Where are they now: a look at residential recovery after Memorial Day Floods

{Editor’s Note: This is the sixth 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 flood on Memorial Day of this year left Central Texas in complete devastation.

After nearly 10-13 inches of rain from the span of Saturday to Sunday, the Blanco and San Marcos rivers wiped away homes and left residents with drenched belongings.

San Marcos emergency management performed initial rescues of residents, these included air and boat rescues. City officials provided the community with safety, weather and flood updates along the way.

How did this happen?

For San Marcos residents, such as Loretta Pastrano, who has lived in her San Marcos for 38 years, the panic and loss that Memorial Day flood created is something that can’t be forgotten. After receiving weather alerts throughout Saturday night, Pastrano, decided to grab her 15-year-old grandson and evacuate.

“The next day we came back to the house,” Pastrano said. “Coming back the next day I just felt an emptiness on my chest.”

Yesenia Sandoval is a Texas State University student who suffered flood damage to her apartment, located in The Lodge apartment complex along the Blanco River. After hearing commotion in her complex, she realized that she needed to evacuate quickly.

“It was really creepy because it was raining really hard,” Sandoval said.

How did this happen? Flooding in Texas could be caused by the cutoff of a low pressure system or storm system that sits in one place for a while converging with a slow moving cold front, said author of Flash Floods in Texas, Jonathan Burnett.

“The thing about this area in relation to Memorial Day is the Balcones Escarpment,” Burnett said. “That’s a big differentiator for this area.”

The Balcones Escarpment is a fault zone that runs from Del Rio to Dallas. This line of limestone is what separates the rich soil from the limestone.

“Then there’s a little bit of a rise and it’s just that little bit of rise, that little bit of uplift which is enough to help focus these storms,” Burnett said.

These storms develop and continue redeveloping in the same spot, creating this huge amount of moisture over one specific area. Once the ground becomes saturated, run-off is created. leaving the rivers in the region prone to flooding.

Along with weather patterns the building plans of the city have changed over time, said San Marcos City Manager Jared Miller.

“In a number of neighborhoods that flood on a regular basis and that historically flooded on a regular basis, one of the contributing factors is that they were built prior to the flood plain standards that we’ve had in place in the last couple of decades, which means that the houses are more prone to flood,” Miller said. “They’re built lower than they would be if they were built today. “

Pastrano’s home falls within the flood plain. After receiving FEMA money, she bounced from one hotel room to another until her home was repaired. FEMA required Pastrano to purchase flood insurance.

“It’s such a hassle,” Pastrano said. “They want serial/model numbers, descriptions of everything, costs, ages.”

Two weeks after the completion of her rebuilt home, courtesy of The Saint Bernard Project, the Halloween flood five months later left Pastrano’s home flooded again. After assessing her home, officials stated that her home did not contain enough water to be deemed assistance for recovery. She is currently displaced with her grandson in a guest house that a local church allowed her to stay in temporarily.

“I feel very depressed knowing that the holidays are upon us and my grandson and I are displaced,” Pastrano said. “It is sad that nothing can be done. Now I know how homeless individuals and animals feel facing a situation like this.”

 

St. Bernard Project volunteer rebuilds home Photo by Kelsey Daubner

St. Bernard Project volunteer rebuilds home Photo by Kelsey Daubner

Long term recovery

Recovery after the flood came in stages: the short-term recovery and long-term recovery.

After emergency response teams left, FEMA was the next response team to come to San Marcos to help. Their goal was to register and document the monetary needs of the residents within the community and provide that for those in need.

This is when volunteer efforts were strong too. Religious groups, school groups, and short-term volunteer groups began their work in San Marcos.

Suzanne O’Rahilly is a member of St. Bernard’s Project, which is a nonprofit organization that specializes in rebuilding homes that were demolished in disasters. She was initially stationed in New York after Hurricane Sandy and relocated with a team to San Marcos after Memorial Day.

Her experience with providing disaster relief has led her to believe that they bring residents down to their lowest, but they are able to bring them up to their highest later on.

“If you are part of the disaster and if you’re there from start to finish you get to see the house or structure taken down, but if you are there throughout you get to see it come back to life,” O’Rahilly said.

The St. Bernard Project is one organization of many that began the initial clean-up after the flood. Over the course of the last six months the number of volunteers in San Marcos has dropped when there is still an extreme need for recovery efforts. Most short-term organizations left three months after the flood. FEMA left San Marcos in August. Residentially, families are still picking up the pieces from their demolished homes. O’Rahilly said volunteers are the key to this recovery.

“With disasters, people forget about it if it’s not in the media,” O’Rahilly said. “They think it’s over and done with, but it can go on for months and years, and without volunteers it’s not going to happen.”

As short-term organizations dwindle away as months pass by, long-term teams still remain.

Rob Roark is the team lead for public information for The Blanco River Regional Recovery Team, a long term recovery team stationed in the community. The Blanco River Regional Recovery Team, or BR3T, arrived as a replacement for FEMA, whom turned over all of their records to Roark.

“We had approximately 2,500 cases that were logged in the four county area,” Roark said.

After recently conducting an unmet needs assessment from the families in the San Marcos community, Roark said that as of now 250 to 350 families still do not have their needs met. BR3T has plans to stay for a year and a half until these needs are met.

O’Rahilly lays tile in flooded home Photo by Kelsey Daubner

BR3T’s biggest priority is shelter. They provide assistance in three steps: re-building the structure, replacing damaged things, and providing emotional support to those who have been battered with this tragedy.

“Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have a place to stay? Do you have a kitchen? Do you have walls? Do you have electricity? Do you have the critical things that you need so that you are not spending money out at a hotel or shoving a whole family into one bedroom at your brother’s place?” Roark asks these questions to flood victims to determine if they need BR3T’s assistance.

After the families move back into the home, BR3T also makes sure they have sufficient material things within their home that were damaged or lost in the flood, such as appliances. Through donations, the team is able to fill their home to replace these items and to meet the resident’s needs. The team is not directly raising money at this point.

The team also provides emotional assistance to traumatized victims.

“We have spiritual and mental health people on our team that are there to assess the needs as well and go into these families as they move back in,” Roark said. “So it’s not just ‘well, you’ve moved back in, we’ll see you later.’”

Preventing flood damage in the future

The city of San Marcos is following the requirements of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. One of those requirements states that after a certain number of losses and repairs to the houses in the flood plain, which can be found through the recent release of the new flood plain maps, that those houses must be raised above the flood plain.

This means physically lifting houses by putting a base underneath or demolishing damaged homes and completely building new after lifting the ground underneath the home.

“Those are extremely challenging projects especially if the homeowner is like all of us, financially limited,” said Miller. “So other things that we are doing in addition to doing all of the requirements that we have to be a participant in the National Flood Insurance Program: We’re also making applications for any hazard mitigation grant funding that we can get.”

The city will apply to organizations like FEMA or the Texas Department of Emergency Management in hopes that this funding will give officials the chance to begin projects on the areas that flooded on multiple occasions.

“We might be able to do diversion projects where we might divert the Blanco around the city instead of right through the city,” Miller said. “We might be able to do things like buyouts, or like funding the lifting of houses.”

The city is addressing the discussion of buyouts. The city suggests that homeowners stop relying on the city to buy their home right now because that kind of process is long term and could take a couple years.

“The only reason I say that long is because the previous funding that I’ve seen in other areas have taken at least two years to know what their results were on their application for that type of funding,” Miller said.

Even after receiving grant money, the city and council have to evaluate the disbursement of the money among various projects, while also seeking public opinion.

“It’s people’s homes,” Miller said. “We need to take their input into account and come up with the best solution that works for not only the neighborhood but the entire city.”

 

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