Searching for normal, a year after the flood
Central Texas residents are still trying to rebuild and move forward after the deadly Memorial Day disaster in 2015
Although he has lived in Central Texas long enough to don a cowboy hat and talk with a twang, Mike Sullivan grew up in a part of Columbus, Ohio, where flooding wasn’t a concern. His wife, Gay, is from a small Louisiana town where it can be difficult to tell where the land ends and the water begins.
“That’s why I don’t think anything of flooding, of water. See, he’s from Ohio and he’s petrified,” said Gay, 76, who wears colorful clothes and is chatty with a Cajun accent. “So he has his hat on and he’s ready to go all the time.”
“And a flashlight,” Mike, 78, added.
His wariness may have saved their lives last Memorial Day weekend, when flooding killed 14 in Central Texas and damaged or destroyed more than 2,100 homes in Hays County. A year later, many who live along the Blanco River, including the Sullivans, are still recovering from a disaster that unfolded within a few hours.
With forecasts calling for a heavy storm to pummel the Hill Country after weeks of rain had saturated the ground, Mike decided to stay up late last May 23 and monitor the Blanco River, which laps the edge their property on Flite Acres Road in Wimberley. As the night wore on, the water began rising faster and flowing more violently than it had in their 15 years living in the two-story house. Around midnight, he decided to wake up Gay and make an escape.
“I told her, ‘Boy, the river’s really coming up like nothing I’d ever seen before.’”
With Gay still in her pajamas, they left the house, woke up their neighbors and began to make their way up a hill.
“Boy, it was black. There wasn’t a star or anything in the sky,” Gay said. Mike: “And the river was just roaring. I mean, it got loud.”
Then Mike realized they had left their cat, Tiger, and went back to the house, where water had reached the first floor.
“When I went into the house, the water was up to my knees,” he said. “Couldn’t have been in there three minutes, and the water rose from (my knees) up to my waist.”
“He could have been swept away, easy,” Gay said, “because it went up another 10 feet.”
They made it to a barn at the top of the hill and slept on concrete. They haven’t slept a night in their house since.
After the flood, the Sullivans — who jokingly call themselves the Brady Bunch because they each have five children from previous marriages — stayed with Gay’s son in South Austin for seven months before moving into Mike’s son’s RV. It’s parked on their property in Wimberley, where, a year later, the couple is still overseeing repairs to their home.
Although the past year has been difficult for the Sullivans, they are quick to point out how much worse others had it. Many of their neighbors’ houses were reduced to cement slabs. Some who needed repairs didn’t get as much help from FEMA and volunteers as they did. And search crews are still scowering the banks of the Blanco for the bodies of two children from Corpus Christi.
One-hundred-million years ago, Central Texas was underwater, and marine organisms deposited a layer of calcium carbonate that became limestone. Eighty-million years later, the tectonic plate under the Gulf of Mexico began subsiding and put pressure on the adjacent one, creating a bulge in that limestone along the Balcones fault that would develop into a chain of hills, cliffs, caves and springs.
Geologists call it the Balcones Escarpment, residents and tourists call it the Texas Hill Country, and meteorologists call it “flash flood alley.”
The elevation causes storms rolling in from both the Pacific and the Gulf to linger over the area, dumping huge amounts of water onto a watershed with steep inclines and a rocky limestone surface that rolls water off its back rather than absorb it like a thick layer of soil would.
On May 23, 2015, all of those factors, along with the already-saturated ground, combined to produce a record-setting flash flood after heavy rain fell upstream of Wimberley in southern Blanco County, said Nick Hampshire, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“We got so much rainfall in May, it just kind of set the stage,” he said. “It couldn’t take anything. Everything that fell basically ran off, so you got 9 to 13 inches in four to six hours. It was just so much water.”
The “wall of water,” as it is frequently described, was measured at 42 feet in Wimberley before it wiped out the water-level gauge. The U.S. Geological Services has since estimated that it peaked at 44.9 feet. The previous record, from May 29, 1929, was 33.3 feet.
The flood killed 12 people along the Blanco River and wiped out or damaged all but one crossing of the river in Hays County. The next day, two people died in Travis and Williamson counties in flooding from the same storm system.
In Hays County, the flood destroyed or severely damaged 2,100 homes, said Kharley Smith, the county’s emergency management coordinator. Following a disaster declaration by President Barack Obama, the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid out $13.8 million to Hays County residents for temporary housing, emergency repairs and other costs. The Small Business Administration, which gives low-cost loans to homeowners and businesses following disasters, doled out another $11 million. The county estimates that the flood caused in damage to public infrastructure.
The most harrowing story from the night came from the house at 100 Deer Crossing Lane in Wimberley, where three families from Corpus Christi were vacationing. The flood tore the house off its pilings and sent it floating down the river until it crashed into the Ranch Road 12 bridge, killing eight people from the group. The lone survivor, 36-year-old Jonathan McComb, lost his wife and two children.
The bodies of his daughter Leighton McComb, who was 4, and his friend’s son Will Charba, 6, were never recovered, despite search-and-rescue crews from across the state descending upon the area and canvassing hundreds of miles of riverline.
A year later, the search isn’t over, said Smith. Crews went back through a part of the Blanco River in Kyle this month. “We have not stopped. It’s been a continuous process,” Smith said.
The flooding led to numerous policy changes and emergency-preparedness projects. FEMA is implementing significantly expanded flood plain maps that will regulate construction in flood-prone areas. The city of Wimberley now requires riverfront properties to have landlines to address the difficulty of reaching out-of-towners with emergency alerts. And the county added five flood gauges to replace the one that was washed away.
“The county is much more prepared to handle an emergency of that magnitude,” Smith said.
‘Just getting over it’
After 37 years of marriage, Gay and Mike seem to have developed a way of tag-team story-telling. She offers up the meat of the story, and Mike punctuates her tale with a clarifying detail or a punchline, leading to the inevitable conclusion: uproarious laughter from Gay and a wry smile from Mike.
Explaining how they had more wildlife on their property before the flood uprooted many of their trees, Gay said they had “deer and ducks and geese and turkey.”
“And wild pigs,” Mike said. “I’ve seen their results but I haven’t seen them.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, they sat facing each other with a table between them, like a small diner booth set, in the RV, recounting how life has changed since the flood.
When they were living with Gay’s son in Manchaca, the Sullivans would drive to Wimberley every day to care for Gay’s brother, who lives in an assisted-living facility, and to start the process of rebuilding.
“It was really hard to make yourself do anything. … We’d come down here to look and we’d just go, ‘Oh, we have to leave.’ We just had to leave because you don’t know where to get started and you don’t know whether to get started,” said Gay, who owns a novelty boutique store, the Bazaar, with locations in Wimberley and Austin. “I think we’re just getting over it. That’s how we’re starting to feel.”
After getting sick of the commute, they moved into the RV. Despite the tight confines and the surreal experience of living in a camper next to a home they own, the Sullivans both say they don’t mind the arrangement.
“Go look back there: It’s a big king-size bed with a TV,” Gay said, followed by Mike: “And air conditioner.” Gay again: “And look at the bathroom!”
It’s getting easier psychologically, Gay said, because they have accomplished a few major steps around the house and hope to move back in by the end of the summer.
One of the first projects they completed was the reconstruction of their deck, which offered a pleasant view of the Blanco until the river snapped it off and carried it away. On nice evenings this spring, the Sullivans walked out of the RV and through the hollowed-out house to sit among the tools and piles of 2-by-4s and watch the river.
“We do sit on the back porch sometimes,” Mike said. “We like to do that.”
After the flood, local governments established the Blanco River Regional Recovery Team, or BR3T, a nonprofit that is leading the rebuilding effort in Hays, Blanco, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties.
So far, the group has rebuilt 44 homes, repaired another 100 structures and completed smaller projects like clean-ups on an additional 500, said Richard Hildreth, who moved to Central Texas after the flood to serve as the group’s communications director through the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
The job is far from over, Hildreth said. There are 130 families whose cases have been processed and are awaiting assistance and another 400 whose cases haven’t been processed yet at all, he said. The recovery effort will take two to three more years.
“There is a big difference between long-term recovery and short-term recovery,” he said. “There is a big emotional difference because after you’re back in operational status, a lot of people forget that there are still people that don’t have homes, don’t have jobs and are still being impacted.”
Between donations and volunteer labor, the BR3T has collected about $8 million but expects to need about $25 million to $30 million in total.
The recovery effort took a hit Oct. 30 when another historic flood swept through Central Texas, said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, whose precinct includes Wimberley.
“We had been pushing obviously pretty hard within the county for several consecutive months and were just really starting to see some light and push our long-term recovery organization when we got hit by the October floods,” Conley said. “Our resources were just really strained at that point.”
But the work went on. With assistance from the Texas Department of Transportation, the county has fixed or rebuilt every bridge on the Blanco River, including the Fischer Store Road Bridge west of Wimberley that was completely destroyed.
Many other recovery and preparedness projects are underway or are being planned: a co-located emergency response center for all jurisdictions in the county, detention spillways along the river and an update to the low-water crossing alert system.
“It really has become part of the daily routine of the county. It’s something that we work on everyday,” Conley said.
‘First time since the flood’
Every year on Mother’s Day, the Sullivan family — or however many of Gay and Mike’s 10 children, their children’s spouses, 17 grandkids and one great-grandchild can make it — has a crawfish boil at the house in Wimberley. Gay initially thought that they would have to move the party this year because of the house’s condition, but she changed her mind.
So the kids brought the cooking equipment, set up fold-out tents and tables outside the house and dined as they always have on Mother’s Day — except that the party area was adjacent to a cluster of out-of-place household including Mike’s mud-caked tools, a disconnected toilet and wood and glass panels destined for later stages of the home renovation.
Gay said she was happy she decided to host, despite the added hassle.
“It just seemed like it was important this time,” Gay said. “I don’t know why.”
Aerial video by Rodolfo Gonzalez / American-Statesman
See more interactive before-and-after photos:
Wimberley then and now