Laguna Heights residents displaced by tornado now face another hurdle: a lack of affordable housing
An EF1 tornado that killed one person and injured 12 others in Laguna Heights, an unincorporated community in the Rio Grande Valley, has displaced at least two dozen families.
The community is mostly low-income, consisting partly of residents who work in the hotels and restaurants of Port Isabel and South Padre Island and elderly people who have lived in there for their entire lives. About half of the nearly 500 households in Laguna Heights are renters.
The tornado lasted only two minutes, touching down on the western edge of Pennsylvania Avenue around 4:06 a.m. The tornado then made a lightning bolt shaped path through the neighborhood before dissipating on Michigan Avenue, which faces the Laguna Madre bay.
The tornado’s impact on Laguna Heights residents could last months or years. This is because those displaced by the tornado will have to face a well-known issue in the area: a lack of affordable housing.
Juan Gomez owns a two-story apartment building in Laguna Heights on Van Buren Avenue, and he lives in a unit on the top floor. He was in his apartment watching the lightning strikes outside when the tornado tore the roof of the building. He and his tenants ran downstairs into the laundry room until the storm ended.
Every unit in the apartment was destroyed, displacing him and all the tenants. Until he can rebuild, his tenants will have to find other housing.
“Around here, there's hardly any rental places. And the ones that are, are very expensive,” Gomez said.
“They'll have a hard time going to some place,” Gomez said. “So I'm hoping there'll be some kind of funds for them to stay at a hotel [or] something [else] for the duration. It's going to take several months to fix apartments ... in my case.”
The median household income for Laguna Heights residents is around $27,000. According to Zillow, median rents in neighboring Laguna Vista, Port Isabel and South Padre Island are $1,950, $1,800 and $2,400, respectively.
Martha Cordova and her son, Jose, faced this issue. Their home on Jackson Avenue was flooded after the ceiling caved in. She was home at the time, and she said the storm briefly lifted the house off the ground before slamming it back down, destroying the foundation. Most everything inside the home was damaged or waterlogged.
Currently, Cordova and her son are staying with a friend in another part of Laguna Heights that wasn’t damaged in the tornado, both continuing to work. Cordova works at a hotel on South Padre Island. She said because of the high rent in the area, she will likely have to find a second job. She said she likely won’t have time to find another home and wants the county to help.
"I know that there are people who need more than me,” she said. “The only thing I ask of them is that they help us find a house, an income, something more secure, while also helping people who lost everything."
Cordova’s employer offered her a stay in the hotel she works in. South Padre Island is about to experience the busy summer season, which may give her the chance to make more money with more hours. But she said she wouldn't depend on that for more secure housing.
“[Staying in a hotel] is temporary. The same in wages — it is temporary,” she said. “From there, what are we going to do? We have to find a place to start over.”
A few days after the tornado, Cameron County opened a Disaster Assistance Center in Port Isabel. Some residents who attended, however, said they weren’t able to receive aid.
Elisa Morales and her family lost their home during the tornado. On the same day of the Disaster Assistance Center, Morales came to a resource fair hosted by Border Workers United (BWU) in Laguna Heights, in the community’s bay-facing park on Michigan Avenue. Residents met with BWU organizers who connected them to legal aid and other resources for more permanent solutions to housing.
“There was no response for help for the trailers,” Morales said of the county’s event. “We don't qualify because we don't have good credit. Because we do not have social security, and since we do not own the land, we have no case. Just because it was a trailer, there is no help for us.”
Cameron County Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Hushen told TPR that the Disaster Assistance Center was for providing food vouchers and cleaning supplies. He said the county, at the time, was not ready to start giving out aid for home rebuilding. Rather, the county was waiting for the Small Business Administration (SBA) to approve offering low-interest loans for residents to rebuild their homes or businesses.
On May 25, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the SBA loans were available, a little more than a week after SBA representatives surveyed damage in Laguna Heights.
SBA disaster loans can only help recover lost belongings for renters, in the case of Cordova and her son. But for Morales and her family, with a lack of credit, the options are far more limited. For apartment owners like Gomez, his building could be applicable as a business.
Sitting among the 15 or so residents at BWU’s resource fair was Teresa Solis, who held an infant. She’s the mother-in-law of Roberto Flores, the lone fatality of the tornado. In her arms, she held Christopher, Roberto’s now fatherless 6-month-old son. Her daughter was trying to figure out how to move on after Roberto’s death.
“Well, more than anything, [we need] financial help,” Solis said. She added that her daughter was stressed by the situation.
Local Salvation Army chapters stayed in Laguna Heights for around a week giving out food, clothes, cleaning supplies and hotel stays, and they spent more than $60,000. At least 100 people were put in hotels by the Salvation Army for a week following the tornado.
Some Laguna Heights residents took it upon themselves to help each other in the days after the tornado.
Robert Reyes Jr. had just started his "Grubz on the Go" food trailer business a month ago, making barbecue around the Rio Grande Valley. Hours after the tornado, Reyes didn’t hesitate to start making food for the community, all of whom at the time were without power, and some without homes.
“I woke up and told my wife, ‘we missed it by drops,’” Reyes, who has lived in Laguna Heights for the last 12 years, said. “‘We’re blessed. I got to do something.’”
Reyes and a handful of volunteers, some of them residents of Laguna Heights, made food and handed out donations hours after the tornado. They continued to cook chicken plates daily for more than a week. Most everything was donated from local businesses.
One of those volunteers was Danielle Gracia, from Edinburg, who used to live in neighboring Laguna Vista. Along with Reyes, she organized help on social media. Some of that assistance including finding hotel rooms for residents who lost their homes.
“Everybody needs time,” she said while distributing aid in Laguna Heights. “And we lost time from everybody except for ourselves. So basically it's that: raising awareness, raising the faith and letting everybody know the cause needs to be continued a little longer so we can try to help the people that remain here that haven't found somewhere safe to stay, especially for their children.”
But the donations have slowed. A week after the storm, Reyes was using the last of his food donations. Residents who were helping had to return to work. Cameron County then cracked down on aid distribution, claiming that there was evidence of residents being exploited.
In the meantime, Cameron County has placed 23 families who lost their homes in hotels — most of whom were initially placed in hotels by the Salvation Army — until mid-June. Cameron County is still seeking a federal disaster declaration to provide more assistance for Laguna Heights residents.