“Austin Askew”–Chapter XIV–Hell and High Water in Austin

I recently got a tour of the Austin Convention Center and saw the vast and extensive efforts that are being made to help the thousands of new neighbors that have moved to our city as a result of Hurricane Katrina. It was a moving and transforming experience. The logistics behind getting such an operating up and running well boggle the mind, and Austin has really taken this opportunity to show what’s it’s truly made of and succeeded beyond all expectations.

I was struck, when surveying the scene, by just what a wealthy nation we live in, at the abundance of resources we can apply towards the relief of suffering. But then I was also angered, wondering that if we in Austin could pull off an operation of this magnitude in such short notice, then why did it take a week to get relief efforts up and running in New Orleans? And why does it take a natural disaster for us to notice and care about our nation’s poor?

I realize that here in the seat of State government it is blasphemous to say this, but I have always had a burning hatred for bureaucracy, where seniority trumps talent and ability, where hidebound tradition and “standard operating procedures” overrule common sense and efficiency. But with Katrina, bureaucracy went from being merely annoying and turned into something fatal.

There have been many Monday morning quarterbacks putting forth their opinions after this disaster. The more callous ones say that since New Orleans is built under sea level and has a weak levee system that something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. At the same time, they cannot understand how conditions there got so bad so quickly, how the city became such a toxic trap, such a place of unimaginable suffering.

What many people fail to realize is that any city is just one natural disaster or terrorist attack away from such horror. Even if a city doesn’t lie in the regular path of hurricanes and floods that still doesn’t make it safe. Austin, for instance, despite it’s hilly landscape, has had a long history of disastrous flooding.

The earliest major flood in Austin took place in 1869, where the waters of the Colorado reached what are now the gates of Zilker Park. Though this was thought to have been the worst flood in Austin history by some, it’s really hard to verify. The comparative size and severity of floods in those days was often gauged by the somewhat dodgy memories of old settlers.

After a lot of setbacks the City finally built a dam between 1890 and 1893. It cost $1 million and was constructed of granite and limestone blocks and concrete. A $600,000 powerhouse was also built at that time. The dam was 65 feet in height and 1,143 feet in width, making it the second-largest in the US at the time of its completion. It created the first large artificial reservoir in the state, the thirty-mile-long Lake McDonald, which became a popular spot for recreational boating.

In April 1900 there were two straight days of heavy rain in the Austin area which caused the Colorado River to rise at the rate of eighteen inches an hour. A ten-foot wall of water shot over the dam. On April 7th the pressure on the dam became too great and the dam broke. A 285-foot section of the dam was sent downstream and one of the boulders from which the dam was constructed shot out into the air like a cannon ball. Eight people in the powerhouse downstream were drowned.

On a point of land that extended into the river a small crowd of people had gathered to watch the flooding and the strain on the dam, but when the dam broke many of these people didn’t have the time to run to safety before the point was overcome with water.

Several people raced their horses into town to warn everyone of the impending danger, but the flood came in too fast, bringing a fifty-foot wall of water down on the Congress Avenue bridge. One South Austin resident had gone into town to get medicine for his sick wife and had gotten halfway back across the bridge in his buggy when the flood waters hit. He managed to climb up a telegraph pole and looked to be safe for a few minutes, but an entire house came hurtling down the river, and hit the pole, snapping it in two.

Austin was without electricity, potable water, gaslight, or water pressure for fighting fires for many weeks. The flood devastated life, property, and the local economy. There was no more Lake McDonald to bring in the tourists, and the City still owed over a million dollars on the construction of the now-wrecked dam.

Another dam was built between 1914 and 1915, but the job was poorly done and the structure was unable to generate electricity. Waller and Shoal Creeks flooded in 1915, resulting in great loss of life, and there were other major floods throughout the 1910’s, ‘20’s, and ‘30’s.

In June 1935, the Llano River flooded due to heavy rains. It spilled into the Colorado, the Austin dam broke again, and the city was flooded for three days. Some claim that this flood was the worst since the one in 1869.

I’ve seen aerial photographs of this flood. The Congress Avenue bridge actually survived, though much of the street and part of the bridge was underwater. A few landmarks are discernable in these photos, and from what I can tell, the intersection of Barton Springs Road and South Congress (where the bat sculpture now stands) was the midway point of the flood waters.

The water extended down almost to the north end of the State School for the Deaf in South Austin, and up to Third Street in East Austin. Zilker Park was also underwater, up to the second floor of a dancing pavillion that was once located out there.

The “Sunday American-Statesman” reported that the flood cleared out the “Hotel de River,” a cave near the railroad bridge where hoboes gathered to jump on to trains.

And if all this wasn’t bad enough there was another flood in 1937.

Finally, with the help of the Federal government, the Tom Miller Dam was built between 1938 and 1940. This dam got the Colorado more or less under control. It also brought electricity to farms and small towns of the Hill Country, transforming a way of life that had changed little since the 1830s. Also, thanks to the new dam, a chain of “Highland Lakes” was created, which has contributed much to the region’s economy and the enjoyment of its people.

But as General Grant once said, “Man proposes and God disposes.” Man’s engineering marvels can only go so far–Nature always gets the last word. Despite the building of the new dam, Austin continued to be plagued with floods, especially during the 1950s.

The worst Austin disaster in recent years was the Memorial Day flood of 1981. Seven inches of rain in one night caused Shoal Creek and other urban creeks to overflow their banks, creating flash floods that damaged or destroyed over 600 homes, killed 13 people, tossed cars and furniture around like toys, and did at least $30 million worth of damage. The area around 12th and Lamar was particularly hard-hit, and you can still see buildings around there with high-water marks painted on their facades.

One of the more remarkable rescue tales of the 1981 flood was that of Steve Treadwell. The night of the flood he saw a man named Buddy Lyons holding on for dear life to a parking sign at Tenth and Lamar in seven to ten feet of water. Treadwell was fond of water skiing and happened to have his ski vest with him in his Jeep.

Treadwell put on the vest, jumped into the flood, and dodging telephone poles and a truck that were swirling around in 30 mph waters, he “ad libbed” (his words) his way across Lamar, got a rope around Lyons, and a police rescue team  pulled them both to safety.

History therefore shows that none of us are immune to the ravages of natural disaster. We are all vulnerable, so it is incumbent upon us to help whichever of our fellow men are in trouble at any specific time.

One of the problems, though, is that we as a people, and our media, have short attention spans. Oh, sure, the news is full of Katrina-this and Katrina-that right now, but soon many people are going to get bored with the topic, the news cycle will change again, and we’ll move onto something else. Our feelings of charity and concern may turn to impatience. But many of the victims of Katrina will still be struggling to put their lives back together. Some of those people will never be the same again.

I cannot over-emphasize the fact that Katrina was the largest and most expensive natural disaster to hit this nation. Rebuilding is not something that will be limited to just the people of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi–it will require the efforts of all of us to bring that region back. We must continue to devote our time, talents, and money to this cause, long after it becomes part of history. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror every day if we cannot even be bothered to take care of our neighbors?

—September 29, 2005

{I wrote this article upon the suggestion of my editor, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Gulf Coast, when Austin was providing temporary shelter for victims of that disaster. Like many people, I was very disturbed by Katrina, and I feared that writing about Austin disasters so soon after that storm might be exploitative, sensationalistic, and in bad taste. The only way I was able to justify writing and submitting the piece, and reprinting it here, was that I tried to turn it into a reminder and an appeal–that disaster can strike anywhere, and that it has indeed struck Austin many times, so it behooves us to help disaster victims in other localities when they are hit and we are spared.}

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