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The tornado dipped down from the direction of the Davis Mountains and
tore through the east side of town, killing 30 people and destroying 61
houses. Saragosans vowed to rebuild, donations poured in, and already,
volunteers have built 22 new homes.
But 21 stand empty because they lack plumbing, painting and gas hookups.
One house was so poorly built it had to be lifted off its foundation and
replaced. And the one family that has moved into a rebuilt home still
lacks hot water.
Other tornado victims complain that the county has not been keeping
adequate records of what was donated for the relief effort, and where
the materials and money went.
"The county government stinks, as far as I'm concerned," said Joe
Gallego, whose house and tavern were destroyed. "I can't say they're
stealing it, but someone's pocketing some money, or misplacing it or
whatever you want to call it."
County officials say the complaints are without merit, that a small
number of malcontents are muddying Saragosa's name. Townspeople are
frustrated, they say, and the bickering is adding to the delays.
"Five months have passed, and only one person is in a home. But it's not
the volunteers' fault. It's because we've had so many people arguing
with each other," said Felipe Lopez, a Saragosa native hired to be the
building committee's on-site supervisor.
Jose R. Candelas is one resident upset about the construction delays and
a squabble with the Red Cross over how he could spend a $5,000 federal
grant. He now spends his days working behind the house he can't move
into because of unfinished plumbing, making cinder blocks he'll use to
rebuild his convenience store destroyed by the tornado.
But what disturbs him most is rumors that a lot of donations that were
sent to Saragosa never made it into the hands of tornado victims.
"Where are the donations?" he said. "We think there needs to be an
Many donations of cash and building materials were handled by the Reeves
County Sheriff's Office. Rumors about improprieties prompted some
Saragosa residents to circulate a petition authorizing Texas Rural Legal
Aid to demand that the county release records showing exactly what
happened to relief donations.
County officials sent the records last week to a Legal Aid office in
Weslaco. They were shipped Wednesday to Del Rio, where managing attorney
Alpha Hernandez said she planned to start inspecting them Thursday.
Sheriff Raul Florez said Wednesday that he submitted photocopies of
cancelled checks and bank deposit slips. Ms. Hernandez said she wanted
more than that.
"There was a lot of cash distributed and we would like to know who got
what," she said. "It looks like he's telling us what was sent in."
Florez said he and his deputies have nothing to hide.
"I don't have no need of being dishonest and my people don't have no
need of being dishonest," he said, adding that the deputies who worked
most closely with the Saragosa victims had friends and family in the
Gallego, Candelas, Legal Aid and other critics are just chronic
complainers, he said.
"This handful of people, they would be dissatisfied if it were raining
$100 bills everyday," he said.
Most of the villagers don't complain, and seem grateful for what they
have received, officials said, even if it seems inadequate that their
three-bedroom houses are being replaced with hastily made one-bedroom
"There's a lot of positive things to be said about this community, "
Manuel Galindo, disaster coordinator, said this week.
But the man who hired Galindo, Reeves County Judge Bill Pigman, had few
kind words for Saragosans about two weeks ago. Pigman, head of the
town's building committee, told The Dallas Morning News that Saragosans
have a "welfare" mentality.
"If I give you a loaf of bread for two weeks, you'd (complain) if I
didn't give you meat to go with it," he said. "It's the nature of the
people down there. I don't know how to explain it. They've been on
welfare all their lives, and they expect things will be done for them. "
Pigman was out of town this week and did not return calls from the
Most of us do not realize the trauma of such a tragedy these people
experienced when the town was struck by a tornado May 22. The mere loss
of everything they had materially was enough to cause great concern but
the fact that 30 loved ones, family and close friends died, not just
'People', has been hard on all of them. Twenty two (22) minor children
lost one or both parents, nine (9) lost both.
I think we should continue to show love and compassion for the people of
Saragosa as they attempt to rebuild their lives.
Some of the people of Saragosa have been critical of the way the money
Saragosa has been handled. They are justified in wanting to know from
where the money and goods came and who handled the money. They should be
told to whom the money was distributed. Answers to these pertinent
questions have been less than satisfactory.
Those who handled the money should give a strict accounting of every
On the evening of May 22 this year, Mrs. Mitchell and some of her
employees were searching for students and other staff members who were
in the old schoolhouse there when the tornado hit.
The school, which had been used for the council's Head Start classes,
was destroyed along with 70 percent of the town during graduation
ceremonies for the pre-schoolers.
Among the 30 who died from that tornado was 65-year-old Nora Brijalba of
Balmorhea, an outreach worker who had served the council for 20 years.
One of the more than 120 injured was Head Start teacher Lisa Carrillo,
who is now legally blind from head injuries she suffered that night.
On Oct. 3, ground was broken just north of the cement slab of the old
schoolhouse for the council's new Saragosa Multi-Purpose Center.
The 10,030 square-foot facility, when it opens early next year, will
provide not only Head Start classrooms, but a large equipped playground,
a medical clinic, children's day care, a kitchen, and congregate meals
for the elderly and shut-ins of Saragosa and Balmorhea.
One of the two tall entryway towers to the center will contain an early
warning system - a siren for disasters. Beneath the wing that houses
Head Start and day care will be a 76-by-30 foot underground storm
"I see this building as the good that has come out of the disaster, "
said Mrs. Mitchell, who has coordinated the various agencies
contributing to the center.
The Meadows Foundation of Dallas is funding the $250,000-plus project,
to be built by Saragosa volunteers and some citizens employed with
federal monies through the Job Training Partnership Act.
The Texas Baptist General Convention, with its trained workers who
travel around the nation building primarily churches, is overseeing the
Though many outsiders are helping with the center, it is truly the
Saragosa people's plan, Mrs. Mitchell said.
"On May 29, after we found out that people were really planning to move
back to Saragosa, we had a town hall meeting to ask them what their
goals were," Mrs. Mitchell said.
"They wanted their Head Start rebuilt. They wanted a place they could
get medical care. They wanted a place to go vote and hold meetings. They
wanted a warning system, and they wanted an underground shelter."
"They gave me this plan," she said. "The people are the ones who came up
with what they needed."
Mrs. Mitchell put it all in writing, and sent it to the Texas Department
of Community Affairs. Someone from that office notified the Meadows
Foundation, and a project developer was in Saragosa within weeks after
Mrs. Mitchell's letter was mailed.
Foundation project developer D. Pascal met with Mrs. Mitchell and asked
her to prepare a proposal to submit by July 10.
"I called one of the Baptist Men's architects for help," Mrs. Mitchell
recalled. "We worked up the plans over the phone, and came up with a
budget that I could draw up and submit."
On Oct. 1, she called another town hall meeting, and 42 Saragosans
gathered. They met the construction superintendent for the project, and
were obviously proud when shown the completed plans for their center and
illustrations of what it will look like, Mrs. Mitchell said.
"I told them we're going to need a lot of help on this," she said. "We
need volunteers, whether they're skilled or want to learn. We need their
help, I told them."
Mrs. Mitchell and her staff have been helping Saragosans help themselves
since the tornado.
Daily up until mid-June, the council distributed food and other
emergency services and helped citizens fill out forms for financial
The staff also established qualification guidelines and distributed the
Saragosa Relief Fund, which Mrs. Mitchell was appointed to manage.
"I now feel I'm qualified to handle a disaster," Mrs. Mitchell noted.
"But I never want to do it
"identify and meet the needs of the citizens," Mrs. Mitchell said.
In addition to the Head Start program for disadvantaged 3 through
5-year-olds, the council oversees distribution of commodities to
low-income and elderly, funds available for energy-efficient home
improvements, and five different nutritional programs, 'including the
Meals on Wheels and congregate meals programs here.
Another of the council's current projects is a new Pecos Head Start-
building to be opened at Fifth and Peach streets this month. The
building is being provided and moved here by the U.S. Department of
Health and Human services.
Mrs. Mitchell has been directing the council for nearly three years
after 12 years with the state's human services and health departments
here as a social worker for handicapped children and elderly citizens.
She also serves on the area's Committee for the Prevention of Child
Abuse and is a member of the West of the Pecos Planning Commission,
which assists agencies and individuals in grant writing.
A member and former first vice president of the local Business and
Professional Women, Mrs. Mitchell chairs that organization's annual
workshops in parenting skills.
"I just like to be terribly involved with people," she said. "I enjoy
About three times that much is still being stored for Saragosans in
hangers at Pecos Municipal Airport. However, those in charge of
distribution cannot find a key.
A moving truck was used to bring a load of furniture from San Antonio on
Thursday, where it was distributed to about 50 Saragosans that night at
he Catholic Church in Balmorhea, according to Saragosa Foundation
president Tony Gallego.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, four Reeves County dumptrucks, a flat bed
trailer and a horse trailer were used to load up items that had been
stored in a warehouse in Pecos.
Those that were salvageable were taken to the storage building near the
Saragosa trailer park, while clothes that were wet and muddy from rains
were dumped this morning.
"Most of the clothes are ruined, but some are still good just muddy,"
Gallego said. "We've asked everybody to spread the word that they're at
the dump, if they want to go through it."
The good items are being distributed daily by two volunteers who live at
the Saragosa trailer park who have made the storage building similar to
a "store" where Saragosans can pick out what they need, Gallego said.
Since the foundation was formed about two months ago, Gallego and
treasurer Braulia Natividad have been asked to take over distribution
Although plenty more clothes, furniture and appliances available,
Saragosans at the time have no place to put the Natividad said.
She plans to ask that the hangers continue to be used for storage and
that the key be available as more Saragosans begin moving into their
Neither she nor Gallego, however, can find out who has a key to the
Airport officials and those on hand when the donated items arrived
report that new locks were installed to secure the hangers.
However, reports conflict as to whether the Texas Baptist Men or the
Reeves County sheriff's office installed the locks, and officials who
had been in charge at both of those agencies today reported they don't
have the key.
Furthermore, Gallego and Mrs. Natividad said they were unaware about the
warehouse until two weeks ago, when Estech Chemical requested that the
things be removed.
They were told only Thursday that the hangers were still full, Gallego
The items stored in the warehouse came in a truckload from Georgia and
another from Fort Stockton, recalled Joey Herrera, who arranged for the
Herrera said he told Joe Billieter of Estech that the space was needed
for a short period of time. In July, Herrera said he began urging
Saragosa Community Council president Felipe Lopez to clear out the
Lopez was also told about the hangers by Saragosa Relief Fund director
Mary Mitchell, who arranged for use of those buildings.
Because "everyone in town knew" about the Pecos-stored items, Lopez
explained, he did not think it was necessary to officially notify the
Everyone in town apparently also knows about the two warehouses in
Saragosa that have been picked over and now contain mostly old clothes.
Another warehouse in Balmorhea is also full of donated items.
Gallego said he has not checked the warehouse in Balmorhea and has not
been able to look in the Pecos hangers to see if any damage has been
done by rain or simply by being stored for the past five months.
He said rain ruined "30 percent" of the items - mostly clothes that had
been stored at the Estech warehouse on Highway 17 on the Pecos city
Gallego said he did not expect so many problems in supervising
distribution efforts, a job which was handed to the foundation just
Lopez explained that assistant disaster coordinator Manuel Galindo
wanted the foundation to do the distributing "after that deal with the
sheriff and Acid Delinters."
According to previous reports, an Acid Delinters warehouse in Pecos that
had been used to store Saragosa relief donations was rummaged by people,
some from Pecos, who came in throngs once the doors were opened with
permission for one person to come in from Reeves County Jailer Sandy
That incident also prompted Herrera to "be real cautious" with the
Estech warehouse, he said.
Dutchover indicated that he, too, has stepped easy and as infrequently
as possible in the matter of distributing items to Saragosa Gallego had
asked Dutchover to use his trucks and workers to clear out the Estech
The two county dumptrucks that hauled wet clothes from the warehouse
Wednesday remained in Dutchover's precinct yard until Gallego gave the
word this morning to dump them.
"I'm trying to get Tony to tell me what to do," Dutchover said.
"The best thing to do would be to dispose of them, but he has to tell me
"I don't want to get into this," Dutchover added. "The only reason I
went to that warehouse was because I was asked."
In my opinion and not trying to hurt nobody, I would like to say this.
Saragosa people do not appreciate what has been given to them. I know
and everybody knows it belongs to them. It was donated for them but do
they appreciate? No!
For example, they build them a house and do they like it? No! They want
it bigger or prettier than their neighbor's.
If they give someone some furniture cause he needs it, the others get
mad. They make a meeting and it always ends up in a fight.
The tornado they got was sent from God, not from the devil, how they
say. Cause god sends these things to make us reflect our past. But
instead we go and make a worst Saragosa, with all this envy they are
going to get nowhere. But the reason for my writing is that how could
they let Braulia Montoya Natividad do such a thing and get Felipe Lopez
fired. He has been with the Saragosa people since the beginning. He is
the only one that has helped without interest to get nothing for him,
Saragosa you should make a petition to get him back, if not forget the
rest of the houses will be rebuilt, and for Braulia all she's got is
anger, cause they didn't build her a house, and that is not Felipe's
(Cony's) fault. So Saragosa you still have a chance to thank Felip for
what he has done for you. Get him back if you want Saragosa rebuilt. And
as for Judge Bill Pigman, Mr. Humphries has said it all.
Balmorhea, Tx. 79718
Among the records to be copied are those already reviewed of the
Saragosa Relief Fund finance committee.
Others now in the possession of finance committee chairperson Mary
Mitchell are records of the Pecos Jaycees, which had reportedly released
its funds to the Reeves County sheriff's office from June through August.
The sheriff's office had previously sent copies of its records to Legal
Aid upon request under the Texas Open Meetings Act that all records
involving county assistance in taking donations and making disbursements
The records contained some $2,121 in checks and $10,056 in deposits made
by the sheriff's office to the Jaycees, the Saragosa Relief Fund and the
County attorney Scott Johnson said the difference was likely in cash
Jaycees fund chairperson Mary Teal said a separate book was kept for the
cash donations. Miss Teal gave that book and all other to be at her
office to copy records by 9 a.m. Friday. She said a Legal Aid
representative had previously reviewed and "was very satisfied" with the
finance committee records, which still need to be copied.
Legal Aid was reportedly called in this summer by Saragosa citizens who
were wondering where the money was going.
In late August, Legal Aid also stepped in when a notice was posted on
sheriff's office stationary that the Jaycees were to distribute funds in
Saragosa, Miss Teal recalled.
"We were supposed to pass out the money, but then they said, no you
can't do that, the sheriff's office can't be involved," she said.
Miss Teal said she had given jailer Sandy Kelly the Jaycees account and
records in June because she thought the sheriff's office in Saragosa
would be better in touch with the people's needs. Miss Teal "had no
idea" that county involvement in distributing funds could be
The sheriff's office left Saragosa late this summer, and Miss Teal took
Mrs. Kelly's name off the signature cards at both banks after the Legal
Miss Teal said the Jaycees at count at one time had $20,000 or more, and
that she herself wrote only two checks on it.
About $12,000 that had been donated by the Dallas Jaycees was
distributed in September by the local group. Then, about two weeks ago,
Miss Teal transferred what was left in the fund to another account to
"close out the account being investigated," she said.
The Jaycees, with their account now of about $3,000, have since denied
requests by Mrs. Kelly to help pay electric bills of the sheriff's
office, Miss Teal said.
District clerk Juana Jaquez has $2,073 in her account, which she may
maintain until the investigation is completed, she said.
Mrs. Jaquez upon request early last month mailed records of the account
she had established as an individual to collect Saragosa relief
donations. She said she also mailed copies of police records regarding
the theft of about $4,000 in Saragosa relief funds in her purse she
reported was taken from her car.
Another organization that reportedly still has relief money is the
county-appointed Saragosa Building Committee, which has apparently not
been asked to give its financial records to Legal Aid.
Tony Gallego, who had served on that committee and is now president of
the Saragosa Foundation, said he was notified Tuesday that county judge
Bill Pigman had "dissolved" the building committee.
Manuel Galindo, Pigman's assistant disaster coordinator in mains of the
building materials that had been donated. Gallego said he hopes the
foundation will also receive the building committee's leftover funds.
Individual donations to the building committee at one time totaled more
than $4,000, much of which was used in surveying the community, Gallego
said. The building committee's account balance is now $1,900, according
to a bank statement Gallego recently received.
Gallego also reported that the foundation has not yet received
compensation as requested by Legal Aid from the county for damages to a
trailer home that had been donated to Saragosa.
A group from Louisiana had reportedly donated the mobile home for use as
a town hall but consented that it could be used temporarily as a relief
coordination office, that of the sheriff's office, Gallego said.
When sheriff's officials left, the title to the trailer was reportedly
transferred to the Saragosa Foundation. An accident while the trailer
was being moved by county officials caused some damages, Gallego
reported, for which Legal Aid requested reimbursement to the foundation.
Gallego said he did not know how much money had been requested for the
As agreed by Legal Aid and the foundation, Gallego said, the railer is
now being shared by Galindo and Texas Department of Community Affairs
fund coordinator Jim Ingham.
Legal Aid attorney David Horton said up to 3,000 documents furnished by
the Saragosa Relief Fund Committee, the Reeves County sheriff's office,
the Pecos Jaycees and district clerk Juana Jaquez are being reviewed,
and more may be requested.
"What we got from the county is what the county offered us," Horton
said. "We can't tell until the review is finished whether this is all
For example, no records apparently have been furnished by the
county-appointed Saragosa Building Committee.
In addition, records sent to Legal Aid by Mrs. Jaquez do not include all
account transactions, which was the request.
Mrs. Jaquez had previously explained that those records were lost with
the $4,000 that she said was taken from her vehicle.
She sent to Legal Aid the most recent bank statement on the account and
police reports about the alleged theft.
Mrs. Jaquez today said she planned to transfer what remains in the
account, about $2,000, to the Saragosa Relief Fund finance committee.
She also plans to pay back the $4,000 that was taken while under her
"I'm trying to get a loan right now to help me pay if off," she said.
"If I can't get a loan, I'll make little payments here and there until I
pay it back. I figure at $25 a month, it'll take 11 years."
Mrs. Jaquez set up the account as an individual, and not in her
professional capacity with the county. The Jaycees records were
requested because that organization gave access to their account to the
Apparently, no other civic groups or individuals have yet been asked to
present their records to Legal Aid for review, Horton said.
He noted that attorneys at this time have no way to predict what the
preliminary report will contain.
"More than likely it will raise unresolved issues that could warrant a
more detailed inquiry," he said. "Or, it may find that everything is
"No one at this point is accusing anyone of any wrongdoing, misconduct
or misuse of funds," Horton said.
Legal Aid was called in late this summer after requests from Saragosans
who were wondering where all the donated money was going.
Horton said Legal Aid "clients" in Saragosa are primarily the 89
citizens who signed a petition to commissioner Ismael Dutchover to
secure the county's financial records.
Legal Aid representatives were in Pecos on Nov. 6 to make copies of the
records that had been furnished. They plan to give a report on these
preliminary analysis of those records in a townhall meeting at Saragosa
on Saturday afternoon, Horton said.
If the preliminary report warrants a detailed inquiry, he said, such an
investigation could take another month to six weeks.
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