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The Central Texas Memorial Day Flood 2015 Is One for the History Books

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In the age of social media, whenever there’s extreme weather, you’re likely to see a number of videos of things in action: creeks overrunning their banks, or streets under water, or cars floating away. There’s something inherently compelling about the juxtaposition of the mundane stuff of ordinary life and these extreme weather conditions, and it’s even harder to turn away from when the images we are seeing are of familiar places.

But until yesterday, I’d never seen a stranger’s video of shocking weather conditions that featured my own house. A video of Waller Creek overrunning its banks streamed across my Twitter feed, which I was frantically checking with the magical-thinking conviction that knowing what was happening with the storm could somehow help me manage it.

Just over a year ago, my wife and I bought a house on a lot that’s bisected by the creek. It rarely rises enough to be frightening, but a few times in the past year, we’ve dreaded the thought of the line between Waller Creek and our property dissolving. Watching as it actually happens is both a nightmare and, in some strange way, a relief—now, at least, we know what it actually looks like when that happens and which rooms in the house are prone to taking on water first.

Ultimately, of course, we got off very easy. The water receded after an hour, and we were able to take care of the interior flooding with a Shop Vac. But flooding—even flooding that, ultimately, turns out to be minor—certainly serves as a stark reminder that when it wants to be, water is in control.

That’s something that, during what will presumably come to be known as the Memorial Day Floods 2015, people in Central Texas learned at a higher cost. Near the Blanco River, that cost was as high as it gets: thirty people are still missing in Hays and San Marcos counties and hundreds lost their homes. Governor Abbott called it “the highest flood we’ve ever had recorded in the history of the state of Texas.”

One of the more curious effects of a storm like this one is the mixed emotions that it dredges up. In my case, for instance, my worst nightmares about my own safety and the destruction of my house did not come to pass. My nightmares were overblown—except that they weren’t. They proved to be the realities of others, those who did lose homes and loved ones. So any relief I experienced was tempered by the awareness that the flood could have come for me, only this time it didn’t.

This feeling is particularly pointed when a city like Austin experiences flooding like it did on Memorial Day. The history of flooding in Austin is long and extensive. It’s one of the most flood-prone regions in North America, and in 2013, massive flooding in South Austin sent Onion Creek rising to 41 feet, devastating nearby neighborhoods on Halloween. Even the words “Memorial Day flood” in Austin don’t simply refer to what happened this past weekend: in 1981, during the same weekend in May, an historic amount of flooding occurred, killing thirteen and doing more than $35 million in damage. And the history goes back even further, of course. To celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Lower Colorado River Authority, in 2010 KXAN documented a number of historical floods in Austin during the thirties.

On the one hand, as the water rose in Waller Creek, I felt like a fool for buying a house on the flood plain. On the other hand, looking at photos from around the city, it became clear that higher ground or a few hundred extra feet of distance from volatile bodies of water wouldn’t make much difference.

Considering the scope of the flooding in Central Texas—as well as in Houston, which John Nova Lomax will be writing about for Texas Monthly today—is hard, just because of the sheer number of Texans who dealt with it over the weekend. More than 20 percent of Texans live in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and the surrounding areas, which means that at least one out of every five people in the state dealt with flood and tornado warnings in the past few days. Which means that the sight of seeing your house, or your favorite places, or streets that are familiar to you, in an online video of massive flooding isn’t a unique experience right now, it’s an extremely common one. When I saw the video of water rushing out of my driveway and through my fence online—after the initial reaction of, “Hey, that’s my house”—the strangest thing I realized was that this was happening everywhere around me. The video didn’t go viral. Why would it? There was no shortage of opportunities to watch water rush through places where water doesn’t usually go.

All of which leads to an outbreak of neighborliness that’s fascinating to watch. In the year since we moved into our house, we’ve gotten to know many of our neighbors, but once the lightning slowed down on Monday, the intersection near Waller Creek became something of a block party, with dozens of people from the neighborhood talking, advising cars about the road conditions (essentially impassable), and otherwise coming together. And looking in either direction, you could see the same thing happening, as other neighbors came together to share the experience.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to help out now either. The Austin Chronicle assembled a list of volunteer opportunities for those whose outbreak of community-mindedness extended beyond the weekend. But whether it’s short-term or long-term interest in pitching in, it’s valuable to see it happen.

Maybe the most visceral example of that was at the Austin Pets Alive shelter, which experienced flooding in its kennels. That’s a serious issue: animals in those kennels haven’t got a way out as the waters rise, and the number of animals that need a safe place to be after serious storms tends to go up. But this part of the story isn’t a sad one: within hours of the news that the shelter had flooded, Austinites had lined up to serve as temporary fosters for the pets that needed a safe, dry place to stay.

In the face of the sort of massive flooding that happened throughout Central Texas, that may not seem like much—it doesn’t restore the homes that were destroyed, or find the people who are missing—but the fact that emergencies bring out the best in us is a facet of humanity that it’s reassuring to keep in mind after a weekend that’ll go down in the books for much of Austin and beyond.

(Top image James Gregg/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

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