Thursday, June 4, 2015

Floods, tornadoes, disasters ... and mercy

       I am going to write about floods, tornadoes, the Netherlands and Wimberley, Texas, but first ...
       It is early June, the sun is out here in Fort Worth, the temperature is going to hit 90 or better today ... and no rain is forecast. Thank goodness.
      We will take all the dry weather we can get for a few days. Because just about all it did here -- and all over Texas -- in May was rain, rain, rain.
      It rained seemingly 32 of the 31 days, and with the rain, came the horrible flooding and tornado warnings, and tornadoes that were sighted and then touched down. And so there was destruction and tragedy, and if you don't know about it, where have you been hiding?
      It's the wettest May in recorded Texas-weather history, the third-wettest month ever (two Aprils had more rain). It's a long way from last year, which was the driest year we've had here since 2005 and the 13th driest year on record, and from 2011 when we had more than 100 days of 100 degrees or higher ... and it rained only a trace all summer.
      No one is talking about drought here now.
      What we're talking about is all those pictures and videos we've seen from floods in the area around Fort Worth (mostly to the southwest of us), Dallas, and Houston, and San Antonio, and Austin ... and the hill country.
      Difficult to watch.
The Fort Worth flood of 1949, and an iconic photo (
      We know it could happen to us. If you live long enough, you know natural disasters can strike close to you.
      We were fortunate that Fort Worth was not hit hard, but we've had flash floods over the years with roads under water. And if you've ever seen the photos from the flood of 1949 -- with the Montgomery Ward building surrounded by water and Colonial Country Club, right next to the Trinity River, so covered that the big golf tournament that year could not be played, you know it's not out of the realm of possibility here.
      I keep rolling this phrase in my mind -- "as one-sided as a flood." I have seen that written in sports stories, in terms of games or a Usain Bolt sprint -- and if that is supposed to be funny, here is my reaction: It is inappropriate. It is not a damn bit funny.
      I have been aware of how destructive floods can be since I was a little Dutch boy a long, long time ago, and so every time I see a flooded area, I think of my home country.
     My home state is now Texas, and we're still thinking about floods. True, too, in my former home (and forever-in-my-heart home), North Louisiana.
      It was gut-wrenching to see the crush of water in the Wimberley, Texas (Hays County)  area last week, and to hear and read about the dozen deaths as houses were swept off their foundations ... houses with people in them.
      And then, just as I make the connection of flooding to 1953 and the Netherlands, I learned of a connection to Wimberley.
Steve Thurber ... Woodlawn High, Louisiana Tech and now
mayor of flood-stricken Wimberley, Texas (
      Steve Thurber was a heckuva tennis player and good student at Woodlawn High School in Shreveport and at Louisiana Tech University in the 1960s. I was a fan of his then, he was a good friend, and when I saw him at our class reunion in 2010, he mentioned that he lived in Wimberley -- after years and years in Houston -- and was on the City Council.
      But, honestly, I'd forgotten the name of the town he told me.
      My memory was refreshed when Karen Bryant Dye -- also in the Woodlawn Class of '65 -- posted on Facebook that Steve is the mayor of that little town (population 2,626, by the 2010 census) in the hill country of Texas.
      Good place to be -- a resort area, between Austin and San Antonio and 16 miles from San Marcos, known for its scenery and its cabins and bed-and-breakfast homes -- until last week. That's when all the rains caused the Blanco River (never heard of it before) to surge from its banks ... and take over.
      No tennis match, no tax return (he's a longtime CPA) ever prepared Steve for this.
      And to think that being mayor there -- a position to which he was elected a year ago in May -- is a non-paying job. 
      Suddenly, unexpectedly, he became a spokesman for his town and area dealing with tragedy and dire circumstances.           
      Heard from a mutual friend who had been in contact with him that Steve and his wife and their home were OK. But for sure, their lives -- and everyone else's in that area -- has been drastically affected the past 10 days.
      We saw the reports from the NBC Nightly News, with Lester Holt anchoring from Wimberley (with flooded areas in the background), but Steve was not interviewed for that program. However, searching on the Internet, I found where he has done several interviews, television and radio, with national and Texas networks.
      Here are two of those links:
      As Steve explained it, there has been periodical history of flooding around Wimberley and in the hill country, a recorded surge of 33 1/2 feet by the Blanco River in 1929, but this surge was recorded at 44 feet before the rain gauges were washed away.
      There were "reverse" 911 calls made to warn people of the impending danger, but those calls can't be made to cellphones, so vacationers in the area -- and there were many -- were the mercy of the raging river.
      Thurber said seven homes were completely destroyed, taken off their foundations and down the river, and some 350 homes and businesses in the community were damaged. But, of course, the loss of lives was the real devastation, the stories over which we agonized.
       I know the feeling. I remember it from when I was 5 years old.
       Overnight on Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1953 -- when we lived in Amsterdam -- the North Sea went crazier than it ever had. It had been a constant threat to the Netherlands for centuries;  much of the country is at sea level or below. But the dikes the Dutch had built didn't hold up against the angry sea.
       Much of southeast Holland, plus parts of Belgium, England and Scotland, were under water. The Dutch radio network did not operate at night, so in that day long before communication was an every-moment thing, there was little or no warning.
       Looked this up: There were 1,836 deaths in the Netherlands; with the other countries added, 2,551. In Holland, 9 percent of farmland was ruined. There were 30,000 drowned animals, 47,300 buildings damaged (10,000 destroyed).
       It took years, decades, for the Dutch to fight back against the sea. The Dutch government and the world's best engineers developed an elaborate flood defense system -- called Delta Works -- that took four decades to complete. And still today, there is always uneasy in Holland about the North Sea's power and flooding possibility.
       The flooding did not come that close to Amsterdam, which has all those canals and much water close to the city. But it left an impression with me.
       Somewhere in this apartment is a speciality publication on the 1953 floods that my parents purchased back then and which came to the U.S. with us. I have looked at that book often; it was a bad time for our country -- and the flooding danger is one of the things for which the low-lying country is known.
       And, of course, you have heard the tale of the little Dutch boy who stuck his thumb in the dike to save his country from flooding. That's out of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, a novel first published in 1856.        
       Yes, I have been asked often if I was that little Dutch boy. Uh, no, I was not.
       But just think of all the photos from the natural disasters, so many. The bridge collapse, etc., in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco-Oakland; Mount St. Helens erupting in Washington state in 1980; the tsunami and earthquake in Japan in 2011 and the environmental threats it caused; the tornadoes ripping through Oklahoma repeatedly; the flooding up and down the Mississippi River.
       And hurricanes every year, but especially 2005 and Hurricane Katrina just devastating much of New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana.
       When the New Orleans flood-protection system needed a complete overhaul, the people in charge called on the Netherlands' engineers.
       Remember all the images from all those disasters? And I could list hundreds more.
       We've never taken a direct hit, but we've been sideswiped a lot ...

        -- I remember flooded roads in North Louisiana in about 1960 when Dad drove to Natchitoches for business (I went with him) and we had to pull off flooded Highway 1 and take back roads that were open.
       -- I saw a reference to the flood in Bossier City in about 1990, covering the neighborhood where we had sold our house about six months earlier.
       -- The Bossier City tornado of Dec. 3, 1978, when we lived there; it was a few miles  from us and tore up the Airline Drive/Shed Road area.
       -- The May 2, 1984, tornado that ripped up Ringgold (where Bea went to school) and part of her little hometown (Jamestown) five miles away, and her parents still lived there then. We drove through with Bea's dad a week or two later and were stunned at the sights.

       -- An early 1990s tornado that came through Jacksonville and Orange Park, Fla., leaving our backyard littered with huge chucks of tree limbs and a thousand smaller branches and leaves.
An ugly sight after the Fort Worth tornado
of March 2000: the torn-up Bank One
 building (
       -- A flash flood in Knoxville, Tenn., one night some 15 years ago when I foolishly tried to drive through high water and ruined one red Jeep Cherokee. If the engine had died and windows and doors had locked, I might not have gotten out.
       Less than a year before we came to Fort Worth -- March 28, 2000 -- a tornado came out of the west and ran through downtown, leaving lots of damage, including a torn-up high rise right next to the newspaper building, the Star-Telegram. My pals there recalled having to weather the storm (literally) in the basement. Our first couple of years here, that building, which had been the Bank One Building, had so many boarded-up windows, it seemed unsalvageable.
       But they renovated and they rebuilt, and now it's The Tower, a 35-story showpiece with condominiums and luxury living.
       We are practically helpless when natural disasters strike; often, it is a matter of fate who and what survive. But we battle back if and when we can.
       And so Wimberley begins battling back.
       Asked about the search-and-rescue efforts, and the cleanup, and the town's collective mood, Steve Thurber told a national network interviewer, "We have a very close-knit community of folks here in Wimberley. They are now pulling together like always do in these type of events, although this is our biggest one by far we've ever had. Everyone is volunteering,  neighbors are out in front yards helping neighbors clean up, helping neighbors look for their valuables, their belongings, trying to help them put their town back together.
       "It's a wonderful community."

        I know their mayor is a capable, caring person. I salute him, and we should all feel for all those people, especially for those who lost loved ones.
       Because we are all at the mercy of the weather, and the natural disasters. It's a threat that never goes away. All we can do is hope and pray. Lord have mercy on us.

1 comment:

  1. From Sylvia Pesek: Terrific article, as always. I have a number of friends in Wimberley ... they're all OK, but they know people who lost homes.
    So-called "natural" disasters are so frightening because they're something over which we have little control and, as you pointed out, until recently we had very little way of knowing when they were heading our way.
    And yet, as frightening (really "awesome" in the truest sense of the word) as they are, the toll from them is eclipsed by many orders of magnitude by the devastation we visit upon each other.
    Haynesville was hit by twoo tornadoes while I was living here as a girl (Haynesville's team didn't get that name for nothing, you know!) and I've lost count of the number of hurricanes I've been through.
    Mother Nature can really be a harsh mistress, indeed, but at least she's impartial. When it comes to real horror, she's no match for humans ... yet.