Tijuana flooding exposes city's infrastructure needs

Tijuana flooding exposes city's infrastructure needs
Raul Aguilar and his wife, Dolores, in their flooded Tijuana home. (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Aguilar family hoped to celebrate Three Kings Day on Wednesday evening, with a sweet, crown-shaped rosca pastry and cups of hot chocolate. But fierce rain that pounded their hillside neighborhood swiftly put an end to those plans, sending a brew of mud and water pouring into their modest house.

"There was so much water, the stream couldn't hold it all," said Raul Aguilar, 45, as he shoveled thick layers of mud outside his front door on Thursday morning. "The government needs to come and build a channel."


Scenes like these played out in different parts of Tijuana in the aftermath of a series of rainstorms that swept both sides of the border this week. While neither fatalities nor injuries were reported, Tijuana residents had to contend with small landslides, collapsed walls, flooding and downed posts and trees.

City workers labored around the clock to keep streets open, remove debris from stormwater drains and respond to emergency calls.

Answering a call from southeastern Tijuana on Wednesday night, Civil Protection Department workers Jose Luis Pulido and Isis Rivera sped down Bulevar 2000 to reach the working-class development of tiny two-story row houses known as Palma Real.

In one row, neighbors told of mud that oozed over a wall, pushing through their doors and into their kitchens and living rooms. On a nearby street, a pool of water and trash had accumulated, leaking through a cement block wall into their back patios.

"If I have to leave, I will, for the good of my daughters," said 34-year-old Diana Flores Burrola as neighbors scrambled to dig a ditch that would release the water.

The city has prepared for the rains in recent months, clearing out trash and sediment from storm drains and stream beds, issuing warnings to residents of high-risk areas, preparing shelters and acquiring new rescue equipment. But heavy rains have exposed Tijuana's need to increase storm drainage capacity.

"We have to say it. … The city continues to need more infrastructure," Mayor Jorge Astiazarán said during a ceremony at the downtown fire station. City officials said the current system only meets about 30% of the city's needs.

The rains "illustrate the underlying causes of social vulnerability in Tijuana to climatic events," said Roberto Sanchez, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana who specializes in environmental issues and climate change. Challenges include the city's rapid growth, especially in risk-prone areas such as streambeds and floodplains, and a lack of funds for infrastructure projects

The city needs to assess the "current capacity of its stormwater system and its ability to deal with extreme precipitation events," Sanchez said. According to climate change scenarios, he said, "these types of events are likely to become more frequent during the next decades."

Built on a narrow canyon that feeds into the Tijuana River channel, the hillside neighborhood of Cañón del Sainz was one of the areas hardest hit this week. Late Wednesday afternoon, currents of stormwater that washed across the main access road lifted and pulled an empty taxicab, civil protection workers said.

By Thursday morning, the rain had stopped, and city workers used shovels and bulldozers to remove thick layers of mud.

In 1993, when weeks of rainfall brought major flooding to the city, residents of this canyon were cut off for several days, and food had to be delivered by helicopter.

Conditions have improved, "and although we have many deficiencies, the city is more prepared than in 1993," said César Romero, president of Tijuana's Construction Chamber, whose members offered their bulldozers and other equipment to the city to assist with recovery efforts.

At the Aguilars' house, the family counted their losses: furniture, clothes, telephones, toys, kitchen equipment. But the family of six also counted their blessings: They were away when the water rose.


"What would have happened with the children?" said Aguilar's wife, Dolores. "God saw to it that we weren't at home."