Thursday, August 11, 2011

Human error blamed for border fence failure in storm

Arizona Daily Star
August 11, 2011
by Brady McCombs

Storm gates that were supposed to be open on a section of border fence near Lukeville were not raised Sunday because of a "breakdown in internal communication," which resulted in about a 40-foot stretch of mesh fencing being knocked over by rainwater rushing through a wash, an official said.

"The issues that caused this breakdown are being addressed to ensure no similar issues occur in the future," Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling said in an email. The gates were installed as part of a $24 million drainage improvement project.

What's supposed to happen, Easterling said, is for the gates to be lifted before major predicted rainfall with heavy machinery and secured in place until the storm is over. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for raising them, he said.

"The goal of the gates is to allow the debris and vegetation that collects in the run-off to be passed through the fence so as to not disrupt the drainage," Easterling wrote in the email.

But that didn't occur Sunday when 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell in the area upslope from the place where the fence failed, according to the National Weather Service. With debris stuck at its base, the fence acted as a dam, causing the water to pool up and gain force.

The 5.2-mile stretch of fence was built by Kiewit Western Co. for $21.3 million. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument officials warned Homeland Security before it was built that they were concerned that the fence design would impede the flow of floodwater across the border.

Sunday night's storm damage marked the first time any part of this 5.2-mile stretch of fence had been knocked down by floodwater since it was built in 2007-2008. However, the incident was the latest in a series of challenges for the barrier during rainstorms, said Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Superintendent Lee Baiza.

In July 2008, stormwater pooled behind the fence and flooded into the Lukeville Port of Entry and private businesses, causing damage.

In 2010, Customs and Border Protection retrofitted about 20 sections of pedestrian fence along the U.S.-Mexico border with vertical gates as part of a $24 million project that also included adding scour protection at 94 washes that sit along the fence to preserve roads and fence foundations.

Officials also permanently anchored to the ground about 17 sections of Normandy-style vehicle barriers to prevent them from washing away and damaging property during storms, Easterling said.

It's not clear yet how much it will cost to fix the broken fence, Easterling said. In the meantime, the Border Patrol has made strategic adjustments in that area to monitor illegal crossings, he said.

Critics say the entire 5.2-mile stretch of the faulty design should be replaced. But Easterling said there are no plans to replace it.

The agency is "still optimistic that if the gates are opened prior to the major rain events that they will function as designed," Easterling said in the email.

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