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One year later along Onion Creek, future uncertain for many

A year ago, Diana Rivera’s family awoke to a torrent of water streaming down their street and into their home near Onion Creek. When the water started moving the family cars, Rivera knew they needed to get out of the house.

Rivera’s future son-in-law, Victor Arevalo, ran to the backyard for a ladder Rivera had borrowed. He got the entire family up on the roof, where they waited hours for the water to subside.

The flood would destroy or damage 659 structures and kill three people in Travis County. Without Arevalo and that ladder, Rivera said, her family wouldn’t have made it out alive.

A year after the Halloween floods, the Southeast Austin neighborhoods around Onion Creek remain a land of abandoned homes, broken dreams, rebuilt lives and some still uncertain futures.

Some families have left, traumatized by last year’s floods, which reached 7 feet in some homes. Others, like Rivera, stayed and rebuilt their houses but have decided to sell to the city’s buyout program as more money to evacuate the area has rolled into the city’s coffers. Still others have decided that they’re staying, undeterred by the threat of future floods and the fact that the City Council could use its eminent domain powers to clear the area.

Since the floods, the city has three times approved money for flood buyouts — a total of $129 million to buy out 486 homes — while Travis County has provided its own buyout program for homes outside city limits. As of late October, the city has made offers on 116 homes in the area affected by the floods and bought 100, said Wendy Morgan, a city spokeswoman. Sixty-three homes have been demolished, and nine more are in the demolition process.

The city has discussed offers with the homeowners who were covered in the December buyout, and it is contacting and appraising the homes covered in the June buyouts. The Watershed Protection Department is still deciding which homes to offer buyouts for with the money approved in September.

More than 430 properties in the area are still considered at risk for flooding and need to be bought out, said Mapi Vigil, managing engineer for the Watershed Protection Department. In 2015, the city is counting on between $8 million and $10 million for buyouts from the federal government.

For months after the flood, Rivera crashed with friends and family, going from “couch to couch.” She wasn’t on the city’s initial buyout list in December, and, when she petitioned to get on it, she was told there wasn’t enough money.

In February, with no clear answers from the city about her future, she decided to rebuild her house using money from her flood insurance. She poured $60,000 back into the house and was able to move back in this summer.

In August, the city offered to buy her out. She struggled with the decision.

“I lived at that house for seven years,” she said. “I did it by myself. I was a single mom, and my daughter was 17 at the time” she moved in, Rivera said.

But the city offered her $127,000 and help with the relocation process on a home that she had bought for $100,000. She’ll be moving out of her old home and into a different house in South Austin on Monday.

Like Rivera, Dan Keisling wasn’t on the initial emergency buyout list, so he had to rebuild. The damage to his house was so bad that he called to file his initial insurance claim while he and his family were still on their roof during the flood.

“It looked like a war zone,” Keisling said. “It looked insane. Cars floated into houses.”

The day after the flood, Keisling got a few friends together and began to clean up his house. Three weeks later, he hired contractors to start rebuilding. By Christmas, he was back in his old home.

But Keisling had full-coverage flood insurance that paid for the rebuilding of his home and everything inside the house, which had been recently renovated. When all was said and done, his insurance and a donation from his employer paid for everything except a new fence he put up after the flood.

Others in the neighborhood weren’t as lucky. Some of his neighbors, who had lived in the area for 30 years, were uninsured or underinsured, Keisling said.

“There are other people here that live paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “They’re going to move out of the city because they can’t afford anything. They’re going to Buda or Kyle. They’re going to struggle.”

Ruth Kaplan, who runs a seamstress business out of her home, had to take out $10,000 from her savings to live off of when she wasn’t listed in the initial buyout.

Without a home to run her business from, Kaplan was unemployed for several months. She later took $170,000 from her retirement savings to put money up for a new home before the city bought out her house.

“The minute they announced a (new) buyout (in June), I was on it like white on rice,” she said.

But adding to the stress, those who take buyouts are given 90 days after they accept a deal to leave their homes. In a tight housing market, Keisling said, some of his old neighbors can’t find new residences in that time and have to spend money on short-term living and storage arrangements.

The city’s Watershed Protection Department says those timelines are flexible, and homeowners can ask for more time depending on their situation. But many homeowners aren’t aware of that flexibility.

Keisling moved into another house in July and is renting out his old home near Onion Creek. He was offered a deal in the June buyouts and is considering it strongly because he doesn’t know how another flood could affect the home’s value.

But there are still those in the neighborhood who intend to fight the city’s plan to evacuate the area.

Susan Willard, president of the Onion Creek Park Neighborhood Alliance, is one of the holdouts and says there are about 20 families who plan to fight the city to stay.

Willard, who hasn’t been offered a buyout, said her neighborhood has come together since the floods last year and that the area is slowly going back to the way it was.

She said many of those who want to stay have planned for another flood and are better prepared. (Willard says she plans to buy a small boat to be able to get out in the case of another flood.) Others, she said, can’t afford to move anywhere else in the city.

“The city has given decent offers, but they can’t put us in a neighborhood like ours that has the beautiful greenbelt and deer coming in,” she said. “A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck; they can’t afford to live somewhere else.”

And some, like herself, she said, just don’t want to go.

“To force people out that don’t want to go, that’s wrong,” she said.

Rivera, who will leave the neighborhood next week, said she feels like she’s abandoning ship. But like many others, the traumatic memories from the Halloween floods convinced her to take the offer.

During another big storm this year, Keisling stayed up until 3 a.m. monitoring the rain online and looking out the window to see how high the water was. His neighbors left around midnight and didn’t return until the next day.

“I told my fiancée, we can’t do this,” he said. “Every time it rains, what am I going to do? We’re going to get married; we can’t have a kid in this house.”

A few blocks away, Rivera, who watched the rain from her living room in subsequent storms, came to the same conclusion.

If the water came again, there was no way out. She had given the ladder back.

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