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Saragosans Bicker About Rebuilding Effort; Some Ask Where Cash Went

October 17, 1987

SARAGOSA, Texas (AP) _ A tornado that struck on May 22 pulled this town together, but unhappiness over the rebuilding effort threatens to tear it apart.

The tornado tore through the east side of town, killing 30 people and destroying 61 houses. Saragosans vowed to rebuild, donations poured in, and volunteers have already built 22 new homes.

But 21 stand empty because they lack plumbing, painting and gas hookups. One house was so poorly built it had to be lifted off its foundation and replaced. The one family that has moved into a rebuilt home is still without hot water.

Other tornado victims complain that the county has not been keeping adequate records of what was donated for the relief effort, and where the materials and money went.

″The county government stinks, as far as I’m concerned,″ said Joe Gallego, whose house and tavern were destroyed. ″I can’t say they’re stealing it, but someone’s pocketing some money, or misplacing it or whatever you want to call it.″

County officials say the complaints are without merit, that a few malcontents are muddying Saragosa’s name.

″Five months have passed, and only one person is in a home. But it’s not the volunteers’ fault. It’s because we’ve had so many people arguing with each other,″ said Felipe Lopez, a Saragosa native hired to be the building committee’s on-site supervisor.

Jose R. Candelas is upset about the construction delays and a squabble with the Red Cross over how he could spend a $5,000 federal grant. He now spends his days working behind the house he can’t occupy because of unfinished plumbing, making cinder blocks he’ll use to rebuild his convenience store.

What disturbs him most is rumors that a lot of donations sent to Saragosa never reached tornado victims. ″We think there needs to be an investigation,″ he said.

Many donations of cash and building materials were handled by the Reeves County Sheriff’s Office. Rumors about improprieties prompted some Saragosa residents to circulate a petition authorizing Texas Rural Legal Aid to demand that the county release records.

County officials turned over those records last week to managing attorney Alpha Hernandez in Del Rio. Sheriff Raul Florez said Wednesday that he submitted photocopies of canceled checks and bank deposit slips. Ms. Hernandez said she wanted more.

″There was a lot of cash distributed and we would like to know who got what,″ she said. ″It looks like he’s telling us what was sent in.″

Florez said he and his deputies have nothing to hide.

″I don’t have no need of being dishonest and my people don’t have no need of being dishonest,″ he said, adding that the deputies who worked most closely with the Saragosa victims had friends and family in the town.

Gallego, Candelas, Legal Aid and other critics are just chronic complainers, he said.

″This handful of people, they would be dissatisfied if it were raining $100 bills every day,″ Florez said.

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