- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

WIMBERLEY, Texas (AP) - An overcast sky will trigger all-too-familiar anxiety among residents of this scenic tourist town that displayed grit and unity in rebounding from historic flooding a year ago but remains far from healed.

Repairs have been made to fewer than half of 350 residences damaged or destroyed when the Blanco River jumped its banks in a Memorial Day weekend catastrophe that claimed 12 lives, including two children who still are missing.

Despite the installation of upstream river gauges and other measures aimed at warning residents of future floods, many in the Wimberley Valley say they get extremely nervous during storms.

“The town is scarred,” Mayor Mac McCullough told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1Ugbbxy). “And very apprehensive.”

A second major flood in October contributed to the jitters and prompted many affected property owners to delay investing in repairs “until they see some solace in the weather patterns,” he said.

“People are very sensitive about these overcast conditions we’ve had for days and days,” McCollough said. “They’ve got their bags packed.”

Few can forget the horrifying fate that befell nine visitors from Corpus Christi, whose riverside vacation home was torn from its pillars and floated downstream with them inside the night of May 23, 2015.

The lone survivor, Jonathan McComb, managed to reach the riverbank. But he lost his wife and two children.

His daughter, Leighton McComb, 4, and a friend’s son, William Charba, 6, haven’t been found despite countless searches by family and volunteers.

They’re still looking.

A search planned last weekend was scrapped due to rain, and likely will be again this weekend, said Ken Bell, emergency management director for the city of San Marcos.

“It’s a very slow, methodical process,” he said, noting the current focus is an area of sediment deposits where an excavation is planned using a backhoe, hand-diggers and cadaver dogs.

Fed by more than a foot of rain upstream, the river crested in Wimberley at 44.9 feet, a record and more than 30 feet above flood stage, on May 24, 2015.

The recovery effort was boosted by thousands of volunteers who poured into town, shoveling muck from homes, hauling away downed trees and collecting victims’ personal effects that were strewn everywhere.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” said Cynthia Marion, who received a donated car to replace hers, which had floated away. “People have given unconditional love and help.”

She and her husband, Larry Fick, returned to their newly repaired home in the Wagon Wheel subdivision only two weeks ago after staying with family in Austin.

The episode underscored the importance of backing up computer files and preparing an inventory of possessions to use for insurance claims, they said.

“Take photos of everything,” advised Fick, 67.

They weren’t home when the flood hit, but they’ve been anxious enough about future flooding to seek counseling, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“When I hear thunder outside, like right now, or the river gets full, I just have fear,” Marion, 65, said. “You just remember how it felt a year ago.”

Harrowing and uplifting accounts of 100 local flood survivors have been compiled into a book, of which about 1,250 copies have sold for $20 each, called “Wimberley: Epic Flood Tests a Small Town’s Strength.”

A sculpture memorializing the flood is planned by the Wimberley Valley Arts & Cultural Alliance, which now is trying to raise money to fund it and to secure a site.

Last weekend, about 500 people turned out to commemorate the flood and celebrate the community’s united response to it.

Then it was back to work for City Administrator Don Ferguson.

“We deal with flood issues literally daily, and we will for years to come,” he said. “We’re looking at probably five years before we get to the point where we’re close to where we were before.”

Ferguson sees a measure of local uneasiness - which he calls natural - in the vehicles out on riverside roads during night-time storms as people check water levels.

Reviving tourism is critical to the community’s financial health, McCollough said, noting the city doesn’t levy a property tax so it relies heavily on revenue from local sales taxes.

The downtown business district has been rebuilt since hit in October by Cypress Creek flooding, but he said: “There’s still the misperception out there that we’re damaged and you can’t come and visit.”

Recovery also has been a struggle elsewhere along the Blanco, especially in San Marcos, where many people remain in flood-damaged homes.

Beyond the residential losses, the raging water knocked down major bridges on Fischer Store Road and Ranch Road 165 and damaged scores of low water crossings and secondary roads. The bridges have been rebuilt.

Complementing government recovery efforts is the Blanco River Regional Recovery Team, a nonprofit created to help rebuild homes damaged in the May and October storms in Blanco, Hays, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties.

Funded largely by grants and donations, it has lined up more than 500 volunteers to tackle 2,700 assistance requests this summer, said Thomas Monahan, its executive director.

“We’ve got plenty of work. We’re never going to have enough money,” he said, encouraging donations through the group’s website, br3t.org.

Nearly 2,000 homes in Hays County were destroyed or severely damaged in the May flood, and another 279 in the October storms, which included tornadoes in some areas, said Kharley Smith, the county’s emergency management coordinator.

FEMA responded with $13.8 million in aid to affected property owners for the May storm, and $3.8 million more in October, she said.

San Marcos also is in line to receive a $25 million federal grant for flood recovery and prevention measures, including repairing and elevating flood-damaged homes or buying out low-lying properties, officials said.

A flag-raising ceremony commemorating the flood was held the week before Memorial Day at San Marcos City Hall.

Hours of advance warning about the May flood permitted the evacuation of about 3,500 Caldwell County residents along the San Marcos River, which is fed by the Blanco.

About 300 homes were damaged or destroyed there, but as in San Marcos, there was no loss of life.

“One of the things that we realized is that many people no longer have home telephones, which makes it difficult to use reverse 911 systems to contact folks in emergencies,” said Martin Ritchey, emergency management coordinator in Caldwell County. “So it’s imperative for everyone to register their cellphone number with authorities in their area.”

In Blanco, upstream from Wimberley, the flood buried intake piping for the city’s water treatment plant, forcing the city to buy water from a secondary supplier for 10 months until a temporary intake system was installed.

Blanco Mayor Bruce Peele, elected just before the May flood, keeps a closer eye on weather forecasts after rising water trapped him at home a year ago.

He, too, admits getting nervous at forecasts of heavy downpours.

Staff and guests scrambled for higher ground as the river tore through Country Cabins RV Park outside Blanco, among dozens of properties hit hard in Blanco County.

“I didn’t stop crying until late June or early July,” said Mary Theriot, who bought the business less than a year earlier with her husband and had to deal with nearly $300,000 in damage, not counting several recreational vehicles swept away.

“We were so much luckier than Wimberley. All of us had our lives,” Theriot, 61, said from the store in the rebuilt park.

In Wimberley, the Blanco still is lined with empty home foundations and shattered tree trunks stripped of bark.

It never again will summon the same affection that resident John Meyer once had for it.

“It was a beautiful river, with trees all along it. It was a peaceful thing,” said Meyer, 79. “But now I don’t find that. It’s worrisome.”

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide