Fernando del Valle (Valley Morning Star)
RAYMONDVILLE - Hurricane Dolly damaged the domed tents at the Willacy County detention center, preventing officials from returning illegal immigrants who were evacuated before the July 23 storm, officials said Thursday.
Rain from the Category 2 hurricane drenched the domes while the storm's 100-mph winds shot debris into some walls, said Bill Bryan, a consultant who oversaw development of the $111 million project that includes 10 domes and a 1,000-bed building.
The damage has prevented officials from returning detainees to the camp, so the inmate count has plunged from about 1,943 before the hurricane to a low of 685, county records show.
A lower detention center population has cost the county money, County Commissioner Aurelio Guerra said. It was not immediately clear how much money.
Under contract terms, the federal government pays the county $2.25 per day for each illegal immigrant it holds at the detention center.
Dolly damaged nine of the detention center's 10 domes, Bryan said.
The hurricane's rains leaked into the domes through air conditioning vents, he said.
"We had some water inside the facility," Bryan said. "That's probably the focus of concerns."
Winds carried debris that punctured the domes with incisions as long as 6 inches into some of the domes' walls, Bryan said.
"There are minor cuts caused by flying debris," he said.
When the detention center opened in 2006, officials said the domes could withstand hurricane-force winds.
"Our concern was the structural integrity - the aluminum and the truss," Bryan said. "The structures themselves are structurally sound.
They suffered no structural damage."
Management & Training Corp., the Utah-based company that operates the detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will pay for the repairs, Bryan said.
"The county obviously doesn't have any liability," he said.
The detention center will be prepared to receive illegal immigrants by Sept. 19, Bryan said.
Nina Pruneda, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she did not have information readily available to determine when federal officials could return detainees to the domes.
The detention center continued to hold detainees in its 1,000-bed metal building, officials said.
The detention center's inmate count stood at 1,943 on July 21 before officials evacuated detainees from the domes, county records show. Since the hurricane, the detention center's inmate count dropped to a low of 685 on July 31.
Records show that on Tuesday, the inmate count stood at 897.
"I just hope we get back on track so we can maximize our revenues," Guerra said.
This year, local officials counted on the detention center to put $1 million into county coffers, County Auditor Ida Martinez said.
Officials planned to put $500,000 in the county's general fund budget and the remainder in a capital projects fund used to buy vehicles and pay for building improvements, she said.