Flash floods inundate Central Texas history

Deadly high water a fact of life here.

Nowadays, Central Texans tend to associate deadly natural disasters with holidays.

The Halloween floods on Onion Creek in 2013. The Labor Day wildfires, especially in the Bastrop area, in 2011. The devastating Memorial Day floods in 1981.

Powerful tornadoes, too, ripped through Jarrell on May 27, 1997, the day after Memorial Day.

This vexatious connection is likely to continue after the 2015 Memorial Day weekend, as a double dose of flooding — combined with high winds, hail and lightning — affected almost all of Central Texas.

Although some newcomers understandably associate Texas with its long stretches of severe drought, cycles of flash flooding are just as definitive.

The 2004 documentary movie “Flash Flood Alley,” which recounts the persistent threats to the region, might be appreciated in any newcomer’s welcome package.

For more a more detailed history — going back to the July 5, 1819, deluge that swept through San Antonio’s main plazas — turn to Jonathan Burnett’s comprehensive 2008 book “Flash Floods in Texas” (Texas A&M Press).

Burnett, who details more than 110 major Texas flash floods, carefully tracks pre-existing conditions, daily precipitation records (when possible) and hourly river discharges. He quotes media reports and eyewitness accounts. He also shares rare historical images of the flooding and its aftermath.

“No part of Texas is immune to flash floods,” Burnett writes. “The state lies in the path of sources of copious moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Hurricanes and tropical storms frequently visit our state and release enormous amounts of water as they dissipate over land. Slow-moving cold fronts and the Texas dry line interact with the jet stream to build supercells that can drop torrential amounts of rain in a very short time. Compounding their threat, these supercells have a tendency to strike at night, when the flash flood danger is hidden in darkness.”

Burnett confirms that the Balcones Escarpment, with its rocky soil and steep land gradient, is ideal flash-flood territory.

The writer is alert to dramas: The workers in the powerhouse of the Austin Dam in 1900, “who were drowned in an ultimate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time”; a boy’s survival tale in the middle of the Guadalupe River as some of his rescuers were lost in the 1932 flood; Lampasas residents warring against downtown flood waters on Mother’s Day 1957; houses floating downstream with their New Braunfels residents atop in 1972; the incredible breach of the Canyon Dam spillway along the Guadalupe River in 2002.

Burnett begins his most detailed accounts with the Austin Dam break in April 1900. Started on Nov. 5, 1890, and completed on May 2, 1893, the much-hyped city-owned dam provided inconsistent water power, waterworks and electric power. Soon, Lake McDonald filled with silt and the rock beneath the dam was found to be unsound.

Heavy flows in 1899 tested its strength. More rainfall reached the Colorado River basin in 1900. At approximately 11:20 a.m. on April 7, the “dam suddenly gave way to the muddy Colorado, breaking at a point about 300 feet from the east end.” A 40-foot wave surged toward the powerhouse. Eight workers died.

Austinites evacuated downtown. Water backed up 20 feet high along central creeks. The city’s finances were shattered, and scientists and engineers across the country published studies explaining the dam’s collapse.

Burnett picks up the Central Texas part of the narrative with the floods on Shoal and Waller creeks in April 1915, when debris from the tributaries met in the Colorado River. Eight to 10 inches fell locally on April 22. One newspaper article called it “the greatest in Austin history.”

At the time, folks, especially poor ones, lived right on the creeks. Great waves of destroyed structures rushed downstream; the Sixth Street trolley was washed into a ravine. At least 32 Austinites died, and close to 1,000 were made homeless.

The Sept. 9-10, 1921, storms dropped more than 38 inches of rain near Thrall, east of Taylor, a contender for national records. The floods ran quickly off baked prairie soil to inundate Brushy and Salado creeks, as well as the San Gabriel and Little rivers. People had scant chance to escape; more than 170 Central Texans died.

In 1935, flooding on the Upper Llano River raced downstream, ripping up bridges and other structures along the way. The waters arrived in Austin late at night on June 14, rising from 4.8 feet deep to almost 40 feet. The Congress Avenue Bridge closed — previous ones had washed away in other floods — and policed struggled to keep onlookers from courting danger. The dam didn’t break this time, but water flowed 11 feet deep over it. Famously, a photographer snapped a houseboat going over the dam. It was one of three times that decade that the Colorado ravaged the city.

An extreme flash flood wiped out the U.S. 281 bridge over the Pedernales River at Johnson City and caused widespread damage in the valley in September 1952. A giant wave of water and debris then surged into Lake Travis, which gained 57 feet in less than 24 hours. For the first time in seven years, it was full.

The May 1970 flood of the San Marcos River overwhelmed a third of the city. One old-timer, recalling a 1890 flood, was not impressed: “Just you wait till the Blanco, Sink Springs and Purgatory all flood at the same time; then you’ll see water in the courthouse.”

During the May 1972 New Braunfels flood, the shortest river in Texas — the Comal — turned into “the mightiest and most destructive one in the Lone Star State.” Even though the completed Canyon Dam was thought to protect the town from the more dangerous Guadalupe River, localized storms decimated New Braunfels.

The 1981 Memorial Day flood shocked Austin, lulled into a false sense of safety by the controls supplied by the dams on the Colorado. Yet just as in 1915, a huge wave surged down the Shoal Creek canyon. The overflow, once again, struck at night. Cars and trucks were swept downstream, and businesses along North Lamar Boulevard, accustomed to intermittent water on the road, filled with the muddy stuff.

Dramas abounded.

At 11:30 p.m., a passerby saw a man grasping a traffic sign near West 10th Street and North Lamar Boulevard. As couches and cars floated by, the stranded man jumped onto a camper shell that knocked over the sign. The passerby said he “couldn’t turn my back on the old boy. I would have felt like a heel.” The police stared at the volunteer rescuer as if “I was just some fool. I looked like Darth Vader because my wet suit is all black and my ski vest is black.”

According to an American-Statesman story by Cheryl Coggins and Pete Szilagyi, the rescue party threw a rope down and the rescuer “had to dodge telephone poles that were floating my way.” He reached the victim and tied a rope around him. When police pulled back, the two went directly under water. They popped up — the victim a little later than the rescuer — because the “current was so swift and his sodden cowboy boots weighed him down.”

American-Statesman writer Patrick Taggart remembered being trapped in the flood at Anderson Lane.

“Just after I came off the Anderson Lane overpass, my car collided with what seemed to be a wall of water. I had not seen it coming. The engine died and I realized that I was in about a foot of water. … Almost immediately, a man in a yellow slicker staggered toward my stalled vehicle. ‘Get out!’ he yelled. ‘I thought I’d just stay here ’til it lets up,’ I replied. ‘Well, I’ve been here two minutes and the water has already raised a foot. You better get out. You can replace the car — you can’t replace you.’ The man made sense.”

Taggart found what remained of his car at 4 p.m. the next day.

In the end, 13 people lost their lives. Damage across the city was estimated at $35.5 million. Afterward, Austin reviewed its warning and rescue systems, while initiating rules on impervious cover.

(See below for other big Central Texas cataclysms.)

Note that some of the worst flash floods happened during the depths of droughts in the 1930s and ’50s. Central Texas weather hits you coming and going.

Were you in Austin in 1981?

What was your experience with the Memorial Day floods in 1981? Email your stories and photos to mbarnes@statesman.com. We may publish some online and in print.

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