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07/22/2002 - Updated 12:46 AM ET
Nature takes hard swing at Texas
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
By Eric Gay, AP
Evan Smith uses shovels to push mud from a neighbor's home back into the Guadalupe River.
NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas A.G. Fisher stands on a slippery, mud-coated surface that's barely recognizable as his deck overlooking the rain-swollen Guadalupe River. All around him, his family drags out ruined furniture, carts away mud and sifts through the ruins of their belongings.
"We were just hoping and hoping for some rain," says Fisher, 74. "We sure weren't hoping for this, though."
The drought that has parched the state since 1998 is finally over for portions of central Texas.
That's the good news. The bad news is the end came at a staggering cost: nine deaths and $1 billion in property losses from flooding. Twenty-six counties were declared federal disaster areas, and thousands of people were forced from their homes.
Other parts of Texas would have loved some of that rain. Brownsville, at the southern tip of the state, is 39 inches below its normal rainfall since 1998. Midland-Odessa has a 30-inch deficit; Corpus Christi is 14 inches behind.
Around here, though, rain that began June 29 caused flooding that affected 60,000 people in 32 counties. Rising water destroyed or damaged about 5,000 homes.
Some of the hardest-hit areas were along the Guadalupe and Comal rivers in New Braunfels and surrounding Comal County. The skies finally cleared here late last week, although forecasters say there's a 20% chance of more rain later this week.
The torrential rain was triggered when an area of low pressure sandwiched between two areas of high pressure produced conditions that resembled a tropical storm.
Up to 30 inches of rain fell in some parts of the Texas hill country by July 6. That shattered rainfall records.
In San Antonio, 30 miles southwest of here, the previous record for the entire month of July (8.29 inches in 1990) was broken in just one day 9.52 inches on July 1.
On that day, the Canyon Lake Dam spillway north of New Braunfels began overflowing for the first time since the reservoir was filled in 1968. Torrents of water cut a swath 200 yards wide through the Horseshoe Falls Estates subdivision. The rush of water flattened houses, uprooted huge trees and erased a park.
Homes, businesses in peril
People devastated by the flooding are trying to recover.
"We're here to stay," says Fisher's wife, LaDonna, 73, as she stands in what remains of her dining room. "We're tough. I just hope we never have to go through this again."
It's understandable if the Fishers and the 36,500 residents of New Braunfels are somewhat miffed at the gods of irony for finally ending the long drought but at such a dear cost.
"If anybody tells me again that we need rain, I'm going to kick them," says Sue Phillips, 49, one of the Fishers' two daughters.
Many businesses in this area might share that sentiment. Tourism is the leading industry, and July is normally the busiest month. Texans flock here for attractions such as the Schlitterbahn water park and Natural Bridge Caverns. Or they go "tubing" on the Guadalupe and the Comal.
But the rivers are so high that officials banned tubing and rafting. They say it could be next year before the popular recreational activities are allowed again.
"There's a big impression that this place is gone, and it couldn't be further from the truth," says Michael Meek, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "Our No. 1 attraction, Schlitterbahn, and our other attractions are open."
The City Council agreed to spend $100,000 on emergency advertising to let tourists know. "The only thing missing right now is the river component," Meek says.
It's an important one. In a normal July, more than 100,000 people might visit the two rivers. Many of them stay overnight in the campgrounds or bed and breakfasts. Or they shop at the outfitters along the river between New Braunfels and Canyon Lake.
Since July 1, 33 New Braunfels businesses posted losses of more than $8 million, and there are rumors of pending layoffs, Meek says. "They're the ones really hurting right now."
Sharon and Arlon Mosley operate River Road Camp along the Guadalupe. The business has been in his family for decades. It was flooded in 1972 and again in 1998. "But it was never as devastating as this," Sharon Mosley, 36, says as she shovels mud into a wheelbarrow inside the caretaker's quarters. "Everything is pretty much destroyed. We're just trying to salvage what we can."
Time to get out
What do you grab when the river is rising and your heart is pounding and you've been ordered to evacuate?
Darlene McClung snatched her husband's patch collection and a few of his guns. Barry McClung, a paramedic for 22 years, collects uniform patches from fire departments and EMS units around the nation.
He was on duty, so she took his 10 albums of patches, the guns and their two children. He is now surrounded by drying photographs, mud-caked dishes and piles of debris as he looks at the knocked-down back wall of the four-bedroom brick ranch home where they have lived almost four years.
"We moved here just before the flood of '98 and didn't get hardly a drop," says Barry McClung, 38. Like most residents in Horseshoe Falls Estates, McClung says he did not have flood insurance. "We were told that we were not in the flood plain here."
Also like other residents, McClung has high praise for the scores of volunteers who have shown up here and are tirelessly toting out furniture, carting mud and wiping down walls. One of them, Jerry Garrett, had come from Harlan, Ky., a week earlier. He has been spending 10-hour days helping people clean up.
"When I prayed about this, if God didn't want me here, I wouldn't be here," says Garrett, 35. "It's as simple as that."
Around the corner, Cindy David, 37, is taking a breather from cleaning out the brick vacation home that has been in her husband's family since 1960. She and her husband, Allen, were at home in Austin when they got a call telling them about the mandatory evacuation. Among the things they saved were precious vinyl LPs, dishes and an 1892 first printing of a Mark Twain novel.
The house, now owned by her husband and his brothers, had no flood insurance, she says. "Being a mile down from the dam, in theory, there should be no way your house would flood." She says the families are thinking about repairing the house by paying cash as they go along. "I'm thinking two to three years," she says. "We may get together and decide to sell it."
Barry McClung says he doesn't know yet whether his home is salvageable.
"My wife cries a lot," he says. "I keep telling her she needs to go and talk to somebody, but she won't go."
As the afternoon sun bakes the mud piled before what's left of his house, McClung looks skyward. "I mean, we were in a drought," he says. "Burn bans were in effect. Water rationing was in effect.
"We needed the rain, and we got it all at once."
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