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People living near water say it is home despite flooding danger

By JJ VELASQUEZ
April 14, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Updated April 14, 2010 at 11:15 p.m.

Frank Mendieta fears that the south Guadalupe River levee erosion is to the point that another major flood could breech the section in south Victoria near his home on Basin Street.  With hurricane season approaching, residents like Mendieta who choose to live in rural neighborhoods where they grew up are worried about their immediate future.

WHAT IS THE FLOODPLAIN?

The 100-year floodplain encompasses an area that is prone to flooding when rivers flow over their banks. Theoretically, this area would flood every 100 years, but Victoria has had more than just one in the last century. Land within the floodplain has a 1 percent chance of becoming flooded every year.

A Guadalupe River flood levee breach provides a visual stimulus to a fear floodplain residents like Frank Mendieta often harbor: Will my house be flooded?

Recent rains hammered the riverbank so much that visible erosion stretches to within a couple of feet of a private road just outside the city.

Mendieta thinks back to the historic 1998 flood, to when his home was under five feet of water.

Despite the risk of devastating floods, Mendieta wouldn't live elsewhere - and he isn't alone in that boat. Many floodplain residents stay in the face of the danger because they like living near water and enjoy the strong sense of community, they said.

Mendieta recently thought about moving, but this neighborhood is his home, he said.

He was born and raised in a house a few blocks away on Lincoln Avenue. His mother-in-law has lived in his current East Basin Street home since 1961, he said.

"I just feel that these are my roots, and I like where I live," he said. He has cousins, a nephew and a niece who live on the same street.

WHY NOT MOVE?

If engineers reinforced the failing levee, he would feel more comfortable about staying, he said.

Mendieta recognizes the politics involved in spending money on a project that would benefit only 20 neighborhood residents and those who live in an area known to be flood-prone.

"They're going to say, 'Why don't you move out?'" he said. "Well, I like my place. I've invested a lot there. So to give it away just for nothing doesn't make any sense."

He also enjoys the tranquil lifestyle of living near water, a popular trend illustrated by neighborhoods that engulf the coast, lakes and other rivers.

"Living along any waterway is traditionally considered a nice and pleasant, peaceful way to live," said Jeb Lacey, Victoria's emergency management coordinator.

Despite the inherent pleasantries, Lacey encourages people to avoid living in or near the floodplain.

As an emergency administrator, part of his job description is making sure people aren't putting themselves or others in the way of harm.

'THEIR HOME'

But officials realize that the recreational draw, the peacefulness or family ties often supercede the risk of flooding for residents.

Floodplain Administrator John Johnston worked with many floodplain residents during the recovery phase after the 1998 flood.

"I came to realize that brothers lived next to sisters, cousins lived across the street, parents lived down the streets, and it was more than just a house to a lot of people," Johnston said. "It was their home, it was their neighborhood, their community, and they wanted to re-create that even after going through what they went through in the '98 flood."

He found that many were willing to stay because of friendship and familial bonds. The communities in the floodplain were close-knit, he said.

Still, others relocated.

"We had some people who said, 'I've been through this too many times. I'm not going to go through it again,'" Johnston said.

STAYING AFTER 1998

The city offered Frank Gonzales a relocation deal after the 1998 flood, he said.

But the Vietnam War veteran, who had just had an aneurysm removed from his brain, couldn't afford to "start all over again."

They offered him a little over $2,000 for everything, he said.

He was comfortable staying in the floodplain. He felt at peace and at home, he said.

"I didn't want to live in that bad neighborhood," he said, refer ring to the part of town where he would have moved. "I'm comfort able here. I told them, 'You can stick it.'"

Mendieta had one such neighbor who accepted a buyout. For the most part, though, buyout offers were so low that residents elected to stay put, he said.

THE GARCIAS AND PETER

Adolph Garcia retired from the trucking industry 20 years ago. After the 1998 flood, the city offered to buy Garcia's house and property.Emphysema and chronic bronchitis ail the 81-year-old, and he isn't at the age where he can work to pay off a house, his wife Guadalupe said.So Garcia asked for an even trade: He would have accepted the buyout if they had offered a paid-for house in return.

But they didn't, so the Garcias continue to live in their East Basin Street home with the looming fear their home might be flooded again.

For Peter Benitez, staying in his home is about more than just money.

His mother and father paid for the home he lives in on East Basin Street with money they earned picking cotton, Benitez said.

The 1998 flood hit their home at the same time Olivia Benitez, his mother, was on her death bed.

When Benitez came to visit her in the hospital, "she said, 'Go take care of my house. Don't come visit me,'" he recalled, his eyes welling up.

So Benitez stayed to honor the promise he made to his mother to preserve her life's work.

But for Mendieta, leaving might soon be an option if another such flood hits. For now, he is holding out hope that someone will come in and reinforce the levee.

"We do pay taxes over here, too," he said. "So that's why I'm hoping the city will come and do something about it."

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