Texas Border Town Struggles After Flood
In the southwest town of Eagle Pass, dozens of families who lost everything in June flooding are struggling to get their homes livable before the first cold snap in November.
“We have more than 200 families who don't have stoves, refrigerators—all the appliances,” said the Rev. Becky Baxter-Ballou, pastor of Eagle Pass United Methodist Church.
Eagle Pass is a Texas border town in Maverick County, one of the most impoverished counties in the United States. In Piedras Negras, just across the Mexican border, residents share the same kinds of challenges.
Baxter-Ballou is also executive director of Mission: Border Hope, a nonprofit that offers home building and repair, clothing and food ministries, domestic violence advocacy and treatment, children’s literacy programs, and restorative justice programming for border youth offenders.
A 14-foot, black metal fence cuts through nearly two miles of downtown Eagle Pass, separating the town from Piedras Negras across the Rio Grande.
When flooding hit the Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras area, people already living on the edge were devastated, said Baxter-Ballou.
“Close to 300 families had four to eight feet of water in their homes,” she said.
Lack of affordable housing is an extreme challenge particularly in the race against winter temperatures, she said. “We don't have extra rental housing, or housing authority homes, or low-rent places.”
For these families, recovery is about more than a new stove. It's about regaining a sense of normalcy, said Baxter-Ballou. “Right now among people there is a kind of sense of having to be normal while they are getting things fixed or waiting for help,” she said.
Yet as Baxter-Ballou talks with people in her community, she has watched many of them move from a place of anger to one of hope. “People were so angry when the flooding first started. But one thing I've noticed lately is that people are not angry anymore as much as very, very hopeful that somebody can help them.”
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is playing a key role in building that sense of hope. UMCOR Assistant General Secretary for US Disaster Response Greg Forrester visited affected families on both sides of the border. In Eagle Pass, he traveled with Bishop Jim Dorff of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference, and in Piedras Negras, with Pastor Roberto Gómez of the Methodist Church of Mexico.
Christy Smith, UMCOR consultant, also traveled to Eagle Pass to offer case management training for local volunteers. She was struck by how, even in the midst of lingering damage, residents have retained a sense of graciousness.
“I wish more Americans north of Texas would have the opportunity to go be a part of it. Eagle Pass is a most wonderful and welcoming place. We could greatly benefit by learning more from this population,” Smith said.
Valeria Wheeler, a resident of Eagle Pass, attended the UMCOR training and is now grateful to be able to help others formulate a plan for long-term recovery. “Eagle Pass may be small but I love it a lot, and people are very kind here,” she said. “The community has a bond, and we stay strong by helping each other.”
Originally from Mexico, Wheeler has lived in Eagle Pass for 13 years.
UMCOR’s Forrester expressed appreciation for the work of the disaster response coordinator for the Southwest Texas Conference, Gene Hileman, who facilitated Forrester’s visit and has been instrumental, he said, in getting volunteers and resources into place.
Forrester indicated that UMCOR will work through the conference to support Eagle Pass residents over the long term of their recovery. He noted that UMCOR has just approved a new case management grant to assist those affected by the flooding.
Bishop Dorff said he would continue to raise awareness of the needs in Eagle Pass. "Thankfully, UMCOR is engaged. I pray that churches and persons across our conferences will respond generously," he said.
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