Six months after Hays County flooding, volunteers are still needed to help rebuild

{Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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.} 

Denise Clark and her family of four generations enjoyed their Memorial Day weekend visit in Wimberley, Texas, until the crashing sound of a large cypress tree awoke them.

Denise Clark assesses the damage in her home after the Memorial Day flooding.

Photo by Denise Clark/Clark assesses the damage in her home after the Memorial Day flooding.

Clark, 86, lived in her Wimberley home along the Blanco River, located on East Blanco Bend Drive, for almost 30 years. Clark, like many other Wimberley residents, never thought of evacuating her home because the city had never experienced a flood of that magnitude before.

Don Ferguson, city administrator, said the height of the Blanco River reached 44.9 feet, with 195,000 acre feet of water passing through the city. The amount of water that rushed through the city was enough to fill the AT&T Stadium in Dallas about 82 times, he said.

Once Clark and her daughter, who was visiting during the holiday weekend, became aware of the rapidly rising waters, they woke up their sleeping relatives, took a garden cart filled with diapers and formula for her 14-month-old granddaughter, and found refuge on a cliff near the property.

“We were within three minutes of drowning,” she said.

The family’s night spent on the cliff was a dark one, with the exception of lightning that filled the sky for a few seconds. They could hear sounds of cracking and popping of several trees in the area, said Clark, a retired school counselor.

Cabinets in Clark's home were ripped away from the wall, while other items such as the stove, floated to different areas of the home.

Photo by Denise Clark/ Cabinets in Clark’s home were ripped away from the wall, while other items such as the stove, floated to different areas of the home.

“We spent the night on the top of the cliff and were not picked up and taken to a shelter until about 8 o’clock the next morning,” she said.

Swift water rescue crews completed more than 100 rescues, which brought more than 150 people to safety, Ferguson said.

Soon after floodwaters receded, volunteers quickly got to work on Clark’s home, sorting items that could and could not be salvaged, removing mud from the home and cleaning the items that were deemed intact.

Items like mattresses, towels, pillows and electrical items were automatically thrown out. A pile of damaged items grew to about 16 feet wide and 40 feet long, Clark said.

Madelyn Dabney, of WImberley High School, and Denise Clark sort through Clark's items that survived the flood.

Photo by Alexandria Rodriguez Madelyn Dabney, of WImberley High School, and Denise Clark sort through Clark’s items that survived the flood.

The volunteers were able to clean out the home completely, along with many memories of Clark and her family.

“We just can’t rebuild,” she said. “The house is just a shell.”

She is now an owner of an abandoned house. During the flooding, waters rose to about 15 feet in Clark’s home, destroying virtually everything in the home.

During the cleanup, volunteers moved Clark’s surviving items to her temporary home, where a friend was letting her stay until October.

When October approached, she moved to an assisted living facility in Brenham, Texas, about 120 miles away from the Blanco River.

Now she must face the challenge of selling her land, in an area where many people are afraid to rebuild.


 


Escaping major damage

The refrigerator in the Jaggers' home fell over due to the little water that entered their home during the flood.

Photo by Steve Jaggers/ The refrigerator in the Jaggers’ home fell over due to the little water that entered their home during the flood.

Steve Jaggers managed to escape the flooding along with the nine family members that were at his home on Blanco Drive.

Jaggers and his wife, Susan, were entertaining friends and family the day of the flooding. Beverly Roeschen, Jaggers’ sister-in-law, along with Jaggers’ children and his brothers were also staying in the house for the holiday weekend.

Jaggers, and his wife, who have been in their home in Wimberley for five years, own a cabin style home a couple of houses down, where his children were staying overnight.

As Jaggers received alerts on his phone, he took the threat of flooding seriously.

“I said, ‘this just feels different,’” Jaggers said.

He went to his cabin where his children were staying, and told them to pack their things and get away from the river as soon as possible. The only thing Jaggers did in his cabin was move his daughter’s wedding dress, and old photos his mother gave him to a higher shelf in the closet, which saved them all.

“I tried to get Susan and Bev to go but they wanted to stay,” he said.

While Roeschen and her sister stayed in their home, Jaggers took his children and six dogs to San Marcos to stay with friends in hopes of avoiding the floodwaters.

Steve Jaggers' was able to rebuild, although the first floor of the home went without plumbing for nearly five months.

Photo by Steve Jaggers/ Steve Jaggers was able to rebuild, although the first floor of the home went without plumbing for nearly five months.

Soon after Jaggers left, Roeschen was awakened by her sister, who had become aware of the rapidly rising water.

“We ran from window to window to window, until it started coming a little at a time,” Roeschen said. “[Water] came mostly from the front door, not so much the back door because it was sealed.”

Jaggers said he didn’t fear water coming in the house as much as he feared a large cypress tree or other large debris coming into the house.

Trees could be heard snapping all along the river, which sounded like firecrackers, said Roeschen.

At about 4:30 a.m. Jaggers was able to return to his home to bring his wife and Roeschen to safety in San Marcos.

Jaggers, his wife and Roeschen returned home four days after the waters receded to discover they needed to replace about four feet of sheet rock all along the first floor of their two-story home.

“Steve’s kids stayed and helped get mud out of the house and helped rebuild the fence along the house,” Roeschen said. “I packed up all the things in the pantry and all the glasses. It really looked a lot different than it does now.”

The family said they were fortunate to have only sustained minimal damage in their home. In addition, they had flood insurance, which many of their neighbors did not, Jaggers said. However, the family went without plumbing on the first floor until the beginning of November, about 6 months after the flood.

Despite the fact that they were more fortunate than others in the city, in regards to damage in their home, they still received an enormous amount of help from volunteers in Wimberley, said Roeschen.

Suvivors and volunteers leave notes to the coordinators at the VRC expressing their gratitude and words of encouragement.

Photo by Alexandria Rodriguez/ Suvivors and volunteers leave notes to the coordinators at the VRC expressing their gratitude and words of encouragement.

“The volunteers were just willing to do anything,” Jaggers said. “They were so helpful. They knew what to do and how to treat things. They just knew what to do.”

Roeschen said volunteers even brought delicious meals to the neighborhood daily for several weeks.

“It was really phenomenal,” Jaggers said. “If anything ever brought a tear to my eye, it was the outpouring of generosity of the people that were willing to come out and help you. They just wanted to come help.”


Big efforts fizzled out

The VRC posts items they are in need of, which have remained the same for about two months.

Photo by Alexandria Rodriguez/ The VRC posts items they are in need of, which have remained the same for about two months.

Courtney Goss began her journey as a volunteer six months ago on the night of the historic Memorial Day flood.

Goss, along with an abundance of other volunteers, was feeding lunch to about 3,ooo people every day at Cypress Creek Church, at 211 Stillwater Road, for about a week after the flooding occurred, until the Volunteer Resource Center opened across from the church, at 200 Stillwater Road, where Goss coordinated volunteers who wanted to help flood victims.

The city of Wimberley estimated that 350 homes were damaged or destroyed, with an approximated property damage of $30 million, said Ferguson.

Goss, a Wimberley native, quickly came to support her hometown of about 2,700.

“I want my life to make a difference in the world and that starts with my community,” Goss said. “So many survivors have become like family, and I’m honored to be a part of their lives in their darkest hours.”

She even inspired her 8-year-old daughter to volunteer with her at the VRC during the summer months.

Traci Maxwell, the center’s coordinator, who has lived in Wimberley for about 20 years, has spent the past six months balancing between her work at the VRC, her family life and her real estate business. Being self-employed has helped a lot as far as having flexibility, Maxwell said.

Rubble still covers land surrounding the Blanco River six months after the Memorial Day flood.

Photo by Alexandria Rodriguez/ Rubble still covers land surrounding the Blanco River six months after the Memorial Day flood.

“In between dealing with flood phone calls and getting volunteers out in the field, I have a bit of a morning lull,” Maxwell said. “I can grab my laptop and deal with business and get caught up with that before I check on volunteer work sites.”

For the first couple of weeks after the flood, Goss and Maxwell had no trouble assisting families in need of cleanup, as volunteers often came by the hundreds, if not thousands.

“To date, more than 6,000 volunteers have passed through the VRC and those volunteers have put in more than 400,000 hours of volunteer time since May,” Ferguson said in Nov.

“After the 4th of July, volunteers tapered off,” said volunteer coordinator Maxwell.

The VRC runs solely on the tools volunteers bring, like trucks, trailers and chainsaws, and relies donations such as plastic tubs, shovels and crowbars, to assist with flood recovery.

Now Goss and Maxwell rely heavily on groups who sign up to volunteer for “community service days.” Each time a group signs up to volunteer, the coordinators anticipate at least 75 volunteers, but often few arrive.

“A few groups come back, and we have less than five regulars,” Goss said.

A foundation is all that remains on this plot along the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas.

Photo by Alexandria Rodriguez/ A foundation is all that remains on this plot along the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas.

Despite the dwindling amount of volunteers both Maxwell and Goss still work about a 50-hour workweek, to keep up with flood survivors in need of help.

Maxwell said it would take about 50-80 volunteers a day to make continuous progress in flood relief, which is something the VRC usually only sees on Saturdays.

“The issue with that is our survivors don’t work with a one day a week schedule,” Maxwell said. “They need help everyday.”

Ferguson said the recovery will be long term, and will be expected to take at least three to five years.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Goss said.


Big expectation, small groups

Uprooted trees can still be seen along the Blanco River about six months after the Memorial Day flooding.

Photo by Alexandria Rodriguez Uprooted trees can still be seen along the Blanco River about six months after the Memorial Day flooding.

Texas State sophomore and anthropology major Daniella Rodriguez volunteered with her organization, Latinas Unidas in October, and worked alongside about 15 students. In her time spent in the office of the VRC, Rodriguez said she heard disappointment in the voices of the staff.

The day Latinas Unidas went to volunteer the VRC was expecting more volunteers to show up, Rodriguez said. She overheard coordinators saying many more students from Texas State organizations signed up to volunteer, while less than 20 actually went.

“Having students back has been great,” Maxwell said. “We know that when a group says they will bring 50 volunteers, we will be really happy if at least 20 show up.”

Rodriguez, a native of Pharr, Texas, said her decision to volunteer for the flood recovery effort stemmed from her organization’s desire to start participating in community outreach.

Valeria Flores, a Texas State junior and communication design major from Laredo, and Rodriguez had a new outlook on volunteering once they entered the town of Wimberley.

Flores said she was reluctant to volunteer during a Saturday, which included waking up early to venture out to Wimberley at about 9 a.m. However, once Flores and Rodriguez saw the flood damage in Wimberley, they shifted their attitude.

“History (was) being erased. One hundred to three hundred year old trees were knocked down.” Rodriguez said. “Some houses still had water lines because of the flood and (houses) were abandoned.”

Flores and Rodriguez expected to be tired after working an eight-hour day, but the only feeling they had was gratitude. Both said the experience left them with a new appreciation for all the good things they have in their lives.

“I just wanted to stay in bed that day, but then I realized that some of the people don’t even have any beds to sleep in,” Flores said.

Flores and Rodriguez hope to revisit Wimberley to volunteer in flood recovery for a second time, but as the semester comes to a close, they have yet to do so.

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