CBSN

Texas Town Races To Thwart Flood Waters

A view from the International bridge between Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Mexico shows flooding in Ojinaga, Mexico, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008. A levee broke and water from the Rio Grande inundated parts of the city with 10 feet of water.
AP Photo/Walt Frerck
As crews spent the night working to build a makeshift dam along a railroad line, residents of this normally dusty West Texas border town waited and watched as flood waters from the Rio Grande inched closer to homes.

Terry Bishop has spent the better part of a week watching the river, only to see it crest above a levee near his family's golf course Tuesday. Since then, he's seen the murky waters envelop the 18-hole course and his 300 acres of soy and castor bean crops.

"At first it was slow, just barely coming over," Bishop said Thursday as he drove through the desert to survey another stretch of Rio Grande levee. "We were hoping it would go down ... but that didn't happen."

By midday, county officials said the levee near Bishop's land had failed and emergency plans to build the makeshift dam along the railroad line abutting the levee were implemented.

Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton said a crew of about 170 low-security inmates from Colorado City and Fort Stockton would start hefting sandbags underneath a pair of railroad trestles overnight Thursday. By Friday morning, Ponton said, several CH-47 helicopters would be in the city to start airlifting larger sandbags to a trestle nearest the weakened levee.

There was already a large pool of water on the northern side of the levee near that trestle Thursday afternoon and water from the first levee break was making its way toward the other trestles.

"The plan to stop that from happening is somewhat dramatic," Ponton said of the sandbag plan.

The hope, Ponton said, is to keep the rising waters from reaching populated areas of the city. But Ponton acknowledged that another levee break, which he called "probable," would render the work all but pointless.

"If a levee break occurs upriver from there all bets are off," Ponton said.

The flooding situation prompted Gov. Rick Perry to issue a disaster declaration Thursday night. He also asked for a presidential disaster declaration for Presidio County.

"This situation poses an immediate danger to the residents of Presidio," the governor said in a statement.

Presidio, a town of about 5,000 people across the Rio Grande from Ojinaga, Mexico, has been watching the river rise for nearly two weeks. Bishop said he doesn't remember ever seeing the river so high.

"Normally there are places you could wade across, or where you could hop across without your feet getting wet," Bishop said of the Rio Grande above the point where the Rio Conches flows into the river.

But thanks to heavy rains and forced water releases from the Luis Leon Reservoir in Mexico, both rivers have swollen in recent weeks. Several levee failures on the Rio Conches and the Rio Grande in Mexico have been reported.

In Ojinaga, hundreds of homes were flooded after Rio Conches jumped its banks and a dam overflowed, said Isaac Olivas, director of the Chihuahua state Civil Protection. Floodwaters reached 13 feet in some parts of the town.

He said 300 families had been evacuated over the weekend, and no one was hurt. Olivas said there were no breaches in any of the dams on Mexico's side of the border.

In Presidio, the levee breach is on the eastern end of town. Bishop estimates that the water is at least 14 feet deep on parts of his property. Nearly all residents in the most threatened areas are evacuated, officials have said.

Ponton said poor river management by Mexican officials has contributed to the flooding. "This is not a natural disaster. It's a manmade disaster," Ponton said.