Massive storms raged through Texas and Oklahoma over the Memorial Day weekend, with tornadoes, damaging winds, and torrential rains. Flash floods occur frequently in the Hill Country of Central Texas, where multiple watersheds lace the southeasterly tilt of the entire state. When storms deluge these watersheds, streams, and creeks, and rivers all rise rapidly, sometimes disastrously.
This time, it was the Blanco River raging through the small resort area and village of Wimberly that caused the greatest damage: 3 people confirmed dead so far, with 12 still missing. Dozens of homes got swept off foundations, over 350 destroyed, and close to 1,000 badly damaged. Bald cypress trees that lined the river for years, perhaps centuries, were uprooted and leveled. Nearby San Marcos likewise got flooded, closing I-35 for hours.
For long-term Austinites, this recalled the Memorial Day Flood of 1981, when 13 people died as flood waters rose in the evening and flooded the city that night. That flood came up suddenly and surprised everyone — that was back before cell phones, texting, or internet updates.
News crews scrambled to put reporters on the scene for bulletins, but many people who heard the storm in the night had no idea of the extent of flood damage until the next morning.
By then, Austin’s flood made the national news on the morning network shows. As local humorist John Kelso commented later, this meant everyone in Austin got a call from their mother the next morning: “Are you all right?”
Everyone, that is, except me, I realized, as I laughed at his column. When I asked Mom about that later, she just said, “Well, Alan, you live on a hill.” True enough, mom, true enough.
See, Mom knows about floods, too — as a 9-year old girl, her family’s house was flooded and their belongings mostly destroyed in the San Angelo flood of 1936. I remember her talking about the mud and she described how her mom could never get it all out of those clothes, not even with multiple washings.
In a later account she wrote:
The mud came up nearly to my knees. It was slimy and oozed through my toes when I walked. Mud was even in the house. And the furniture was out of place…In our room, the floor came up in the middle…”
My personal experiences with floods have been mostly tangential. Living on a hill helps, of course, but I haven’t always lived here. Back in 1974, I lived on a tiny creek down Bluff Springs Road, and awoke one morning to a downpour. Wandering outside after the rain stopped, I found debris piled up against trees along the creek and the abandoned old barn pushed off its pilings, leaving it askew and damaged. This was but a small sample, though, of that flood’s power.
Our friends & neighbors, Candy & Beth, needed help evacuating their house on the banks of Onion Creek. They called us after a sheriff’s car drove to their property with loudspeakers warning of a 20-foot “wall of water” moving quickly in their direction, urging immediate evacuation.
When we got there, the rising creek waters covered 50 yards of a low flat field, with their house still standing on its elevated foundation, just above the water. By the time I reached the house to carry out a recliner, the water was waist-deep.Turning the chair upside-down atop my head, I slowly waded back through the now slowly flowing floodwaters, carefully feeling for firm footing. By that afternoon, the water started receding, and locals called it the “worst flooding in 20 years.”
So, the following year, when Candy & Beth were still living there, and another flood came, they chose not to evacuate this time — until the water started lapping on the porch. This was higher than the previous year and still rising. By the time they got ready to leave, water was ankle-deep in the house and they had to jump out the window and grab onto nearby tree branches. When the creek swept the house off its pilings, it slammed into the tree and knocked them back into the water, and they scrambled for higher branches. They were later rescued by boat from treetops.
Visiting afterwards, I saw their fridge stuck upside down 15 feet up in a tree first. That’s an image that still sticks with me, as well as the way the house looked like a cutaway diagram from some encyclopedia or something, the one wall peeled off to expose the (former) interior of the rooms. “But…” I tried to protest, “they said last year was the worst flooding in twenty years.”
“Yeah, and this year, they say it’s the worst flooding in fifty years,” Beth said and shook her head. “Some consolation…”
Once you’ve witnessed the deadly power of rising floodwaters and the destruction and devastation left behind in its wake, it’s easy to understand why God might choose a flood to destroy the world. To paraphrase James Taylor, I’ve seen fire (that story another time) and I’ve seen floods — and, you know what? a heavy rainstorm will put out a wildfire.
The only thing that ends a flood is the passage of time.