U.S. District Judge Randy Crane may order the federal government to fix levees in Hidalgo County before the start of hurricane season.
During a hearing on Monday morning, Crane asked Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Smith III how the federal government planned to fix gaps in the levee system caused by construction on the border wall, which abruptly stopped in January. Smith, the deputy chief of the civil division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, said he didn’t know.
After he toured the levees about two weeks ago, Smith identified places that needed repairs and sent photos to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Those are the issues that I sent up with the photographs to say: ‘OK, look, we’ve got hearings coming up. We need a game plan of where we’re going with this,’” Smith said.
Crane asked when Smith expected a response.
“Well, I actually expected to get a response by Friday,” Smith said.
Crane asked who Smith had been corresponding with.
Smith said he’s dealing with the “upper echelons” of the Department of Justice and might receive a response within a week. Crane said a week may be too long to wait.
“We only have four weeks before hurricane season,” Crane said. “And this does not look like an overnight repair.”
The levee system prevents the Rio Grande from overflowing and flooding Hidalgo County. It’s especially important during hurricane season, which starts on June 1.
In the Rio Grande Valley, many parts of the border wall are built into the levee system.
Contractors destroyed parts of the levee system in Hidalgo County when they started building the border wall under President Donald Trump’s administration. President Joe Biden paused construction on the wall in January — leaving gaps in the levee system where construction on the wall abruptly stopped.
With hurricane season approaching, Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal and Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez pressured the federal government to fix the levees.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a vague statement on Friday.
“Construction under the prior administration blew large holes into the Rio Grande Valley’s flood barrier system to make way for a border wall. The flood barrier system had long provided low-lying regions of Hidalgo County, Texas, protection from catastrophic flooding, and these breaches have threatened local communities,” according to the statement. “DHS will start work to quickly repair the flood barrier system to protect border communities. This work will not involve expanding the border barrier.”
Crane said he was inclined to issue an order anyway.
“What’s the downside of entering an order requiring it be done before the start of hurricane season?” Crane said. “It seems like that’s — I don’t want to say a no-brainer, but it seems like that’s an obvious deadline or a very easy deadline to pick as a completion date for work that, again, you’re telling me the government has agreed needs to be done.”
The government would prefer guidance from the court rather than an order, Smith said, adding that he was concerned the government could end up fighting the order.
“I don’t know which specific spots, at which location, they have agreed to start doing their work on. We have that general press release that came out, but it’s got no specifics,” Smith said. “And if you look at the press release itself, it says they’re going to remediate the levee but not extend the wall. Well, what does that mean if you’re not going to extend the wall?”
The statement left many questions unanswered, Smith said, and he’s waiting on more information.
“I don’t have any of the details to say where or when they’re going to start because there’s numerous locations where work has to be done,” Smith said.
After they discussed the potential advantages and disadvantages of a court order, Crane asked attorney Roy R. Brandys of Austin — who represents Fortco Properties Ltd. and Krenmueller Farms in a land condemnation lawsuit — to submit a motion and draft order.
“This, to me, clearly is one of these issues that could result in irreparable harm to lots of people,” Crane said.
Brandys said he would try to submit the motion and draft order by Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.
“And that, in and of itself, may be fuel to get things moving,” Smith said.
Crane scheduled a follow-up hearing for Thursday morning.