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Del Rio, Texas Rebuilds After Flood

August 29, 1998

DEL RIO, Texas (AP) _ Just four months ago, new life had been breathed into the historic square that was the heart of Del Rio’s San Felipe neighborhood.

New bricks had been laid in Brown Plaza. Fountains were built on either side of a gazebo, which was freshly painted a festive pink and mauve. Families donated park benches. Store fronts were repainted.

The work was finished just in time for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, and made it seem that there was more to celebrate than usual.

Then the normally placid San Felipe Creek roared out of its banks, one of several streams driven to flash flood by the remnants of Tropical Storm Charley. In all, 17 deaths were blamed on the storm in Texas and Mexico _ seven in Del Rio _ and more were unaccounted for.

The plaza’s new brick pavement was buckled. The fountains were crumbled, along with several buildings surrounding the square. The gazebo’s freshly painted railings had been splintered.

``We used to dance in the streets. Now everything is all gone,″ said 53-year-old Sylvia Hernandez, a former homecoming queen at San Felipe High.

``But the people are strong. They have a lot of willpower and a lot of faith,″ she said. ``Everyone will come together. They will rebuild.″

In tranquil times, San Felipe Creek flows clear from seven springs that have been an oasis in this dry country for centuries. Spanish missionaries are said to have named the springs and the winding green watercourse for St. Phillip because they found them on his feast day.

The San Felipe area is one of the poorest in this city of 34,000. Many of the 3,000 or so people who live here are elderly. Most are laborers: blue-collar workers who cross the border daily to work in U.S. factories on the Mexican side, migrant farm workers who travel north during the year just to make a living.

Some speak no English. Most have no insurance.

But poor as it is, the neighborhood is full of pride and determination.

``The people there are nice, loving, working people that enjoy life. I’m sure a lot will want to stay there,″ Del Rio Mayor Robert Chavira said. ``But it’s going to take some time. Just like an illness, it’s going to take us some time to get well.″

The neighborhood was founded along San Felipe Creek in the late 1860s when an agricultural company gave the waterfront land to its employees as wages, and it grew when rail lines reached the town in the 1880s.

Brown Plaza, just a block from the creek, was dedicated on May 5, 1908, and quickly became a gathering spot for concerts, political rallies and social gatherings.

In modern times, people congregated for weekend bazaars, festivals and class reunions.

``There were always people roaming around,″ said 27-year-old Ernest Araujo, whose home just off the plaza was demolished by the flood. ``Everything was here, always here.″

The nearby springs provided a popular picnic and swimming area.

Now debris litters the parks and patches of grass along the water. Clothing clings to trees and drifts downstream. Vehicles rest precariously along the banks of the creek.

In the plaza itself, entire buildings collapsed. The cultural center, where children learned to dance and play guitar, is gone. The old Plaza Hotel, which had been under renovation, crumbled.

``It’s unrealistic,″ Araujo said as he viewed the damage with his mother, Ernestina. ``It’s like the whole neighborhood is gone.″

City officials estimated that at least 625 homes and businesses were destroyed.

``It’s real sad,″ Ernestina Araujo said in Spanish as she walked through the wreckage of Brown Plaza. ``It would be a whole lot better if everything was put back the way it was.″

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