Fourteen people in Hays County were left dead after the area was ravaged by the historic Memorial Day weekend flood, and hundreds were displaced—left to rebuild and repair their homes after losing everything.
During the May flood, the Blanco River crested at a record high of 42.3 feet, surpassing the magnitude of the 1929 flood in which the river rose to 32 feet. Just six months after the natural disaster made history, Hill Country was struck by yet another flood.
On Oct. 30, Hays County residents awoke to news of tornadic activity in the area, which developed into yet another severe flash flood later in the day.
A community holding onto hope
Although the October weather event destroyed what some had worked for six months to repair following the disaster in May, Mayor Daniel Guerrero said victims must not lose hope.
“You have to be able to continue to move forward to invest toward your future,” Guerrero said.
As flood victims recover, it is important for them to tend to their own mental health needs, said Kristi Wyatt, director of communications and intergovernmental relations for the city of San Marcos.
The Blanco River Regional Recovery Team, otherwise known as BR3T, is a nonprofit organization that offers services to not only help flood victims rebuild their lives physically, but also emotionally.
“They do have case managers that can assist people with building,” Wyatt said. “But also—and I think it’s less talked about—they have a spiritual and emotional needs group that can actually help you if you’re going through depression, and a lot of people are.”
Guerrero and his family were flooded out of their house in Blanco Gardens during the May flood, and the mayor said he relates to the mental challenges that follow a trauma like that.
“(I know what it’s like) to walk into your home and not have a floor, to not have any walls, to see all of the different aspects that make up your life just suddenly be gone,” Guerrero said. “For me, personally, what I take from that is those are just material items and can be replaced over time.”
San Marcos was fortunate enough to not lose any people, but that was not the case for neighboring cities like Wimberley, he said.
“And that’s probably the most significant hardship, is knowing that those people can’t be replaced,” Guerrero said. “I hope that those families will find peace over time and that they will reach out to BR3T or to any other resource that they may have available to them to seek help and support.”
Considering flood risks
Suburban homes and businesses were not the only venues affected by the floods. Multiple student housing complexes were grasped by the hands of powerful flood waters.
In some cases, residents had to be evacuated or move to upper floors. And in other cases, the first floor of apartment buildings such as The Lodge at Southwest were left uninhabitable until the water damage could be repaired.
The floods sparked discussion among the student community about what to consider when choosing an apartment and whether or not flood risk should be a factor.
However, Wyatt said students can’t plan for unprecedented events such as the May flood.
“A disaster can happen anywhere; a fire can happen anywhere; a tornado can come through any area,” Wyatt said. “So no matter where you live, there’s always a possibility of a natural disaster. I think it’s the preparedness and not necessarily like, ’I’m gonna choose the safest location,’ because no place is really safe from that.”
Even though students can’t control or plan for natural disasters, Wyatt said they, along with all local residents, should take advantage of technology when preparing themselves.
“So knowing you’re signed up for alerts, knowing where to get disaster information and making sure that you’re following the city’s social media or that you’re plugged in, in some kind of way, to get information—I think is of utmost importance,” Wyatt said.
Taking safety measures and bearing personal responsibilities
There are other safety measures that residents can practice to keep not only themselves, but first responders out of harm’s way as well, said Les Stephens, San Marcos fire chief.
Stephens said the first and most important of these safety measures is heeding the warning “Turn Around Don’t Drown.” He said although it may sound like common sense, people often do not pay attention or understand the risks of driving through high water.
Moving vehicles can be swept off the road in the presence of only 6-8 inches of depth, Stephens said.
“What we wind up doing is people who weren’t in harm’s way put themselves in harm’s way by driving around the barricades, by refusing to obey the signals that are there,” Stephens said.
During the October flood, there was a case in which a driver ignored a police officer’s orders and chose to drive through high water anyway. The driver’s car was washed away and then a first responder was needed to rescue the person.
“Eventually we have to put people in harm’s way to go get (people who drive through high water),” Stephens said. So the first thing for the students, or just anyone, is avoid that. You create problems in a situation where resources are already stretched thin.”
Additionally, citizens who live in multi-story apartment complexes should make arrangements with their upstairs neighbors so they know they can be safe by getting to higher ground in the event of a flood, Stephens said.
Personal responsibility plays a big role in keeping people safe during disasters, he said.
“If you didn’t leave and heed the early warnings, it’s not necessarily possible for us to get out there and rescue everyone when they recognize that the situation has deteriorated,” Stephens said. “(Take) responsibility. If you see that something is happening and you’re in an area that’s affected, leave early.”
Humanity in the wake of disaster
Through all of the tragedy and danger that the Central Texas floods brought, Guerrero said the community was given an opportunity to come together more than ever before.
“As soon as flood waters receded in the May flood, you saw neighbors coming to help their neighbors,” Guerrero said. “You had people coming from across town that were coming to help strangers, in a sense, to help those they may have known perhaps from school or work and now they’re coming to help them piece their lives back together.”
Guerrero said the events opened his eyes to see exactly how many people were willing to put themselves at risk to help secure the safety of others.
“Whether those be first responders or people that are a part of the city or county organization that really stepped out of their usual roles, and stepped into a role that was more geared toward public safety, that was huge,” Guerrero said. “I was really pleased to see the community, not just the local community, but the world wide community, come and share some support.”
Seeing the satisfaction on the faces of first responders after they saved the lives of those endangered by the flood was the most rewarding part of Stephens’ job as fire chief.
“That makes all of the training and all the preparation and all of the mundane, day-to-day stuff that we do, worth while,” Stephens said. “To see those guys be successful at putting their training and their equipment and their physical abilities to work and affecting the rescue of someone is pretty good stuff.”
Guerrero said the humanity of people managed to shine through the darkness of the floods. He was touched to see people of the community as well as citizens of surrounding cities and counties to extend a helping hand.
“These natural disasters don’t know municipal boundaries,” Guerrero said. “They don’t. It impacts all of us. To see the kindness of communities that were wanting to provide us with people, with resources, with assets we may not have (was significant).”
Mayor Steve Adler of Austin allowed Guerrero and Hays County Judge Bert Cobb use his helicopter in order to get a visual assessment from the air of what the community looked like after the May flood.
Along with people volunteering their time to help flood victims, Guerrero said a gesture like that meant a lot to the community.
“It’s certainly the kindness of folks, but it’s certainly recognizing that even though we’re our own communities recognized by municipal boundaries, those go away when your neighbor is in danger or when your neighbor is in need,” Guerrero said. “We certainly look forward to being able to repay the kindness of other communities that they shared with us.”