River Rising

An in-depth look at the Memorial Weekend Floods

“We are floating in a house that is now floating down the river…call mom and dad. I love you, and pray.”

Those were the last words Julie Shields had with her sister, Laura McComb.

A wall of water 40 feet high carving its way through the Blanco River basin had just washed their vacation home into the raging waters.

Two of the nine people in the cabin are still missing, including Laura’s 4-year-old daughter, Leighton. Searchers are also combing the river banks looking for 6-year-old William Charba.

“It is not over. We still have…more people to find. More people to bring home,” said Justin McComb, whose brother Jonathan was the only one believed to have made it out of the home alive. He was found with traumatic injuries 12 miles from where his cabin fell into the water.

Those who didn't survive this historic flood include 6-year-old Jonathan McComb and his mother, Laura. Ralph and Sue Carey, along with their daughter Michelle, were all in the same cabin as the McCombs. Jose Alvar Arteaga-Pichardo, Dayton Larry Thomas and 81-year old Kenneth Reissig also died in the floods.

But in every bad, if you look hard enough, you will see the good. And that night, it was found in the hard work of the rescue personnel. Countless lives were saved through the pouring rain, and flooded streets throughout Hays, Caldwell and Blanco counties.

Recipe for Disaster

It took an incredible rain to cause this kind of damage. Tree rings suggest some of the Cypress trees wiped out in the flood were 5 to 600 years old; meaning, this is likely the worst flood on this river in hundreds of years. It has many people wondering, how in the world did this happen?

It wasn't entirely unexpected, but no one could have anticipated the magnitude of what would unfold that tragic night.

It was a rise on the river never witnessed before; the flood made worse even before the rain began. A foot of rain had already fallen in May, saturating the ground in the upper Blanco river basin. Then, in just four hours, six inches of rain fell directly over the headwaters of the Blanco River. Another 6-7 inches fell that night miles away from Wimberley and San Marcos, but cascaded into a funnel-like canyon, gaining momentum and height--20 feet in one hour. Ultimately, the river rose 35 feet in 3 hours. It eventually topped out over 40 feet; destroying the river gage as it rose 7 feet higher than the highest level ever recorded--in 1929.

It was a classic set-up for a Hill Country flash flood; Yet another storm system approaching from the west, one of many in May, a tropical jet stream fueled by a warming Pacific ocean caused by the first El Nino in Five years. Add in near record tropical moisture in the atmosphere and diverging air aloft for a formula that allowed the storms to develop over and over and over. A low level flow from the Gulf rode up the higher terrain of the Hill Country escarpment helped fuel the storms.

If the bullseye of rain moves just a few miles north, the Pedernales river would flood and fill up Lake Travis. A few miles south and it’s a flood on the Guadalupe. But, as fate would have it, it was another Memorial Day weekend tragedy in Central Texas; eerily familiar to 34-years earlier when 13 died along a raging Shoal Creek in Austin.

The Blanco River

The river that caused much of the flooding flows through several counties. It has the ability to unleash enormous amounts of water into nearby floodplains.

The Blanco River supplies water for tourism and business in Blanco County. Its head begins where several small streams meet, including Meier Creek, in Kendall County. The river then stretches from northern Kendall County right through the heart of the city of Blanco in the southern tip of Blanco County. Once it crosses into Hays County, the river winds through the southern side of Wimberley, turning north to skirt Kyle from the west, before the river dives south toward San Marcos. In San Marcos, the river meets with the San Marcos River, and its name becomes the San Marcos River from there. The entire length of the Blanco River is 87 miles.

The Blanco River is part of the Guadalupe River Basin, under the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

Jim Latham, a longtime resident of Blanco, feels that the river is important to the people in the town.

"Having the river here has a lot of income for our city ... It brings in people. And you know it's nice for us because we can go fish and swim and different things." Latham has called Blanco "home" since the 1970s, though his wife has been a resident even longer. The people of Blanco are no strangers to flooding.

"My wife said back in '52 they had a bad flood. She saw things floating down the river, like houses," he adds.

The Blanco River is also a source of scientific study and conservation for people like Rachael Ranft with the Nature Conservancy. She studies the ecology of the river, monitoring impacts to flora and fauna in times of fluctuating water levels. She notes that the limestone lining the river bottom leads to quicker flash-flooding. The stone isn't porous, so water has nowhere to go.

“Especially when we get these really big events, it's going to bust out of those banks and into that floodplain," Ranft says.

The Blanco River has two ways of naturally breaking up the floodwaters that are so common in Central Texas. One comes from the limestone which can be worn away by water over time, creating cracks and fissures leading to underground caves. If rain falls into caves and sinkholes, it will be forced underground, helping to refill aquifers. This process is usually much slower than a flash flooding event, though, which can occur in less than six hours, so the Blanco River has a tendency to produce quick runoff.

The other barrier to flooding on the Blanco occurs between Blanco and Wimberley. It's called "meandering," where the river naturally snakes northeast and southwest, creating a winding route. According to Ranft, a "channelized" or direct path of water between Blanco and Wimberley would have been "devastating" to life and property recent floods. "Those meanders are what helps the river in times of flood, to break those flood waters and to control those within the path of the river," Ranft says.

Of course, even with natural barriers, recent floods have created a lot of damage for people who live along the Blanco River. View upcoming land and habitat restoration workshops.

Flood Plains: Rivers rose beyond 500 year flood

The river and all that rain created the worst moment in people's lives. Their story is not only one of survival, but proof that when it comes to evaluating the flood plain, new information is desperately needed.

Flood maps help communities prepare for rising water, but even those didn't predict the danger zone with the recent flooding.

The Hays County Development Services Department found some properties damaged outside the floodplain listed for a 500-year flood.

A FEMA spokesperson, Earl Armstrong, confirms the agency is looking into whether the Hays and Blanco County maps need updates. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority was working with local governments on studying the watershed before the flood.

Clay and Carrol Hoblit are cleaning up their home on the banks of the Blanco River, less than a quarter of a mile from the Fischer Store Road bridge the flood destroyed. They mourn what the river took.

"Families from Corpus have lost their lives and are missing, because this is nothing compared to what they're going through," said Clay.

The gin-clear water of the Blanco normally brings peace for the Hoblits. This time, it consumed their home with a muddied rage.

"My wife recovered from breast cancer here," said Clay.

After the flood dozens of volunteers helped the couple clean up their home, which, according to FEMA, rests along the line for the 100-year and 500-year floods.

Blanco River flood brings calls for more flow gauges in Central Texas

When the water rises in Central Texas, so do the chorus of voices shouting for a more effective way to warn of hard-to-predict flash floods that can change and take away lives in an instant.

“We have been approached by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority about installing additional gauges in the Upper Blanco River,” Bob Joseph with the US Geological Survey explained. The news comes just two weeks after the river not only surpassed federal 500-year flood plain markers, but tore up a number of USGS flood flow gauges designed to track how fast and how high local rivers and creeks rise during heavy rainstorms like the one that drenched the region Memorial Day weekend.

“(The water) came six feet into the house. And we were above the 500-year flood plain,” Kevin Ash told KXAN. An alert neighbor helped save his elderly parents who were at home on May 23. They drove off their riverside property as the water licked at the tires on their car. Other neighbors hid in their second-story attic as the water rose within inches of drowning them.

Prior to that, other flood waters had only reached a fire pit a good 40 feet from the back porch.

Ash says his parents received no warning the heavy, debris-filled water was moving so high and fast it would take down the Fischer Store Road bridge on Hwy 181, just a quarter-mile upstream. The raging waters scattered large sections of road into the basin below.

“They left with their keys, mom's purse and they were barefooted,” Ash said has he cleaned up the tranquil property, salvaging only a small covered trailer’s worth of furniture, tools and belongings.

A flood gauge, as some people commonly call them, likely would have given notice of that surge of water, allowing forecasters to alert local leaders to send flash flood warning notifications over regional reverse 911 services and social media.

USGS is already looking at new gauge locations

Joseph said USGS technical teams have been dispatched to source a good upstream location to install one or more water flow gauges to determine water flow in cubic feet per second (CFS), and water height.

During the storm, when the gauge in Wimberley washed away, the CFS reading went from about 700 CFS to 70,000 CFS. The reading literally went off the chart before the transmission went dead late on May 23.

USGS data graph shows the point where a flooding Blanco River destroyed the gauge May 23rd, 2015

There are no gauges upstream of Wimberley, nearly 40 miles along the Blanco River’s 87-mile length, despite the staggering population growth downriver in Hays County. In addition to Wimberley, San Marcos also suffered tremendous flood-related losses in May.

“It's a financial resource issue," Joseph said for the lack of gauges. "The USGS, as well as other entities, have prioritization.”

Joseph would not speculate on any new leverage his bosses in Washington, D.C. might now have in asking for extra funding to better protect Central Texans. He said it is typically up to local governments to recommend additions to a flood-prediction arsenal -- at least those that are prepared to pay for them.

The General Manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, one of 19 such entities in Texas, said he intends to put the flow gauge issue in front of Congressional leaders.

In recent years, federal dollars aimed at flood risk management have dwindled. Now, local government and watershed protection groups pay up to half of the cost of hardware like flow gauges.

Each one costs about $25,000, not including annual maintenance and calibration costs, USGS records show.

Hays County leaders last winter approved $8,000 to help pay for a new gauge installed on the Blanco River at Hwy 80 in San Marcos. The Memorial Day weekend flood damaged that unit and four others in the area – including the gauge on Ranch Road 12 in Wimberley.

The day after the storms, USGS crews replaced that unit with a brand new one. A few yards downhill, the destroyed unit still rests on its concrete slab where the powerful current left it. Nearby, someone hung an American flag on a storm-battered roadside tree, so passing motorists headed out of Wimberley get a reminder of where some of the future protections might come.

Central Texas tornado outbreak

The historic Memorial Day storm system brought more than just deadly flooding on the Blanco and San Marcos Rivers. Central Texas also saw its largest tornado outbreak in history.

They started the evening of Saturday, May 23.

“We may be seeing a tornado right over the Williamson County and Burnet County line,” Meteorologist Mark Monstrola stated during live coverage late Saturday on KXAN News.

As the rain continued falling over the next few days, tornado warnings continued to flare up.

“This is a really serious situation folks, you heard it, there is a large tornado on the ground,” Meteorologist David Yeomans said, tracking the Sandy tornado as it moved through western Blanco County on Memorial Day.

“There is debris is in the air right now being produced by this large tornado,” Jim Spencer warned, following the Milam County storm.

“[Residents in] Sandy, you’re about 12 minutes away from the heart of this storm, you need to be in a safe place at this time,” Meteorologist Rosie Newberry advised those impacted by the Blanco County storm.

Sixteen tornadoes touched down in Central Texas over the Memorial Day weekend, making it the biggest tornado outbreak in our area’s history. The strongest of the bunch, an EF-2 twister in Milam County, killed Richard Ash who was seeking shelter in a mobile home. EF-2 tornadoes contain winds of up to 135 miles per hour and are capable of destroying mobile homes.

The storms that dropped tornadoes also produced record rain and massive flooding, even outside of Blanco and Hays counties.

The water started in the Hill Country, where open floodgates on Max Starcke and Wirtz dams poured billions of gallons of water into Lake Travis. Then, the slow-moving complex of storms flooded the downtown area of Austin.

Shoal Creek rose to within 2 ft. of the 1981 record flood that claimed 13 lives. No lives were lost during this flood on Shoal Creek, possibly thanks to flood control improvements and sparse rush hour traffic on the holiday.

Elsewhere, some weren’t as fortunate. Low water crossings in the metro area claimed two lives: Jerry Booth, 55, in Williamson County, and Jonathon Walker, 23, in Travis County.

Downstream, floodwaters burst the dam inside Bastrop State Park, washing away roads and land. The Colorado River swelled to more than 10 ft. above flood stage in Smithville and La Grange, inundating homes and businesses.

In all, first responders saved hundreds of lives in this flash flooding and tornado event that will surely go down in history.

Help Arrives

When rivers rise, it's a call to action to those who've dedicated their lives to helping people in need. And one of the most familiar logos at any disaster site -- the seal of the Salvation Army.

Trucks were rolled to the hardest hit areas as soon as it was safe to do so. Volunteers were delivering everything from food to clothes, and giving out plenty of shoulders to lean on. It's tireless work that's continued in one form or another for 45 consecutive days in Texas.

"The Salvation Army believes very strongly that when you deliver care, it should be done in a very compassionate way. The Salvation Army is very good at that, We have volunteers that specialize in that area," explains Lt. Col. Henry Gonzalez. "What keeps you going, the Salvation Army, our mission statement -- we say we're motivated by the love of God to meet the need of the Father's. And that's what keeps us going when you see people struggling, and when you see little kids without shoes or clothing, or without a home."

The Salvation Army will also continue to work for victims long after the initial response is launched. Right now, they are working hand in hand with those who lost so much, to help develop long term solutions.

Also on the ground in Wimberley and in San Marcos is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA's job is to make sure people are safe first, and secondly, sanitary. In an effort to help, agents with Federal Emergency Management Agency rolled into Hays County last week and have been going door-to-door to help people register for assistance.

Danielle Beltran was asleep in her home with her family when a neighbor woke them up and told them to get out.

"It was literally a river flowing through here. My husband threw a cigarette butt and it just took it," said Beltran. "The front door just came in.

We couldn't stop it at all…could not stop it."

Now, Greta Meyers with FEMA is doing everything she can to get Beltran the help she needs.

"This is a tough job," said Meyers. "Sometimes we go away with tears running down our eyes because of the situation some of these survivors are in."

"Once they pull the cabinets out it will be unlivable," Beltran added. "We won’t have water, a stove or a refrigerator. We're going to have to go once that happens."

Families on Barbara Drive in San Marcos are also registering for FEMA assistance. Almost every house on the street has ruined furniture sitting on the curb.

Ronnie Rodriguez was at work when his family called to tell him they were stuck in their car with water pouring in their windows.

"I'm hearing my wife in the background screaming someone save us…save my children," he recalled.

Now, people like Rodriguez and Beltran are just hoping FEMA can help them start their lives over again.

The agency said people should not register with them more than once. And, if you move somewhere temporarily, call the agency to update your information. Registering again can delay the process.

FEMA officials also want us to pass along some very important information about how to avoid getting scammed -- and how to know if who you're talking to can really help you.

San Marcos tubing helps rebuild community

After the violent floodwaters receded, the San Marcos River now rests the way Mike Rhoades remembers.

"It doesn't have a lot of the rapids and that kind of stuff, compared with the Guadalupe," Rhoades says as he walks through piles of inner-tubes at the Lions Club International Tube Rental in San Marcos.

When Rhoades started at the tube rental company, he was in charge of running the buses. But tube after tube, the club expanded. The float house now has enough resources to send more than 1,000 people down the water. Now Rhoades is the executive director.

"The Lion's motto is 'We serve.' That's what we're about here is helping the community, serving the community," he said of the nonprofit. The group gives out 98 percent of the money they take in to 47 different agencies and nonprofits, many of whom are on the front lines of flood recovery, including the Boy Scouts of America and the San Marcos Parks Department.

Abbey Raymond came out Tuesday with her friends to float the San Marcos River. Each tube they rent helps Texans return to normal.

"Our first floor (of the apartment building) got flooded," said Raymond. "My apartment is on the fourth floor but they're just having to redo everything right now."

The Lions Club has already handed out $40,000 in the form of grocery gift cards and packages to get people back on their feet.

"The extra money, we want to give it and we want to give it to the community," said Rhoades. "It's just really good to see all the different churches, all the different people in San Marcus come together and really help."

As Central Texas rivers and businesses return to normal, the river now helps heal the wounds it brought the week before.

Wimberley open for business

Before flooding became the big headline for Wimberley, tourism and Texas charm have always driven the Hill Country destination.

"Our town is not underwater," said Cathy Moreman, co-director of the Wimberley Chamber of Commerce. It is a message the chamber is trying to spread across the country. "This has been a human and a natural disaster, but the fear is that it might become an economic disaster for our town. And we need to avoid that."

The downtown area is full of life, and doors are open for business. Even the woman known as "The Boot Whisperer" is still working her magic.

"Take off your shoes, so I can see your feet when you're standing," said Ulli Johnston, owner of The Wild West Store.

For 22 years she has been sitting customers down, looking at their feet, and reappearing with the right pair of vintage cowboy boots -- without asking color or size.

"Somehow, I know which pair might be just perfect," said Johnston.

It's not an easy task with about 700 pair on the shelves to choose from.

"We want to make sure the world knows Wimberley is here; we're thriving," Johnston added. "We're going to fight back and businesses are ready for customers."

A few doors down, the friendly staff at the Wimberley Cafe is still here to serve.

"We're going to put on our biggest smile, and we're going to treat [customers] as great as we can," said Robin McCullough, owner of the Wimberley Cafe.

Even at the community outdoor amphitheater, the show must go on. Dozens of crew members and actors are put the finishing touches on the props and stage at the EmilyAnn Theatre & Gardens.

"Wizard of Oz," a story that starts off in black and white, is on the stage right now.

"And then all of the sudden you have this amazing rainbow of color," said Rebecca Stoian. "We're hoping it's kind of a metaphor of what will happen in Wimberley."

Another big tradition is the Wimberley Lions Market Days which are held every first Saturday of the month through December. Hundreds of vendors will be set up selling food, merchandise and art. The Lions Club, which lost one of its own members in the flood, Larry Thomas, will be collecting donations for flood relief.

Watch the special report