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Local school works to clean up after flood

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Photo by: Daryl Ontiveros | Staff Photographer
Church member, Bethany Birkhimer repairs a classroom wall May 27 at the Hill Country Christian Church and Private School.

As the floodwater began to rise early May 24, one local pastor raced to save his school.

Flooding that hit the San Marcos area last weekend devastated Hill Country Christian (HCC), a church and private school serving kids from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Chris Birkhimer, youth pastor for HCC and Texas State alumnus, said a gut feeling brought him to the church early that Sunday as floodwaters raced towards the school.

“I woke up at about 3 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got on my Twitter and saw that the Blanco River was rapidly rising and about to break its own record for flooding,” Birkhimer said. “At that point I was still groggy and couldn’t realize what I was doing but I just put on my rain boots and told my wife I was going to make sure the school was not underwater.”

Birkhimer said the extent of the flooding began to set in as soon as he arrived.

“It really hit me how bad it was when I was in our school parking lot—facing the Blanco River—and I realized it was not rain water, but river water getting closer and closer to the building,” Birkhimer said.

Water came within 15 to 20 feet of the church steps before beginning to recede, Birkhimer said.

The school, which sits closer to the river, wasn’t so lucky.

Birkhimer said within an hour of his arrival the Blanco River had burst through the front door of the gym, which faces the river, and filled the entire first floor of the school with close to a foot of water.

“At about 4 a.m. Sunday morning myself, the senior pastor and his son ran through the building and tried to save a lot of our computers and electronics from the rising water,” Birkhimer said. “We were also able to turn off the power to all of the buildings.”

Pam Rose, facilities manager for HCC, said Birkhimer alerted her to the impending high waters early in the morning.

“[Chris] actually came out and at around 3:30 a.m. and told me I needed to move my car to higher ground immediately, so I went and parked on high ground,” Rose said. “When I came back I walked by the school to put my dog in my office, and that is when I noticed the water was up to the door of the school.”

Rose said she quickly ran home to grab a few important items. When she returned fifteen minutes later, the school had flooded.

“By the time I started walking back the water was past my knees in some spots between my house and the school,” Rose said. “How fast the water was rising was just crazy.“

While some items could be salvaged, Birkhimer said the gym floor and many classroom items, including desks and books, were ruined.

“Pretty much everything on the first floor of the school building needed to be removed,” Birkhimer said. “We are having to cut the drywall from the floor up to about two feet high to get the water out before it rots the wood inside.”

Birkhimer said the loss was further intensified by a lack of flood insurance. Both facilities are considered a high risk for flooding by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), making them ineligible for coverage.

“When we bought the property it had never been touched by the Blanco River,” Birkhimer said. “Then a few years ago FEMA moved us up to a higher risk level and we were no longer able to buy flood insurance because of the risk.”

About 100 volunteers came out May 24 to help assess the damage and begin the cleanup process. Participants completed a variety of tasks, including tearing out drywall and removing the gym floor.

“We are friends with a lot of churches around town, and then we have a pretty large school for it being a private Christian school,” Birkhimer said. “We just put the SOS out, and we have a lot of alumni and members of the church that live in town and came out to help.”

After watching the San Marcos River flood in 1998 and 2001, Birkhimer said he never thought he would see the Blanco River top it.

“I remember looking down at the Blanco River a few years ago and thinking how low it was compared to the San Marcos River,” Birkhimer said. “It surprised everyone, I think.”

Birkhimer encouraged members of the community who weren’t affected by flooding to reach out and help their neighbors.

“I would definitely encourage people to volunteer because there are a lot of people who are going to need help clearing out what is now junk but used to be their stuff,” Birkhimer said. “We were never expecting something like this to happen, but just through grace so many people have showed up to help us.”

Birkhimer said he hopes to have the school in working condition in time for the fall semester. This means replacing the floors, drywall and replenishing teachers’ supplies.

“Fortunately this happened right before school got out, so this is now our summer project,” Birkhimer said. “My hope would be that over the summer we can finish this up and go from there.”

Birkhimer said those looking to aid HCC can visit the school website to learn more about ways to help.

“You don’t think something like this will happen until it does,” Birkhimer said. “You watch it on the news and it seems like a world away, but when it happens to the place where you have worked and is your second home, it’s pretty gnarly.”