface of the wall and the destabilized north wall of the earthen levee.
To suggest that a levee in this condition is storm-worthy and capable of withstanding the onslaught of floodwaters produced by major tropical storms and hurricanes is ludicrous. Tropical storms and hurricanes are typically associated with high winds and torrential rainfall, which generally result in deep water and strong water currents within floodways. Any engineer or hydrologist worthy of the name should recognize that strong water currents developing in this manner will almost certainly obliterate any type of obstruction (earthen or otherwise) causing abrupt changes in surface contour of levee faces.
Moreover, a competent engineer should also recognize that the five- to six-meter “gap behind the wall” provides a means to generate very powerful water currents if any type of breach were to occur in the levee behind the concrete wall, e.g., as a result of overtopping. This is a simple matter of physical principles and hydrology – if a breach in this area should occur, floodwaters under tremendous pressure will tend to flow along the “path of least resistance,” i.e., they will flow through the breach until the system stabilizes as floodwaters subside.
Levee / border wall construction in Granjeno, TX 11/27/08
Since the concrete wall is impermeable to water, it will force floodwaters to enter a restricted channel (i.e., the gap in question) and to flow with increased velocity toward the breach in a direction parallel to the face of the destabilized earthen levee. As water flows through the breach, hydraulic action (erosion caused by moving water) will tend to widen the breach, which in turn will allow more water to enter the restricted channel (gap) which in turn will tend to increase the velocity of water flowing through the channel.
This dangerous situation could be greatly exacerbated if water enters the restricted channel from both ends – this would force strong water currents flowing in opposite directions to converge at the site of the breach, which in turn would tend to generate extremely strong eddies with erosion capabilities far greater than either current alone. In short order, the combined effects of such erosion would very probably obliterate most or all of the “improved” levee system – along with the city of Granjeno and any of its inhabitants unfortunate enough to be “caught in the aquatic crossfire.” In all fairness to “Anonymous,” most or all of the concerns expressed in my original article (and this one) would be irrelevant if the “planners” and “managers” of the Border Wall project had simply initiated construction during a time of year in which tropical storms and hurricanes do not normally pose a threat to south Texas (i.e., during the period extending from late-fall through late-spring). They did precisely the opposite – the construction project at Granjeno was initiated on July 27, two days after the landfall of Hurricane Dolly at Port Isabel and South Padre Island , and while Dolly’s floodwaters were still rising in many areas of Cameron and Hidalgo Counties. Construction at three additional sites in Hidalgo County – southeast of Alamo, south of Donna and north of Progreso - were initiated shortly thereafter.
Despite repeated advisories from NOAA that water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were highly conducive to the development of tropical storms and hurricanes, Border Wall construction proceeded at a feverish pace without interruption during the peak of the 2008 hurricane season – August and September. During the second week of September, when Hurricane Ike was on an apparent “collision course” with south Texas, one of our local officials stated somewhat arrogantly that construction of the Border Wall (referred to as “levee repairs”) might be “halted temporarily” if Hurricane Ike headed our way. As it turned out, no such delay occurred – during the latter half of the week, Hurricane Ike began to veer northward and made landfall at Galveston on Sept. 13.
Levee / border wall construction behind homes in Granjeno, TX August 1, 2008
It is important for the reader to note that officials of the Department of Homeland Security, our local county officials and their construction contractors made no apparent preparations at Granjeno and three other construction sites in Hidalgo County for the possible landfall of Hurricane Ike along the south Texas coast. On Sept. 13, the day in which Ike was devastating much of southeast Texas and western Louisiana with massive flooding, construction of the Border Wall at Granjeno and three other sites in Hidalgo County was in high gear, with fleets of cranes, backhoes and other heavy equipment gnawing away at our flood-control levees like huge metallic termites.
Lack of money finally accomplished what hurricanes, or the threat thereof, could not. On Sept. 11, the day on which Hurricane Ike began to veer northward towards Galveston, the managers of the Border Wall project announced they were running out of money and needed an additional $400 million to continue. One prominent local official lamented the prospect that the Border Wall might not be completed by the arbitrary Dec. 31 deadline stipulated by Congress, but nevertheless indicated that “… we are moving forward … we are still trying to meet that deadline…” In another article published on the same day, the significance of the term “that deadline” became clear and confirmed what most people here already suspected or knew – i.e., that the DHS, our local officials and their contractors had been working overtime in order to complete their project before the George Bush administration expires in January, 2009. Incredibly, the $400 million request to continue Border Wall construction was approved by the Congress without fanfare or opposition.
The determination by DHS and our county officials to meet “Bush’s deadline” at essentially any cost and/or risk was presumably based on the erroneous logic that if funding for legitimate levee repairs and upgrades is not obtained now (under the Bush administration), it will be very difficult or impossible to obtain in the future (under a new presidential administration). This urgency is somewhat understandable considering the recent findings by FEMA that many areas of the LRGV levee system are not in compliance with federal standards, and will not be recertified unless they are upgraded and brought into compliance with FEMA standards within a period of one year (an additional one-year extension was recently granted).
Regardless of what their motives may have been, however, the decision by DHS and our local officials to initiate Border Wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley during middle of the 2008 hurricane season, and their failure to make adequate preparations for the possible landfall of dangerous storms such as Hurricane Ike (which at one time seemed imminent) is inexcusable and placed the properties and lives of hundreds and possibly thousands of our citizens at considerable risk. We were very fortunate that Hurricane Dolly made landfall before Border Wall construction began in earnest at Granjeno and the other three sites, and that Hurricane Ike veered northward two days before its destructive landfall at Galveston. Had Hurricane Ike maintained its westward course and impacted the LRGV region while large sections of our flood-control system were under major construction, this story would not have ended happily (for us, at least). We cannot afford to allow this to happen again – ever!
Within the next six weeks, the George Bush administration will be history and Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. If our country reenters a period of normalcy and rational thinking, the “Great Texas Border Wall” will hopefully be committed to its rightful place in the “Historical Trashcan of Bad Ideas.” Given our staggering federal deficit – which has increased substantially following the recent $750 billion bailout of the U. S. financial industry – it is very unlikely that the federal government will continue to pour millions (or billions) of dollars into a concrete structure that has become symbolic of tyranny and is despised almost universally by residents along the U.S.–Mexico border.
Levee / border wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge 11/27/08
Termination of the Border Wall concept would place great pressure on the U.S. Congress to develop real solutions to the problem of illegal immigration (instead of expensive and dangerous concrete placebos) and would allow available funds - including the $400 million “bailout package” for the ailing Border Wall project – to be used much more effectively for repair and upgrades of the Lower Rio Grande Valley levee system and bring it into compliance with FEMA standards for the first time in many years. Of all the options available to us right now, this comes closest to being a true “win–win” situation, and is the only one which will really protect us from disastrous flooding if and when we are impacted by some future storm similar to Hurricane Ike.
As American citizens, we have every right to expect and demand that any government programs implemented in our region be conducted in a manner that is compatible with our culture and environment, and does not unduly jeopardize our economy, our properties and/or our lives.
We were deprived of these basic rights during 2008 because of two federal laws – the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act - which were enacted by the U. S. Congress during a period of national hysteria, fear and intolerance. Collectively, these two laws allowed federal, state and local officials involved in the Border Wall project to conduct their business in a reckless and dangerous manner, and deprived the nearly two million American citizens in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of their legal rights to challenge construction of the Border Wall on any virtually any grounds, including public safety issues.
What happened in south Texas during 2008 is a prime example of what happens when too few people are given too much power without an adequate system of checks and balances. In order to ensure that this never happens again, it is imperative that all residents of our border regions with Mexico (and hopefully, all Americans in general) demand that our elected congressional representatives either amend or repeal both of these dangerous laws at the earliest opportunity. The next congressional session would be none too soon.
K. Rod Summy is an associate professor of entomology. He lives in Weslaco, Texas.
This article first appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian