Texas’ poor infrastructure, planning contributes to Memorial Day flood damage

{Editor’s Note: This is the first 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.} 

San Marcos is one of the fastest growing cities in America, taking in new residents every day and housing tens of thousands of college students, all of which is causing the city to rapidly expand into the flood plains surrounding the San Marcos and Blanco Rivers.

The Flood Plains

San Marcos can experience intense flooding in a matter of hours, which was demonstrated by May’s historic Memorial Day Flood, and is part of the area stretching through Central Texas which is referred to as “Flash Flood Alley.”

Dianne Wassenich, executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation, warns that the city should begin to build away from the flood zone in order to protect its residents.

Photo via FloodSafety.com

Map of Flash Flood Alley Photo via FloodSafety.com

“San Marcos is allowing building in the flood plain, right now, today, and we know better. We’ve known better for decades,” Wassenich said. “We are not being intelligent when we build in the flood plain.”

Central Texas has a long history of flash flooding. Records collected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 1953 show that 47 of the 90 major disaster declarations in Texas have been due to, or involved, flooding. Since 2000, there have been seven floods, averaging a major flood disaster every two years.

Why?

In 2012, the Texas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers did a routine evaluation of the state’s infrastructure, rating roads, wastewater management and dams. Flood control received a grade of “D”.

“Texas still has no statewide floodplain management plan and is not a participant in the National Flood Insurance Program, although many of its communities are,” according to the report. “Texas leads the U.S. in terms of dollars paid for flood claims. Other than low-interest loans and small grants, Texas does not fund flood control infrastructure.”

San Marcos and Wimberley both are a part of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by FEMA, as is much of flash flood alley, but as Wassenich said, the problem lies within the flood plain itself.

Nearly a quarter of the acreage within the San Marcos city limits is in the flood plain. There are 1,450 single-family properties, 1,780 buildings, and 320 multi-family properties within the 100 year flood plain, which is generally regarded as having a one percent annual chance of flooding.

Every structure within the flood plain must meet the terms of the city’s ordinance for building in the flood zone, which is based off of base flood elevation maps FEMA releases for each area. These maps are advisories and do not become law until the city adopts them. The most recent maps, released in response to May’s flood, raised the base flood elevation in many spots throughout San Marcos, requiring some residents to put their houses on stilts or reconstruct farther up the flood plain.

San Marcos residents are now caught in a situation where they cannot afford to raise their houses or now must take a FEMA loan in order to do so. Older houses, which were constructed before base flood elevation advisories existed, often fall into this category.

While each community must submit to FEMA’s minimum requirements for building in the flood plain in order to qualify for flood insurance protection through the federal government, the city of San Marcos does not plan on taking steps to prevent future damage by limiting new construction in the flood plains, said Elizabeth Ehlers, building services coordinator at Planning and Development Services for the City of San Marcos.

“I can’t speak for what [city] council would ever want to do, but from our standpoint you can’t restrict construction in the flood plain,” Ehlers said.

If a property holder has flood insurance and is meeting the minimum requirements laid out by FEMA and the city, no further action can be dictated by San Marcos at this point.

In addition to having numerous properties in the flood plain, San Marcos sits in the middle of two watersheds: the Blanco and the San Marcos. This subjects the city to flooding from two different areas. The Blanco Watershed flooded in May’s Memorial Day Flood, where heavy rain fell upstream and came crashing down the river. In 1998 the San Marcos Watershed flooded due to heavy rain fall in San Marcos, the worst flood the city had seen in a long time until earlier this year, San Marcos City Councilwoman Jane Hughson recalled.

Before the 1998 flood, five flood control dams were built, Hughson said. “Experts estimated that they protected the city from another eight feet of water. They said it would have been at the steps of the courthouse if the dams weren’t there.”

Adding more flood control dams may be helpful in future floods but they aren’t the solution, Wassenich said, explaining that dams are environmentally damaging and gives those who live below them a false sense of security from flood waters.

According to FEMA data, the Memorial Day Flood produced 5,431 paid losses, or people seeking insurance money for flood damages, in Central Texas. The total amount given to the state was $2.9 million with the average loss costing around $53,430. This means that for all the losses filed with FEMA, the average person had over $50,000 worth of damage to their home or business.

The Students

Many Central Texas residents are noting the long history of flooding and losses in the area and asking why the area continues to encroach on dangerous plots of land. Wassenich showed a particular concern for students who live in apartments near the Blanco River.

“College students come to town from all over the U.S. and other countries,” Wassenich said. “They have no idea we live in flash flood alley and the students moving into these apartments have no idea how to evacuate.”

Students Fernando Sanchez, a former resident at the Avenue Apartments, and Victoria Castañon, resident at the Grove Apartments, received no warning ahead of time from their complex that they were at risk for flooding.

“I didn’t know that there was a possibility of flooding at the apartment,” Sanchez said. “When I came here I didn’t even know that I was in Flash Flood Alley.”

Sanchez, an El Paso native, said they get severe weather in his hometown but never flooding like he saw here that night. Cars were being shifted from their parking spots near his apartment and flood sirens were sounding, he said. Additional shock came from photos and messages sent out by others on social media.

At the Grove Apartments, Castañon said the manager knocked on doors, but the complex didn’t send out emails or any other type of formal warning that the water may reach a dangerous level. While Castañon was on her way to her parent’s house that night with a friend, her car was totaled by flood waters and she received calls all night from neighbors about what was happening at her apartment complex.

“All of those apartments on Aquarena Springs east of the interstate, they’re all in the flood plain,” Wassenich said. “The owners of those apartments don’t warn people when they rent that they’re in the flood plain; it’s very disturbing to me.”

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