Memorial Day Floods – Responding in Wimberley
May 23, 2015 started out as many of my days had since May 8, when the State Operations Center first activated as severe weather began to develop across the state. Little did I know that, by the end of the day, the lives of many of my friends and neighbors would be changed forever, and I would be challenged like never before.
I began working at TDEM in January, but I have been involved in emergency services for over 28 years. I’ve been a responder during many of the nation’s biggest flood disasters including Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike as well as several other significant flood events. I’ve taught swiftwater rescue, boat operation and helicopter rescue swimmer courses across the United States. Nothing compares to the challenges I would face over the next two weeks.
At 04:00 my alarm went off. I live in Wimberley, which is about 45 miles southwest of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Austin headquarters and home of the State Operations Center. By 05:45, I’m at the SOC. As I prepare for my shift as the TDEM Air Operations Liaison, I’m getting briefed about the night’s activities by Steven Bjune, the Texas Task Force 1 night shift representative. Next, I make my morning call to Brett Dixon and the Joint Air Ground Coordination Team in College Station to brief them on any overnight SOC changes and get updates on aircraft status across the state. All in all, it was a normal start to normal level of chaos during a state activation.
The spot from where a home was washed away from its foundation.
As the day continued with briefings, meetings, and planning sessions, I watched the severe weather developing in the Hill Country around Kendalia and Blanco. I had been texting a friend of mine, Travis Maher with Texas Task Force 1, who is also a captain in the Wimberley Fire Department, about ongoing rescues in Spring Branch and Boerne. Travis was assigned as a water team manager and was in the San Antonio area with swiftwater boat squads. We were receiving reports that over six inches of rain had fallen in just over an hour in the Blanco area. Having lived in the Wimberley valley for over 20 years, I knew that things could get really bad with that amount of rain upstream. I made a call to Kharley Smith, the Hays County Emergency Management Coordinator; we talked about the rain amounts and what it could mean to the Blanco River. We both agreed that the Blanco River would be rising into flood stage, but neither of us could have predicted what was about to happen to so many living along the river.
I received a phone call from Chief Mark Padier in Caldwell County. Chief Padier was concerned about over 100 tourists who were camping at an RV park near the San Marcos River for the Memorial Day weekend. Caldwell County was going through the process of coming up with a plan of when to evacuate campers if needed. Chief Padier and I talked for several minutes and, as Wimberley does for Blanco, I Told Chief Padier I’d give him a call if Wimberley got busy with calls. I really didn’t expect to talk to him again so soon.
Little Arkansas Crossing – the flood waters removed the asphalt from the roadway and destroyed the low water bridge.
Around 20:00 I was giving my last bit of pass on for the evening and headed home to what I thought was going to be a nice day off from the SOC. I continued to watch the weather and the climbing rainfall estimates for the Blanco River watershed. During my drive home I called and spoke with Wimberley Fire Chief Carroll Czichos (hands free of course). I passed along the rainfall estimates that we were getting in the SOC, and he said he would make some phone calls to Blanco Fire Department members who live along the river. Since there are no river gauges along the Blanco River upstream of Wimberley, the phone-a-friend system is the only warning we get about rising water along the river. Chief Czichos was quick to call me back and report that water had risen sharply in Blanco as the rain continued to fall. Several minutes later Chief Czichos called again to ask where I was on my commute home. Hays County Sheriff’s Office had just paged out North Hays County Fire Department to a tornado on the ground in Dripping Springs. By chance, that’s exactly where I was on my drive home. Chief Czichos passed on the exact location of the tornado, which was about a mile north of my location as I turned south on the final leg of my commute home. Although it was raining fairly heavy, I didn’t have any reservations about continuing to drive south. However, about eight miles later, I began to regret that decision.
RR12 Bridge – Water crested more than 8’ above the RR12 Bridge which sits 42’ above the river.
The rain was now coming down in sheets to the point that I had zero visibility. The increasing wind shook my Chevy Tahoe. I called Chief Czichos back to get a weather report, but we couldn’t hear each over the noise from the wind and rain. All I could think was, I guess I found the tornado! About five minutes later the wind slowed enough that I could see the striping on the road through the driving rain. Concerned that I could be struck by another car because of the poor visibility and where I had stopped on this two-lane road, I decided to start to move again, heading south. I was able to get a call out to Chief Czichos, and he reported that the rain cell had just dumped a huge amount north and west of Wimberley.
The Wimberley Fire Department, Hays County and city of Wimberley had started normal procedures for area flooding. This meant closing roads that are prone to flooding, making reverse 911 calls to homes lowest to the flood plain and also calling contacts upstream for first hand reports. Those reports continued to get worse. One of the upstream ranchers, who has lived on the
Fischer Store Bridge (river left view)– The flood waters floated the bridge off its pillars, isolating residents.
I told Chief Czichos that I would stop by my house to get a change of clothes then meet him at the fire station. Wimberley is a volunteer fire department, but it has several trained swiftwater personnel. But, due to the last few years of drought many of the volunteers have had limited or no real-world experience in high-risk rescue operations. This was about to change.
As I was about to turn into my subdivision, the first water rescue call came in. It was from a woman who lived about eight miles west of Wimberley. She had four feet of water in her home, and it was rising quickly. As a responder, I have learned to always keep gear with me. You can’t always predict when things may go seriously wrong for someone. Instead of going home, I continued on to the fire station. The first engine with our rescue boat in tow had just rolled out of the station as I arrived. So, I dropped the clothes I had on, donned my dry suit and PFD, grabbed a second rescuer, and away we went.
Once in the area of the caller, we encountered several small flood crossings until coming to the end of the road. This road is elevated and over a quarter of a mile from where the river normally flows. When we arrived, it had been overtaken by flood waters. After assessing where we were in relation to the caller’s home along with the risk to the caller and our team, we made our plan to use the rescue boat and evacuate her. This may seem like an easy decision, but we had reservations because it was a high-risk operation and we had no backup.
We could see telephone wires just above the surface of the water, which could mean that live power lines where nearby. I would need to be mistake free as I navigated the boat through the trees and other obstacles. There was not another boat coming, and the helicopters were not flying due to the weather and night restrictions. We approached the home from the off-stream side and secured the boat next to the second story balcony. We could hear the river raging and the sound of trees and structures breaking on the other side of the house. The home owner asked if we could take her pets out of the house. Before I knew it we had a bird tucked in a suitcase, a cat in a pet carrier, a standard poodle and our survivor secured on the floor of our rescue boat. This was just a preview of the chaos the night would bring.
Once we had our survivor and her pets safely back to shore, the crew who helped us launch advised us that there were two more calls pending. We quickly loaded and headed to others in distress. The calls were now coming from downstream and closer to Wimberley. As the calls continued to come in, I quickly realized I needed to call on my friends.
Having spent the last couple of weeks working in the SOC, I knew where state assets had been prepositioned and about how long it would take to get them. I made calls to Travis Maher requesting his boat squads; to Stephen Bjune to get a report of available assets and about sending Texas Task Force 1 resources to us; to Brett Dixon to have the helicopters ready to fly as soon as daylight broke; and to Chief Czichos so he could contact the county EMC, start the official resource request for mutual and state aid and, most importantly, start warning people of what was happening on the Blanco River.
Fisher Store Bridge (river right view) – Homes were destroyed as the river rose to record levels.
Hays County dispatch had already started reverse 911 calls to warn residences along the river. Other city and county agencies were going into neighborhoods to warn those living near the river. The situation was about to get bad. I thought it was also very important to call Chief Padier in Caldwell County. As politically correct as possible, I told him that, although I had no legal authority to order an evacuation in his county, he should, “Get those campers out!” About a week later I saw Martin Richey, the Caldwell County EMC. He told me they had used that information to enact a mandatory evacuation along the river, and the evacuation definitely saved lives in Caldwell County.
As the night continued, the calls for help kept coming. The alert pager on my phone was going off every one or two minutes with another address. I can still hear those tones sometimes when things are quiet. The calls were coming so fast and the distress was increasing with each caller that we were quickly over tasked. All local first responders were engaged in some sort of evacuation. Sheriff’s deputies and constables were in neighborhoods using their vehicle loud speakers and lights to guide people to higher ground. EMS units were monitoring people in houses until rescue units could arrive. Fire department teams were moving survivors to collection points on high ground. Other state and regional rescue units began to arrive about 90 minutes after the first person was pulled from her home, and they were a very welcome site.
The Wimberley Fire station had become the staging area and command post for rescue efforts in the valley. Travis had arrived with the water teams from Texas Task Force 1. He and Chief Czichos began sectioning the river and assigning teams to sections instead of addresses. We now knew that there were no safe places anywhere near the Blanco River and everyone in or around it needed to be evacuated. Calls were coming from both sides of the river, but by midnight Wimberley had been virtually cut in half. The Ranch Road 12 Bridge over the Blanco River is normally more than 45 feet above the water, but it was covered with rushing water and debris. One fire truck attempted to cross the bridge when the water first began flowing over it. They got about a third of the way across before they knew it wouldn’t make it all the way. By the time they were able to back the truck off of the bridge, rapidly flowing water covered its tires. The rushing water was rising that fast.
The rescue and evacuation efforts lasted most of the night. Sometime around 04:00 the water started to recede. The efforts now turned toward clearing homes and finding anyone who might be injured. The high school had opened its gym as a shelter for those displaced by the flooding. Buses were being used to move people from collection points to the school, and volunteers had come to provide food, blankets and clothing for those affected. It was truly a whole community effort.
Destroyed home – Even homes once thought to be out of any flood danger were destroyed.
When the sun rose the next morning, we began to realize the level of devastation that had occurred. I made my way back to the command post from the river where I had been operating all night to find that some of our own were affected by this disaster. One of our firefighters managed to escape along with her two boys as the water destroyed her home. Chief Czichos lost a major part of his family business. The Czichos family has operated a popular resort on the Blanco River since the 1950s. It is always busy throughout the summer, but now the cabins enjoyed by so many generations of families were gone.
The next phase of this disaster was now underway. There was a lot of work ahead of us, and organizationally we were suffering. With our chief being personally affected by the floods, our assistant chief not available, our captain (Travis Maher) assigned to Texas Task Force 1, I was left to serve as the incident commander for Wimberley. I knew I could do the job, but it’s just not my normal function during a disaster. I’m a rescue guy; not an incident commander. Until now. It felt like being in class, and, at the very end, the instructor announces that there will be test covering everything that she just taught. And I’m sitting in the chair, thinking that I should have paid more attention.
There were many issues that we needed to address. Search efforts where in full operation now. Public safety and security were also high on the list. We had unstable structures, missing people, and open shelters. The essential needs for the community were out. This was the biggest disaster ever to hit Wimberley. So, just like in a rescue, when in need, call your friends for help. I sent a request to Hays County to deploy a state incident management team to Wimberley.
Initially there was some confusion between Wimberley and Hays County about what we were asking for and what they believed we needed. San Marcos, the Hays county seat, is downstream from Wimberley. They are now being impacted by the same severe weather as Wimberley, and they were also overwhelmed by heavy flooding. Eventually, we received help. Jimmy Mullins and Guy Duncan from the Texas A&M Forestry Service arrived. It was significant that these two came, because I had just spent the last several days in the SOC with them, where we worked together in the Emergency Services Branch. They were just the people I needed to help us get a handle on this disaster. Together we began to identify our problems and develop plans.
The effort to address the immediate needs was never short of people who were willing to help. This was truly a team effort, from Chief Kidd to Mike Miller, Jack Doebbler and Summer Ray as well as so many other state, county and local officials. They all were there for the community. As a planner, it is so important during those first hours to set the tone for the entire event. We did everything we could to let the community know that, yes we are hurt, but we will get through this together.
As the rescue efforts slowed, my role of managing the disaster grew. I have been to the classes and done the drills, but nothing can completely prepare someone like a real event. While we continued to identify exactly who was missing and to develop search plans, other aspects like donation and volunteer management, security, debris removal, documentation of efforts and damage assessments were all now sharing the stage. The flooding incident had grown to a countywide event. Hays County activated its emergency operations center in San Marcos with Kharley acting as the incident commander on behalf of the Hays county judge. Wimberley became a branch of the incident, and I became the branch director and remained in that role until we closed the branch on the morning of June 8.
From the tragic loss of life to the unbelievable amount of destruction, the Wimberley valley will never be the same. The beautiful cypress trees that lined the cool waters of the Blanco River are gone and the terrain is forever changed. The next heavy rain storm may cause those affected by the flood to look at the river with anxiety, uncertain of what may happen. But this community is strong, and we have come together for each other in a time of need and shown the world the resilience of a community, a county and a state.
I appreciate so much everyone who helped us during this time; through your actions, your kind thoughts and your warm hearts, we will recover. Thank you.