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US Border Officials Give Unusual Assistance to Mexican Flood Victims - 2004-04-06

In the border city of Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the Rio Grande river from Eagle Pass, Texas, authorities continue to search for missing people after devastating flash floods. At least 25 people died in the flooding, dozens of people were injured and hundreds remain stranded in remote areas or housed in rescue centers. The disaster led to some unusual assistance from U.S. officials whose primary job is to keep people from crossing the border illegally.

As the flood waters surged around the city of Piedras Negras Sunday night and before dawn on Monday, the U.S. Border Patrol in Eagle Pass responded to a rare request for help from Mexican officials on the other side of the boundary.

Border Patrol spokesman Dennis Smith says two of the agency's helicopters crossed over the river to search for desperate survivors clinging to tree tops and the roofs of houses. "What they did was pick up some Mexican officials once they got on that side and those officials directed them to where the people were stranded," he says.

Mexico has traditionally been reluctant to ask for outside help in such situations, but there were no helicopters readily available in the area at that time. Mr. Smith says this was a time when the good relations between authorities on each side of the border paid off. "It does take a lot of coordination with the right people and agents at Eagle Pass and the Del Rio sector are always in contact with their counterparts in Mexico and they have good liaison with those folks," he says.

Because of the bi-national character of the action, however, Dennis Smith says higher-ranking officials in the two national capitals were also involved. "As far as the Border Patrol is concerned, it did go through our headquarters chain of command in Washington," he says. "It was coordinated with the Mexican consulate in Eagle Pass and I am not sure what steps they went through."

The two Border Patrol helicopters spent a total of four hours on the rescue mission and then returned to their base in Texas. After daylight, helicopters from other parts of Mexico were able to reach the scene.

The floods followed torrential rains that caused the Escondido river to rise rapidly and overflow its banks. Officials in Piedras Negras say some 500 homes and around 300 motor vehicles were either heavily damaged or destroyed. A state of emergency was declared in the Piedras Negras area making funds from the Mexican federal government available to the city of about 200,000 residents. Because there is fear of more flooding, authorities are asking people to remain at shelters until it is safe to return to their homes.