Hispanic poor of Texas coast wait, worry

Residents of Corpus Christi's `colonias' risk what little they have

Hurricane Rita

September 23, 2005|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS -- Becky Moreno has seen her neighborhood in water up to her knees after some storms. Neighbors' chickens have drowned in the floodwaters.

And she has seen yards so full of water that parents had to carry their children to the road -- when the winding, gravel, rutted paths that serve as roads in these parts were still passable -- to catch the school bus.

So when the 51-year-old woman heard that a Category 5 hurricane was headed her way, she felt certain that the trailer she has called home for seven years and all her family's belongings would be gone.

"It gets ugly," said Moreno, who lives with her husband and son in Cindy Park, one of the more than 100 poor and unregulated shantytowns, inhabited mostly by Hispanics, that have sprung up on the low-lying outskirts of this coastal town.

"I was worried," Moreno said. "If we see the strong winds come, we'll leave. If the winds are not too strong, we'll stay."

More people than usual left the so-called colonias this time, residents say, fearful of the winds and water that they watched destroy New Orleans on television just weeks ago and that forecasters said were churning toward the Texas coastline yesterday.

As Corpus Christi readied for what was initially a mandatory -- but by yesterday afternoon, a voluntary -- evacuation, many of the people who live in the colonias had no such options available to them, said Lionel Lopez, a retired firefighter and community activist who has made a full-time, but unpaid, job of fighting to improve these communities.

"A lot of these people don't have transportation," he said. "They can't go anywhere. And even if they could, where are they going to go? They have no place to go. They're stuck."

Among the worst-off in these communities, Lopez said, are undocumented workers from Mexico who feared that following the designated evacuation routes -- moving west toward Laredo -- would send them straight into the border checkpoints they have managed to evade since arriving in Texas.

"They'd send them back," Lopez said. "They'd just put them in a bus and send them to a town furthest in Mexico from where they're from. They lose everything they have when [immigration officials] send them back."

From Corpus Christi to El Paso and all across Texas' border region, hundreds of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants live in these communities. It is the largest concentration of people without basic services in the nation, according to Texas Borderlands Information Center.

Running water, septic tanks and sewage systems are often scarce in these subdivisions, dotted with small homes and narrow trailers and campers that look as though they haven't moved in years.

Abandoned furniture sits in heaps alongside leaning wire fences. Some people live in nothing more than shacks cobbled together with weathered wood and cinder blocks.

The unluckiest among them have nothing but the shade of a tree to call home.

Residents of the colonias face regular flooding with any heavy downpour because their communities were built without formal planning or drainage. Some exist on former marshes. And severe storms can leave sewage-contaminated floodwaters lingering for months.

Still, few took the opportunity to leave with the approach of Hurricane Rita. Corpus Christi Mayor Henry Garrett, a former police chief, said an evacuation order was issued Wednesday in English and Spanish, but he was not aware of any efforts to go out and find people who were resisting evacuation.

Only about 50 people from colonias and other rural areas chose to board the evacuation buses heading for San Antonio and Austin that pulled up in the nearby city of Robstown, in part because they were waiting to see where the storm headed, local officials said.

But no buses were sent into the colonias and those needing a way out would have had to contact authorities in Corpus Christi.

Lupe and Manuela Garcia have lived for eight or nine years in their trailer on the Ranch, another colonia just north of Corpus Christi.

A hurricane that swept through in 1997 -- accompanied by a string of tornadoes -- left their trailer under two feet of water, flooded their septic tank and tossed their chicken coop behind their home.

The chickens sought refuge in the trees outside the trailer; when the hens laid their eggs, the Garcias saw them floating by in the floodwater. Snakes slithered into the swampy yard, which didn't dry out for more than two weeks.

Asked whether she was worried about Hurricane Rita, Manuela Garcia laughed. "Yes, but anyway, I'm going to stay here," she said. In her native Spanish, she added, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die here in my own house."

Those who choose to stay have few resources to improve their protection against the wind and water.

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