Shared Resilience: Confronting Flooding on Two Sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border

A dispatch from 100 Resilient Cities Relationship Manager Aaron Spencer:

I am no stranger to neighborhood flooding. I have vivid memories of canoeing down the street where I lived in a valley community in the Pacific Northwest, gliding across eerily flooded streets, the very same places where I’d played. So when I visited El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in September during a storm that dumped as much rain in 24 hours as the region typically gets in a year, I found something familiar, but very different about the experience in these linked desert communities.

Each visit to the area leaves me more interested in the vibrancy and interconnectedness of these desert communities. Situated long hours away from their nearest large metropolitan areas on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border, these interconnected cities share challenges and opportunities. One such challenge is the channeling of storm water during rainy months to manage flooding. They share not only the geological conditions that make managing more intense weather cycles essential, but the same ability to bounce back or rebound from such experiences.

My first experience upon arrival in El Paso this past September was checking into a local hotel and finding a flooded hotel room, the carpet saturated from heavy rain leaking through the windows. And I was one of the lucky ones. Many people went without a bed that night.

Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, September 17th: Flooding in the desert can cause havoc in a matter of minutes.

The manager nonchalantly told me that all hotels in the region were full, with local residents seeking other shelter from the deluge. As I watched sheets of rain continue to soak the region and my room, I found myself puzzled by the manager’s lack of alarm or sense of sensationalism regarding this significant storm. I turned on the local news and was again puzzled not to see any reporting on the rain or flooding. Where were the reporters spread out across the city? Where was the significant concern and sensation, and more importantly, how was the city responding?

The following day, a resident of El Paso with family on both sides of the border, (extended families that reach across the border are part of the fabric of both communities) drove me to Ciudad Juarez to speak at the green environmental infrastructure conference. In basically the same matter-of-fact tone as the hotel manager, she told me her car flooded the night before and the motor wouldn’t turn over that morning. She expressed frustration only with herself. “That area gets a lot of rain. I should have known. Last night was nothing like what we had in 2006, which was much worse.”

Floodwater with rock, sand and gravel had run through the interior of her car, stifling the engine. I watched her on the phone as she saw her expectations met and as she simply accepted the outcome; her insurance company wouldn’t cover the damage. She had a car that no longer worked. Yet her primary concern was getting me to my conference and thanking me for coming the distance to spend some time with them.

The cities also share geological similarities. Both have sandy, desert soil that doesn’t absorb water quickly. So instead of saturating, the water quickly descends the hills towards the valley, collecting debris and soil along the way. El Paso has turned some of the natural arroyos and manmade water catchment sites into multi-use areas such as soccer fields and skate parks. This is a perfect example of resilience thinking. Across the border in Juarez I saw a different story—predictable flooding where housing complexes had been built in historic lake beds, and citizens driving through flooded neighborhood streets. “We’re getting better at dealing with these situations. Five years ago this entire street would have been flooded, but the city is taking steps to work with issue,” said one lifelong Juarez resident.

Flooding on the streets of Juarez on September 17.

Facing two related imperatives—their need to fend for themselves in dealing with this soil-flood relationship and their physical distance from other communities on both sides of the borders—seems to have had a binding effect and to have fostered a type of toughness and understanding of how to weather this type of storm. This characteristic is particularly interesting as we look at community resilience, and the cohesive social bonds within and between families that amount to people looking out for each other.

I left the trip keenly aware of how these sister cities, already tightly integrated, still have so much to learn from one another as they confront a range of shared resilience challenges.

Head photo, David Herrera, Flickr, Remixed by 100RC