After the Flood: first-responder perspectives

{Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in the Texas Memorial Day Flood Six Months Later series, which was produced by the Texas State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication senior journalism course led by Associate Professor of Practice, Kym Fox. Interact with the stories in the series by clicking here.} 

The Memorial Day weekend flood started, peaked, and ended, in a six-hour span in the dead of night.

While it’s true that firefighters stay on 24-hour shifts for incidents such as these, they had little prior notice before the flood’s peak of only an hour and a half. Firefighters and police officers had to suit up, drive out, and evacuate people in an unbelievable crunch for time.

The Police Perspective

photo by Jacqueline Lege

Day Shift Commander Brandon Winkenwerder poses in front of the SMPD building. Photography by Jacqueline Lege’

Brandon Winkenwerder, day shift commander of the San Marcos Police Department, described the function of the police department during any large-scale event such as that flood. Winkenwerder was awakened at 4 a.m. the morning of the flood to see that Alpha/Bravo was in effect.

During an event like those floods, the police department splits its entire force into two groups: Alpha and Bravo. The Alpha side is a 12 hour shift from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the Bravo side is from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The entire department, no matter what their assignment usually is, works full shift until the incident is taken care of and is over. Winkenwerder and another commander split Alpha into two more groups, with one covering the city north of the river, and the other covering the south side.

“I wound up with the south end of town, but most of damage was in the north, so me and a few of my guys ended up helping over there,” said Winkenwerder. For the south and west sides of town, it was generally business as usual – but the north side had so much damage, it was more than could be reasonably handled by the original group.

The Necessity of Experience

Winkenwerder said the upper hand in these events lies in experience: when tragedy strikes again, responders can think back and use what worked. Winkenwerder was a two-year officer during the flood of 1989, and now 16 years later, he knows what didn’t work this year: the police forces’ underestimation of the flood.

“I would say that we underestimated [the flood,] in terms of damage, of scope, and severity,” said Winkenwerder. “You kind of need to focus your thoughts on what the worst thing is that could happen and work from there, and I don’t think we did that.”

Some police officers wore full gear while walking into waist-deep water. Ideally an officer would wear just their uniform, keeping unnecessary technology in their vehicles. That vehicle should be in a safe place too – but that same underestimation also led to the loss of six police vehicles to flood waters.

One police car on East River Ridge Parkway was lost.

photo by Jacqueline Lege

A car door rests in front of a submerged car in the Blanco River at 5 Mile Dam. Photography by Jacqueline Lege’

“We never thought that this whole area could flood,” said Winkenwerder, pointing to the intersection of the interstate and East River Ridge.

“An officer parked there thinking it was far enough away and began beating on as many doors as he could,” and by the time that police officer turned around, the hood of his vehicle was already submerged. A civilian pick-up truck had to haul that vehicle out. “We wound up losing 30, 40 thousand-something-dollars in equipment.”

Horton, the Unwilling Hero

Fire Captain Jay Horton is, at least by word of mouth, known to be an expert on flash floods and high-risk water scenarios. Horton has been a firefighter in San Marcos for about 30 years, and like Winkenwerder, has experienced floods before. He too agreed that that weekend was unprecedented.

Horton and fellow firefighters Bobby Nance, and Wesley Keathley were all off duty when they got a 3 a.m. call to come into the stations as soon as they could. Originally, all three thought they’d be heading out to Wimberley, where the Blanco River was already flooding. Then, San Marcos began to flood, and all hands were on-deck to help the stranded here.

“I felt like we were almost in the way. We kept just making more room in the engine – we were basically a taxi, picking up people wherever we could,” said Horton.

Water began to rise high enough that the engines risked flooding, so extra help from out of town was needed.

Fire and rescue teams from New Braunfels came to aid the San Marcos fire department with boats to reach those stranded. Members of the fire department from San Marcos then accompanied them to navigate the streets.

“Every time we’d go out on a call, one more of us would get picked off to help some other group,” said Nance.

That extra help from the surrounding cities was needed, but not every firefighter had 30 years of swift water rescue like Horton.

“Newer firefighters sometimes won’t know what kind of gear is necessary for fast running water, and will go into rivers wearing their bunker gear,” said Horton.

photography by Don Anders

The flood waters were so powerful at the exit of Highway 80 from I-35, concrete was ripped from the streets. Photography by Don Anders

photography by Don Anders

Damage done at the exit of Highway 80 from I-35, where the rapid currents are almost undetectable. Photography by Don Anders

Bunker gear is the yellow reflective jacket and trousers that protect firefighters from burns and cuts. In flood waters that gear can turn from helpful to hazardous when soaked with water.

However, protection is necessary in those raging waters. Poison ivy and poison sumac thrives in Texas, especially along rivers.

“When the water raises to the level it did, it sweeps away all the poisonous plants that grow along the water,” said Nance. “It creates a raging river that can cause inflammation wherever it touches.”

Fire ants pose a special threat. Ants will bind together in balls that float on top of the rushing water. When they find a solid object out of current, they immediately climb it – be it a tree, or a person. When rescuers finally reach an individual, they are wet, shivering, and often, covered in ants.

If able, firefighters cover their bodies with skin-tight Under Armor to protect themselves and reduce drag in the water. The rescued are immediately given Mylar thermal blankets while EMTs tend to their injuries and clean them of debris.

Begrudging Fame

photography by Don Anders

Jay Horton swims out to a stranded flood victim, covered in extra flotation devices. Photography by Don Anders

photography by Don Anders

Jay Horton and the flood victim swim back, utilizing those extra devices. Photography by Don Anders

Horton gained immediate fame when city photographer Don Anders snapped images of him performing a swift water rescue in the San Marcos River near the service road of I-35 and the Olympic Center.

The Blanco River, pushing the San Marcos’ stream upstream, fed the current he swam against downstream.

“That was probably the most harrowing hands-on rescue,” said Horton.

That image circulated through major news sources in under 24 hours, placing Horton as the face of flood rescue. But to Horton, that fame is undeserved – he was a man who knew what to do, and who did his job.

“The fame took away from all the sweat poured out by his fellow servicemen and woman who also risked their lives to help the rest of San Marcos and surrounding counties,” said Horton.

More than Just Property Damage

With more than $7 million in damages, the Memorial Day weekend floods were severe. Twelve fatalities were confirmed from that weekend, and a flood of this severity inevitably results in varying levels of psychological stress on first-responders.

The San Marcos police department found one body that weekend, something Winkenwerder tries to describe as a “small amount” of PTSD. The servicemen who were on body recovery duty in the county dealt with much higher stress levels.

“Those guys that recovered bodies [up in the county], because there were a lot of them, they got a little bigger dose [of stress],” said Winkenwerder, “And when you have that much, it’s hard to deal with.”

For service men and women who need help coping, cities provide a service called CISM, or Critical Incident Stress Management. For years, this service was put on the backburner due a lack of events that people needed help coping with. This year marks an expectation of the return to CISM for both Winkenwerder and Horton.

“We got complacent; there didn’t seem to be enough stress to necessitate bringing the program back before these floods,” said Winkenwerder.

Horton describes the PTSD he has seen in his colleagues as the “thousand yard stare.” A single incident does not always lead to the mental fragility, but many over time have certainly shown to take a toll.

“There is a stigma around getting counseling or help in the fire or police departments,” said Horton. “We’re supposed to be tough.”

CISM operates on a level of anonymity – the city doesn’t know who is using the service, just that it’s being used.

CISM works as a combination of a licensed therapist and an officer who has received special training to provide an empathetic ear.

The trained officer has a similar job title, but is in a different shift or county – this keeps anonymity and allows service people to feel open to expressing personal views.

“You hope that you did the very best that you were supposed to do,” said Winkenwerder.

Additional images from the flood shot by city photographer Don Anders can be seen here, and additional images shot by journalist Jacqueline Lege’ can be found here

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