Come hell, or high water

Jacob Prothro

At around 1:30 p.m. on May 25 — Memorial Day — the sky turned black. At 1:51, a severe thunderstorm warning was issued, along with a Flash Flood Warning.

Now folks in Central Texas are no stranger to Flash Flood Warnings — as of that monday there had already been 12 issued for Travis County in 2015 alone; but for many, what followed was something that they weren’t used to.

The sky opened up, and rain started to fall over Central Texas, filling up the rivers and creeks which were already swollen by the rains which fell only two days earlier, causing the Blanco River to flood and kill several people in Wimberley and San Marcos.

Just before 6 p.m., a US Geological Survey water gauge at Lamar and West 12th Street recorded Shoal Creek at around 21 feet, nearly 20 feet above its regular water level, and 12 feet over its flood stage. Businesses in the low-lying areas of Lamar between 15th Street and Ninth Street were among some of the hardest hit, and the field at House Park was under about four feet of water.

Curious onlookers started to gather in the higher areas and look down on the damage. Sophomore Samantha Jabour was among those who collected to gawk at the flood waters.

“There were a lot of cars in the road that people had to abandon [when the flood started],” sophomore Samantha Jabour said. “A lot of people were on the [15th Street] Bridge across from House Park, and there was a ton of people at Graffiti Park. I’ve never seen a flood that bad on Shoal Creek.”

KXAN meteorologist Jim Spencer was quick to draw comparisons to the 1981 Memorial Day flood, which affected the same area of Shoal Creek and caused 13 deaths. But this time, there were no deaths.The water receded almost as quickly as it came in, leaving behind mud and damaged buildings in its wake.

House Park had water up to the first row of bleachers, and mid-Tuesday when I visited, the turf was still covered in mud and silt. Several fences were down along the perimeter of the stadium, and the power was out. Street-sweepers were driving around, cleaning the parking lot, which was covered in about three inches of mud, while administrators from AISD and the Austin Aztex soccer club assessed the damage.

“I’ve never seen the fence broken down before,” AISD assistant athletic director Mike Szymarek said. “This is worse than I’ve ever seen it, even in ‘81.”

One of the Aztex’s representatives had speculated that the turf would need to be replaced, but Szymarek couldn’t confirm that.

“We are just going to check out the damage, and determine what to do once we know the full extent of it,” Szymarek said.

I stopped in at House Park Barbeque for lunch. The building, at the corner of Twelfth and Shoal Creek Blvd. and just up the bank from the creek, was spared.

“We got lucky,” employee Jon Bach said. “Ten more minutes [of rain] and we could’ve been in big trouble.”

Other locations that backed up to the creek weren’t so lucky.

Bacon, a restaurant at the corner of Lamar and Tenth, suffered major damage to one of the buildings on site, and had water come into its main dining room.

“We had 36 inches in the back house,” general manager Sarah Champeau said. “We lost all of our equipment back there, all of our food. We got about six inches in the actual restaurant itself, but we have the original hardwood floors, and it appears as though we will have to remove all of those, and do some work on our walls, plumbing and electric.”

The restaurant was open when the flooding occurred.

“We had just served our last customer when the Flash Flood Warning came out,” Champeau said. “We tried to bail water out for the first few minutes, but within 17 minutes the entire parking lot was flooded and we were forced to evacuate.”

Bacon will be closed for at least a week, but could be closed longer.

“These things happen — it’s kind of like ‘what can you do?’’’ Champeau said. “Mother Nature decided it was time for some rain, so we’re just picking up the pieces.”

Further south from them is Shoal Creek Saloon. The Louisiana Bayou-themed bar had a wall blown out by the flood water, windows broken, and tables and chairs destroyed.

Whole Earth Provisions, at Lamar and Eleventh, also suffered major damage.

“Our store took a little over three feet of water,” vice president Holland Jones said.

Jones, the son of the founders, had been through this before, and the store had established a contingency plan for these kind of situations.

“We started sandbagging the store around 4:30, figuring it was going to come back in there,” Jones said. “Around 15 minutes later we moved everything from the floor to higher ground, thinking it was just going to come in a little bit. It’s done that before. When it went over the sandbags we gave the evacuation order and got everyone up to higher ground. We lost most of our inventory in the store. We are going to have to do a major remodel, rip out sheetrock and the floors, and we will be down for a couple of weeks.”

The bulk of the operation will be housed at Whole Earth’s location in Westgate until the remodel is complete. Holland says that despite the flood, the company has no intentions of moving to a different location outside the flood zones.

“We will be back,” Jones said. “This is a great location, and we feel like we are part of the local community. The rewards outweigh the risks.”

Both Jones and Champeau said they were overwhelmed by Austin’s response to the floods. The two said that customers have been asking if they can come down and help with the cleanup efforts, and they’re already getting messages on social media asking how long they will be closed.

“The community has been fantastic,” Jones said. “We had a bunch of people down here once the waters went down. We were just blown away by the support — everyone’s just been awesome.”