San Marcos, Texas – May 24, 2015

“Who you lookin’ for?”

Standing in the mud-wrecked parking lot of the Blanco River Duplexes was a girl—eight or nine years old. She was splattered with grime from her bare legs to the pink tank-top sagging off one shoulder. Chestnut curls framed her face, a brunette Goldilocks. Her expression was one of grim determination, set with a toughness and defiance suited for someone beyond her age.

“I’m looking for Tracy Frasier,” Lauren said, stepping from the truck. All morning Lauren’s phone had buzzed with family members, friends, and fellow classmates checking in. Tracy, one of her grad school colleagues, was unaccounted for. I followed Lauren out, my boots sinking into several inches of squelching filth.   

The girl’s sternness softened. Her two brothers, a few years older, sporting buzzcuts, and equally smeared with muck, stepped up.

“She’s in an apartment over there,” the oldest said, pointing toward the row of complexes facing Highway 80. “They had to get out last night. Had to evacuate.”

“Is she alright?” Lauren asked.

The three kids searched one another for the answer.

“Well, they’re alright,” the oldest began, “but their house ain’t.”

The little girl led us to a grimy door on the ground floor. She turned the knob and pushed. The smell of sewage and mold preceded the view: the same pale mud covering the parking lot was caked two to four inches think throughout the apartment, furniture was toppled, many belongings had already begun a swift disintegration into muddled, shapeless papier-mâché. Somehow, the power was on, and from a steadily oscillating ceiling fan, glittering blue and yellow birthday streamers swayed languidly in the center of the living room. Big, bright balloons rested motionless in the quagmire of mud and murky water.

“Can you take me to her?” Lauren asked.

Sliding in the slick sludge, Lauren and I trailed the children across the cracking concrete parking lot separating the buildings. One of the boys pointed at a Ford Taurus parked cockeyed on a patch of grass. “That car floated from over there,” he said, motioning behind us. Just beyond the Taurus, a white van took up residence at the neighboring convenience store. “CNN” marked both sides in red lettering and a bulky satellite dish aimed at the heavy, grey clouds.

The kids went up a single flight of stairs. The wood steps groaned; maroon paint chipped from the rails. We waited as the oldest boy pounded his fist on the entrance until someone cracked open the door. “They’re here to see Miss Tracy,” the boy announced, gesturing toward Lauren and me. The crack widened to reveal a woman in her mid-thirties, a blonde nest tied in a sloppy bun at the base of her neck. She said nothing, but her visage spoke of resigned exhaustion, a person operating in autopilot on the last fumes of consciousness.

The woman turned and knelt to a figure lying on the floor. Tracy rolled over when the woman put a hand on her shoulder. She was slow to rise, and used the doorframe to prop herself up, blinking, almost incredulously, at Lauren and me.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Kate asked me to check on you and the kids,” Lauren said. “We tried calling, but no one could get through. We were worried.”

Tracy’s eyes began to glisten. “My phone…” Her voice trailed off.

Lauren held her in the doorway. The kids vanished down the stairs. From the second-story vantage, I had a clear view of the perpetrator responsible for the encompassing destruction.

Along this stretch, the Blanco River is typically a placid, narrow stream lazily snaking past the few oak, pecan, and cypress trees growing stubbornly on the sun-bleached banks. During the previous years of drought, the river had waned to a parched trickle. Now the Blanco was unrecognizable—a violent torrent of churning brown water and debris surging by at 223,000 cubic feet per second.

After a wet spring, two more inches of rain had drenched Central Texas the night before. The San Marcos and Blanco Rivers, already burgeoning from the recent precipitation, spilled over their banks and kept rising. The unimaginable happened: the Blanco River crested at 43 feet—30 feet over what is considered “flood stage” and shattering the previous flood record. Reports were saying that over 350 homes were underwater in Wimberley. There were people missing, entire families, and efforts to rescue those trapped on rooftops were ongoing just miles away.

A spotted mutt came barking through the door, a freckled teenager chasing behind it. “Sorry about that,” the teen apologized. He picked up the squat pup in one hand, and shoved his glasses further up his speckled nose with the other.

“He’s fine,” I said, making an attempt at peace with the dog in the form of ear-scratching.

Fat is what he is. Looks like an over-stuffed sausage.” He drawled in thick Texas twang, pausing to peer at the river. “Finally did something good with my life.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“If it weren’t for me and Jesus, this little dog wouldn’t be here. Almost lost him last night. Had to save him from the water.” He paused again. “Best thing I’ve ever done.”

Tracy wiped her eyes. “My phone floated downriver. We woke up last night, around 3, and there was water coming in. Just pouring in. We had to get out. The water was up to Bea’s neck. Took three men to pull her through.”

Bea, Tracy’s eight year-old daughter, was now inside sleeping off the night’s horrific events. In fact, several people were sprawled out on makeshift pallets on the apartment floor. Tracy’s son, Iain, joined his mother in the entryway. “And yesterday,” Tracy said, hugging him to her side, “was this guy’s thirteenth birthday party.” I remembered the streamers and balloons left suspended in surreal juxtaposition to the rest of the flooded home. Iain shyly accepted the most sincerely sorry “Happy Birthday” I’ve ever uttered.

May 25, 2015

The next morning, Memorial Day, a crew of Tracy’s friends, classmates, and several of her professors came together to salvage what they could. Over night, the stench of sewage and mold had intensified. Every window of the apartment was pried open. Someone pulled the cord on the fan to make the blades whirl harder against the stink.

Surveying the chaotic scene, it was hard to know where to begin. The fridge was on its side next to the dining table—Bea and Iain grinned from pictures still held by magnets to its door. Bookcases lined the walls holding volumes of waterlogged children’s books, classic novels, and Tracy’s anthropology textbooks. I stooped to read the spine of a drowned book. Harry Potter, the boy wizard, brandished his wand on the cover of a soggy hardback. All seven books of the series were ruined, but those titles on the upper shelves were dry—or dry enough, at least. Part of the crew started stuffing anything small and salvageable into contractor bags; others began taking furniture out piece by piece. One went to work on Tracy’s car, inspecting the engine, removing the seats, and ripping out carpeting. “Better she has a vehicle with no carpet than one that stinks like flood,” he said, sucking water from the floorboards with a shop vac.

Mattresses were stacked on the curb for the city’s garbage teams to haul away. TVs, gaming consoles, and other electronics were carried, cords dripping, to a junk pile. Glassware that hadn’t suffered micro-fractures was wrapped in newspaper and boxed up. Clothes were separated into three piles: wet, dry, and beyond-a-washing-machine’s-salvation. A small arsenal of Nerf guns and enough Barbies to fill a sorority home were set aside to be hosed off.

Furniture proved more complicated. Wooden dressers had swollen, sealing the drawers shut, the saturated items locked inside adding extra weight. The veneer on many of the pieces was already peeling away. All of it was at least partially covered in mud. Items deemed worth saving were loaded onto a trailer to be restored. The others were abandoned next to the mattresses. A cedar “hope chest” passed down from Tracy’s grandmother was brought outside and pried open. Hand-stitched quilts, documents chronicling the family history, and pages and pages of family polaroids were entombed in rust-colored silt.

By noon, the entire crew was muddy and sweat-soaked in the humid mid-day heat. The sound of sirens had been a near constant over the past two days. Helicopters hummed overhead against a perpetually grey sky. “Pray for Rain” the church signs had begged. Now everyone was pleading for its end. I could feel my spirit sinking in the waste.

A car pulled up. “Y’all hungry? Need some water?” the driver, a volunteer from Texas State, asked. She passed out barbecue sandwiches provided by H-E-B and several cases of bottled water. The crew wiped their hands, and shoveled food into their mouths. No one had thought about eating yet. Not long after another car came by, a local church group giving away bagged lunches: sausage wraps and bags of chips. Later, a Bud Light truck dropped off more cases of water. Throughout the day, folks stopped to ask if there was anything they could do, anything we needed. Rarely is the goodness of strangers distilled into such pure displays of kindness and compassion. Several times I had to fight, with varying degrees of success, to dam the tears.

Looking at the surrounding apartments, it was clear to me that most of those who live there come from lower-income backgrounds: single mothers with kids, college students, and a high number of minorities. The adjoining neighborhoods mirror the same demographic data. With strapped incomes and tight budgets, renters’ insurance is probably a luxury expenditure for these families; likely the same with flood insurance. It all laid bare that San Marcos, the fastest-growing city in America for the past three years, has some serious issues to face with housing. The increasingly escalating cost of homes and the haphazard development along recognized floodplains has meant that many take up residence in high-risk areas. Their gamble, when such disasters occur, results in devastating loss. No write-off, no reimbursement, gone.

Most importantly, Tracy and her kids made it to safety without being injured. And the day’s efforts by the cleanup crew were not in vain—at least some of their friend’s worldly treasures were saved. The trailer of furniture was pulled to someone’s house to be dried, cleaned, and oiled. Bags and bags of clothes were taken to the laundromat. Boxes of recovered items were moved one truckload at a time to a storage unit.

Around three that afternoon, the clouds made good on their threat. The crew hurried to cover everything that had been set outside waiting to be packed. The deluge didn’t ease. Anything now wet was no longer fit for the storage unit due to the probability of mold. Lauren offered to hold the rest in her garage. Sodden with rain, the crew managed to pack the last of Tracy’s possessions into a truck headed for high, dry ground.

Sitting in a beat-up suburban at the far end of the parking lot, I noticed the three kids from the day before. A passing good Samaritan had left us a variety pack of chips. I took the bag over to the idling vehicle. The girl rolled down the window.

“Chips?” I asked.

She reached inside searching for Cheetos, her middle brother grabbed for potato chips. The oldest shook his head. Too cool. All three were still slicked with mud. Everything was covered in mud. Their father appeared from one of the apartments near Tracy’s. A white band wrapped around his neck, holding in place the speaking valve on his tracheal tube. He held a finger over the valve’s opening, and asked, “Get everything out?”

“Just about,” I said.

He nodded. Then placed his finger back over the opening. “She got a place to go?”

“Yes, sir. Staying with a friend in town.”

“Good. Good.” He took a breath. “Anywhere is better than this.”

Three Weeks Later

“I just want one morning where I don’t wake up thinking about the flood,” Tracy tells me over the phone. As a Texas State graduate student, she was able to temporarily move into on-campus housing recently vacated by summering undergrads. Bea and Iain are staying with relatives. The apartment management says Tracy and her family should be able to return home at the end of next week. Judging from the remaining damage, that date seems overly optimistic.

Even with outpouring of support from national and local aid groups, Tracy is realizing that starting over is an entangled nightmare of confusing legal processes and logistical roadblocks. Simplest conveniences often taken for granted—consistent internet access or listening to the car radio—are now commodities at least temporarily washed from Tracy’s life.  Volunteers have worked thousands of hours since the initial flood, but the number of willing helpers has faded over time. In Wimberley and parts of San Marcos, serious work remains to be done. Help is still needed. For Tracy and other flood survivors, recovery continues to be a long, haunting process.