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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Central Texas Flood

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The first day it started raining, people took it as good news.

“Central Texas Drouth Ends,” the Sept. 9, 1921 Austin Statesman proclaimed. The page-one story’s first paragraph set the scene: “Breaking a drouth that had prevailed for more than two months, drying up small streams and water holes and causing heavy losses to farmers and stockmen, rain …began falling throughout Central Texas early this morning.”

By noon that Friday, the weather station at the University of Texas had measured 1.3 inches, the first measurable rainfall in the capital city since July 8.

The meteorological factors leading to the drouth-breaker began the morning of September 6, when a tropical storm developed in the Bay of Campeche. By afternoon, the storm had compacted, with towering rain-filled clouds swirling around a small eye. The storm would have become even more powerful had it been farther out in the Gulf of Mexico with more time over warm water, but prevailing winds pushed it ashore at Vera Cruz only 24 hours after its birth.

After lashing that coastal city, the rain-swollen system veered northward to Texas. Crossing the Rio Grande the night of September 7, the storm decreased in strength but remained pregnant with precipitation as it drifted toward the parched, unsuspecting middle of the state.

In San Antonio, a light rain began on September 8. The rain continued the next day, growing more intense. Lingering over the northern portion of Bexar County, the storm dropped a foot-and-a-half of rain.

For the people of San Antonio, the rain could not have fallen in a worse place—Bexar County’s highest, rockiest terrain. Running down hillsides and draws, rain water filled Apache and Olmos Creeks and surged into the San Antonio River, bearing down on the Alamo City.

Sudden rises on Alazan and Martinez Creeks sent water ripping though low-lying areas on the city’s west and south sides. “Rescue workers began helping dwellers of the flooded districts to safety as early as 11 o’clock,” the San Antonio Express reported.

“Entire families were washed away,” police officer Jack Thompson said the next morning. “The cries of the helpless and the barking of hundreds of dogs made the night one of terror. We saw people within twenty-five feet of us, yet unable to reach them.”

By midnight, nearly fifty houses had been washed away, “churned into a shapeless mass of debris,” as the newspaper put it.

At 1:30 a.m. Saturday, a 12-foot wave swept across much of downtown. People still up and about raced up stairs in the city’s high-rise buildings, barely ahead of the lapping flood water. Others, trapped outside, tumbled downstream.

An extra put out by the San Antonio Light declared: “This flood is the greatest disaster in the history of San Antonio. Such structures as…the St. Anthony Hotel…, several hospitals, the central telephone exchange, the city hall and police and fire headquarters and countless other structures along the low-lying river valley were in the pathway of the flood.”

But the storm had not finished with Texas. From San Antonio, the weather system moved northeast, dumping 18.23 inches of rain on Austin. Six persons drowned along Onion Creek south of town.

Williamson County took a much more severe blow. The north and south forks of the San Gabriel went on a rampage. At its juncture with Brushy Creek, the river grew ten miles wide. The Little River also flooded in Milam County, cresting at 53.2 feet in Cameron. Continuing its northeastern track, the storm left the Brazos River running 54 feet deep at Bryan.

It took a while for the enormity of the disaster to sink in. Floodwaters washed out telephone and telegraph lines, making communication virtually impossible. Washouts also interrupted railroad service, further hampering the spread of news. Except for the larger urban areas, communities coped in isolation with the flood, not realizing the disintegrating tropical storm had affected 10,000 square miles of Texas. Three days went by before the Associated Press reported that more than 200 people had died.

With 51 deaths and 13 missing and presumed dead, San Antonio got most of the headlines, but other areas endured a higher death toll. Williamson County lost 93 people in the flood, 87 of those victims in and around Taylor.

The final death toll went in the record books as 224, but some deaths may have gone unrecorded. It was the deadliest flood in Texas history, and one of the most damaging with property losses estimated at $19 million.

The storm also set precipitation records. Thrall, a small town in Williamson County, recorded 38.2 inches in twenty-hours. That still stands as the most rainfall ever measured at a U.S. weather station in a day.

Two years later, work began in earnest to tame the San Antonio River. The 1900-foot Olmos Dam was completed in 1927, followed in 1929 by a flood bypass channel to divert water past the downtown bend in the river. In 1938, the federal Works Progress Administration began construction of a series of sidewalks, pedestrian bridges and various park-like features in the heart of the city along the river.

A Southwestern Venice, the River Walk annually funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into the San Antonio economy, the upbeat legacy of a killer flood.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
September 3, 2009 column

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