Rising Rio Grande threatens migrant tent encampment in Matamoros

National

Additional rains could cause river to crest and wipe out encampment

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Since Hurricane Hanna made landfall, migrants have been cautiously eyeing the swollen Rio Grande, which now threatens to crest and wipe out the riverfront tent encampment they’ve called home for months in Matamoros, Mexico.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report on Thursday that the river was hovering around the 19-foot-mark, but additional rains could easily send the river above the 21-foot mark, threatening the camp of about 1,200 asylum-seekers, across from Brownsville, Texas.

“The river has not gone down. It’s going up very gradually,” said Pimentel, a Catholic nun known throughout the Rio Grande Valley as Sister Norma. “When it gets to 20 or 21-feet then that is an urgent need to evacuate everybody.”

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Rain does not appear to be in the forecast, and it looks like Tropical Storm Isaias will head up the Atlantic seaboard, and not enter the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Hanna made landfall Saturday evening at Padre Island, dumping up to 15 inches of rain in the region in a short period of time. The waters of the Rio Grande — called the Rio Bravo in Mexico because of its ferocity — rose rapidly as flood gates were opened upstream. Since no additional gates have been opened, Pimentel says if additional storms were to strike then the rain would have nowhere to go.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, is seen on Jan. 28, 2020, at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

Pimentel leads a group of volunteers who for the past year have provided food, clothing, tents and other supplies for the 1,200 asylum-seekers who live at the tent encampment. As Hurricane Hanna bore down on the region last weekend, she said all of the migrant families moved to the highest grounds possible toward the bank end of the encampment in what used to be a city park that the Matamoros government now allows the migrants to utilize.

She visited the camp on Wednesday and said the camp was still soaked and muddy and the grounds were pooling with water, unable to absorb any more moisture. But she said everyone was safe and relatively unscathed and they had banded together to help one another during the storm. Families doubled in tents and used what little resources they had to fortify themselves against the fierce winds, she said.

“Really, you have to get credit to the families themselves. They took action and watched the river and moved a lot of the families up,” she said. “They made sure that every family had room for another family. … They took care of themselves and made sure nobody was left on the lower level so they were in a safer zone.”

The Southwest border has been closed since March 20 to non-essential travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that has not stopped Pimentel and a band of hardy volunteers, called Team Brownsville, from taking care of the camp. Pimentel also maintains frequent talks with Mexican officials about the health and safety of the migrants.

In a series of recent posts on social media, such as above Pimentel has kept supporters updated on the camp since travel restrictions began. Restrictions will remain in place at least until the end of August.

Some of the migrants have been at the riverfront encampment for over a year since the Trump administration in July 2019 began ordering asylum seekers to remain in Mexico during their U.S. immigration court proceedings under the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

On Thursday, the bank of 30 porta-potties was being put back, the outdoor clothes-washing station, or lavandería, was once again connected to water, and the homemade ovens that the families have built in the ground were drying out and starting to boil soups and cook rice, she said.

Delivery of breakfasts and dinners from a local restaurant have begun for the migrants once again because of the wet conditions, she said. The meals had been curtailed earlier this month after two workers at the restaurant had tested positive for COVID-19.

Matamoros government officials had wanted to remove the migrants prior to the storm, but Pimentel said the families did not want to leave for fear they will not be allowed to return. Thousands have been bused to the southern border with Mexico, and new migrants are no longer arriving en masse to the camp because the Trump administration is issuing immediate expulsion orders to those apprehended or seeking asylum during this coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re not out of the woods; we’re still in hurricane season and this has been an active hurricane season,” Pimentel said. “The grounds are very saturated. Water is not absorbing to the ground — it just pools — therefore the risk of flooding is still there if we get more rain.”

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