DHS Says Donald Trump's Border Wall Construction 'Blew Large Holes' in Flood Protection Levees

Officials are working quickly to fix levees that were damaged during construction of the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley as the clock ticks down to the next hurricane season.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a press release last month warning about damage to flood barrier systems in Texas' Hidalgo County, which the DHS attributed to construction undertaken during former President Donald Trump's administration to build the physical border separating the U.S. and Mexico.

Construction efforts "blew large holes" in the flood barrier system of the Rio Grande Valley, which the DHS said could pose flooding risks to local residents.

"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," the DHS wrote.

The DHS said at the time that officials would "quickly" address the immediate problems posed by the damaged flood barrier systems and present a plan regarding how it will respond to additional damages caused by the wall's construction.

Border wall San Diego
The border wall as seen in San Diego, California in March 2021. Alex Rouhandeh

Alex Mayer, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, told Newsweek the federal government must act quickly to protect communities in the area that are vulnerable to flooding triggered by hurricanes. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1, though the season's stronger storms typically occur in the late summer and fall.

"I think they should rebuild the levees in the places where it's been breached right away," Mayer told Newsweek. "This is pretty important."

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), efforts are already underway to fix the gaps in the levees. Brig. Gen. Christopher Beck, the commander of the USACE's Southwestern Division, told Newsweek the gaps are expected to be fixed within the next six weeks, though efforts to address about 13 miles of levees partially excavated during border wall construction will continue over the next six to nine months.

"We have now been able to mobilize our contractors back onto sites" as a result of the DHS announcement, Beck said. "They are starting work immediately, and that also increases their resources to execute emergency flood protection plans."

In the meantime, Beck said the levees as designed should be able to handle sudden flooding. He said all of the contractors the USACE works with are required to have emergency flood protection strategies in place.

Border wall in Brownsville, Texas
The border wall runs several miles through a rural area east of Brownsville, Texas in an effort to control the flow of migrants crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico. Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

"It's important to understand that those partially excavated levee segments are designed to receive flood loading," Beck told Newsweek. "They still have the capacity to support flood loading."

As efforts to address the gaps in the levees continue, Beck said the USACE is in communication with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the DHS, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and local community leaders to assess concerns as they arise.

"We work with the IBWC, as the federal levee owner, to ensure that their overall emergency action plan for the Rio Grande Valley levee systems is executed efficiently and mitigates the risk to the local community," Beck said.

"We continue, through those emergency flood protection plans, to evaluate based on the threats and the risks to be sure that we understand those high-risk areas in all cases—and if the work is not yet completed, to mitigate those appropriately," he added.

Efforts to expand the physical southern border of the U.S. have been hotly debated since Trump made the border wall one of his primary campaign promises ahead of his win in the 2016 presidential election. While wall proponents argued physical barriers act as discouragements to migrants who may attempt to cross into the U.S. illegally, immigration experts raised concerns about the practicality of a wall that can be climbed over or tunneled beneath, while environmental experts warned about the impacts such construction projects would have on nearby habitats.

Border wall access road
Access road used by CBP in San Diego prior to the building of the Border Wall, as seen in March 2021. Alex Rouhandeh

Opinions on Trump's proposed border wall expansion were also split among farmers and ranchers in the border states, some of whom supported stricter migration deterrents while others confronted requests from the federal government to physically divide their property with portions of the wall.

Border wall construction efforts continued throughout Trump's time in office, with former DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf announcing the 450th mile of border wall completed in early January, a couple of weeks before Trump left office.

On the day of his inauguration, President Joe Biden announced he was halting construction so his administration could assess the legality of funding designated for the border wall. Biden's proclamation added a caveat that some exceptions could be made when funding for the construction was specifically appropriated by Congress and "for urgent measures needed to avert immediate physical dangers."

Three months after Biden ordered the construction to stop, the DHS acknowledged the threats of flooding that remained in its aftermath in the Rio Grande Valley.

Ahead of the DHS' announcement, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez posted a statement on social media that said the federal government "does not seem to have the same sense of urgency that I have" to address the flooding risks. A few hours later, after the DHS announced its intention to quickly fix the levee gaps, Cortez posted another statement celebrating the "welcome news."

"This move to repair the four major breaches and any other damage to our levee system alleviates significant concerns about safety as we approach the beginning of the hurricane season on June 1," Cortez's second statement said.

Border wall extends into Pacific Ocean
The U.S. border wall extends into the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, as seen in March 2021. Alex Rouhandeh

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not yet released its predictions for this year's hurricane season—the agency is expected to do so later this month—but Cortez and other local leaders have already begun reminding their communities to prepare for storms in case the hurricane season begins earlier than expected. Last year, the first named storm of the season began forming in mid-May.

"When it comes to flooding, it's sort of like rolling the dice," Mayer said. "It could be that, this summer, there would be a big enough flood along the Rio Grande to go through those openings and flood those communities—or maybe this summer there won't be as many tropical storms or hurricanes."

Regardless of how the hurricane season plays out in 2021, Mayer said fixing the levee damages is "something that needs to be done" to protect the people of the Rio Grande Valley communities and their land.

"This is about protecting hundreds of thousands of people," Mayer said.