President Barack Obama approved a disaster declaration for Hays County and surrounding local governments not once, but twice—within only six months in 2015.
History was made when the Blanco River crested at a record-breaking 42.3 feet, the most severe case of flooding in the area since 1929. Months later, as county residents were still piecing together the houses and businesses destroyed by flood waters, they were struck by yet another flash flood on the eve of Halloween.
Besides the lasting impact the weather events left on the lives of citizens, the floods affected local government financially, operationally and politically.
Financial impact of the flood
Kristi Wyatt, director of communications and intergovernmental relations for the City of San Marcos, said damage caused by the May flood cost Hays, Blanco, Guadalupe and Caldwell counties a total of $7 million. The total cost of the October flood has yet to be determined.
Mayor Daniel Guerrero said the cost of the floods means the city will have to be more cost-conscious in the future, but it is a price worth paying.
“There’s a cost, but it’s one of those where you don’t really think about it at the time,” Guerrero said. “It’s a cost that you gladly expend for the safety of your community. You do it because your constituents, and your citizens, and your residents expect to be able to get back to normal life.”
Guerrero said city officials will have to “tighten (their) belts” during the next budget cycle, and the one after that. He is grateful that the price tag consisted of only material items, and that there were no lives claimed in San Marcos by the flood.
“It’s what we have the responsibility of doing to ensure not only that you’re providing good services and safety to your community, but that you’re also allowing a community that’s been impacted by trauma to get back to a comfortable normalcy of life again,” Guerrero said. “And that’s the role we play.”
Disaster sparks change in FEMA maps
During the aftermath of the floods, the Federal Emergency Management Agency submitted newly revised Advisory Base Flood Elevations.
The new maps released by FEMA expand the existing flood plain in certain areas, increasing the suggested base flood elevations which determine the height that new developments must be constructed at in order to stay out of the flood plain, according to FEMA’s website.
Guerrero said city officials are still evaluating the maps and will not make a decision to approve or deny them until either June or July of 2016.
“There’s still some moving pieces in that puzzle,” Guerrero said. “We’ll still have the opportunity to appeal some of the approaches that FEMA is bringing forward, but we anticipate that some of the data we captured from both floods will have an impact, potentially, on some of the expectations of base flood elevations and things of that nature.”
The city hosted an open house at the end of October for citizens to come meet with FEMA representatives and city officials to learn what the newly revised maps may mean for their properties, and if it would affect them at all. Guerrero said there will be similar open houses in the future.
At the October open house, Richard Reynosa, senior engineer for the city of San Marcos, said that in some areas of San Marcos, the suggested elevation did not increase, and in other areas the elevation increased by an average of three feet.
Diane Howe, FEMA acting risk map outreach lead, said Wimberley’s elevations increased by 5-10 feet, according to the revised maps.
An operational upset, how first responders endured and prepared
Fire Station 5, the city’s main station, was flooded in May. The event left approximately 18 inches of standing water inside the station’s offices, classroom and living area. There was 36-40 inches of water in the bays where the emergency apparatuses are housed.
“All of our personnel that were on duty at the time, their personal vehicles were flooded all totaled,” said Les Stephens, San Marcos fire chief. “And we had to come in and tear everything out four feet and below—all the furniture, all the flooring, all the sheet rock, the doors the cabinetry (and) in a lot of cases, even the infrastructure.”
Stephens said the fire station’s flood damage cost roughly $1.5 million to $2 million to repair.
Although the fire fighters made temporary accommodations to continue emergency operations by setting up RVs behind the station and sending personnel to other stations with enough space, Fire Station 5 did not become usable again until October.
Stephens said the first responders still don’t fully realize all of the paperwork they lost to the flood until they go to look for it and realize it is not there anymore.
“So those affects will be felt long term, but the emergency operations—that’s our main priority,” Stephens said. “The citizens paid for a station and emergency response capability from this location and so we wanted to restore that as quickly as possible.”
Before both of the floods, Stephens said emergency personnel knew there was a chance of a severe weather event. The crew prepared by putting more people on staff and having response vehicles placed strategically through out the city to ensure that they would be able to access the vehicles in the event of a flood.
Stephens said the city did a satisfactory job by doing the planning and preparation done years in advance as well. This includes having fire stations distributed thoughtfully through out San Marcos and securing appropriate equipment over several years of the budget process.
“If I wait till the flood is here to order a boat, you know, we’re not going to do so good,” Stephens said. “The planning and preparation is our job; that’s what we’re supposed to do. We try to anticipate these events every day and be prepared for them.”
The fire department prepares personnel for natural disasters such as the May and October floods as early as the hiring process. A swimming test is included in the physical agility test fire fighters have to pass in order to be hired—a test not commonly required in most departments, Stephens said.
“The area is prone to flooding and we want to make sure we’re hiring people that can get around okay in the water,” Stephens said. “A lot of those things are in place in the infrastructure that has to be there to support our mission.”
Every disaster presents an opportunity for first responders to learn what strategies work, build upon them and tweak the methods that could be made more efficient or effective, Stephens said.
“Each time you get to experience something like this, you always learn things and they better prepare you for either a response to that same situation in the future or a response to another event of that magnitude,” Stephens said.
City council election impacted by flood issues
The Memorial Day and Halloween weekend floods affected the local government beyond the realm of finances and operations.
Citizens voiced concern over the controversial development of The Woods, a a resort-style student housing complex that was constructed on Cape’s Camp, a site on the northern bank of the San Marcos River.
In January 2013 Daniel Guerrero, Ryan Thomason, Wayne Becak, Kim Porterfield and Shane Scott voted to sell the property to a developer to construct The Woods. The vote came to the dismay of some citizens, as more than 70 percent of citizens who voted in a public referendum said they wanted to use Cape’s Camp to create a park.
As election season kicked into high gear, Melissa Derrick, Place 6 city councilwoman, and former Place 6 incumbent Shane Scott debated over Scott’s vote.
At the Oct. 8, 2015, city council debate hosted by The University Star, Derrick said she believes the construction of The Woods worsened flood damage in Blanco Gardens, a neighborhood adjacent to the site, because the drainage system of the development was not yet complete.
Scott argued that hydrologists hired by the city agreed that flood damage would be the same whether or not The Woods’ drainage system was complete due to the severity of the event.
The issue continued to take center stage as the two candidates argued about the topic leading up to the November election, in which Derrick was elected onto city council.
An updated analysis presented to city council members Jan. 5 showed that construction of the controversial student housing complex actually did worsen the flooding of Blanco Gardens.
After considering the analysis, city council ultimately resolved to take action to mitigate flooding in Blanco Gardens in the future.
Halff & Associates, a regional consulting firm that focuses on engineering and architecture, presented an analysis of the record-breaking Memorial Day weekend flooding that left hundreds of Central Texans to rebuild their damaged homes.
The analysis, conducted by Halff & Associates—a regional consulting firm which focuses on engineering and architecture—demonstrated that The Woods caused as much as 2.3 feet of additional water to enter homes along River Road.
Before the final analysis was released, Guerrero believed the complex did not worsen flooding, and all of the damage sustained was a result of the magnitude of the disaster itself.
“What you had is you had the equivalent of the volume of water that runs through the Mississippi River came through the Blanco River in one moment,” Guerrero said. “I wanna say it was roughly 150,000 cubic feet per second of water that was going through. That’s the equivalent of 150,000 basketballs going past you each second.”
Guerrero said the Blanco River does not have the same area or capacity as the Mississippi River does to be able to accommodate that type of flow.
“So really what you had is you had a lot of water,” Guerrero said. “You had an unprecedented, historic volume of water that came through our community that no one in probably a hundred years had ever seen.”
Moving forward, a path of reconstruction
Although the floods left destruction in their wake, citizens of San Marcos were presented with an opportunity to come together and help their neighbors not only in the city, but in the county and region in general, Guerrero said.
“It was the first responders; it was our county colleagues; it was the folks from the state; it was every individual whether they were an employee or volunteer, that demonstrated a significant level of work ethic, significant integrity, of passion to be of service,” Guerrero said.
As flood victims continue down the path of recovery, it is important for them to be compliant with the city’s requests in regard to reporting damage from the October flood as well as the May flood, he said.
“I would really encourage folks to do their very best to work cooperatively, not only with their neighbors in rebuilding, but also with the various agencies that are doing their very best to secure the resources they need to be able to rebuild their homes to be able to rebuild their lives,” Guerrero said.
He said that cooperation may be an action as simple as answering the door to city officials going door to door to make damage assessments. On Dec. 11, Guerrero travelled to Washington D.C. with city council members and other city officials to meet with congressional representatives.
“Our goals are to be able to get resources for our people so they can rebuild their lives,” Guerrero said. “And I know that’s (the congressional representatives’) goals as well.”
Following the visit to the nation’s Capitol, U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett announced Feb. 29 that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $25 million to the City of San Marcos.
The funds, approved by Congress in December 2015, are set to meet remaining housing needs, economic development and infrastructure rehabilitation following the destruction and damage of hundreds of homes and small businesses in last year’s historic flash floods.
U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett stated in a city press release that the funds will help San Marcos rebuild in a way that will avoid future flood damage and provide resources needed during recovery.
It is important to realize, specifically with the October flood, that Hays County was not the only community impacted, Guerrero said. Although the representatives represent San Marcos well, they also represent the other affected communities.
San Marcos is just one of hundreds of communities all across Hill Country that were affected by last year’s floods.
“And so they're trying to do their best to bring resources to everyone and so it’s our responsibility to go and say we appreciate what you're doing, here’s where our needs are,” Guerrero said, prior to visiting the capitol. “And then it’s their responsibility to set those priority lists to try and divide up that pie between all of those communities.”
Now that the city has been allocated funds to continue flood recovery, the path to reconstruction has become clearer.
“Since the devastating floods in May and October, the city of San Marcos staff and officials have been working tirelessly to implement solutions to mitigate and prevent the damages caused by repeated flooding in our community,” Guerrero said. “We have brainstormed innovate and creative projects, but the price tags prevented the city from moving forward. This federal assistance will give us the funds to bring those projects to life and reduce the threat of catastrophic flooding in the future.”