Coming from Oregon, I thought I knew rain. Hell, Oregonians don’t even own umbrellas. We just put on a hat and a windbreaker and keep on hiking or gardening or whatever. Now I get why. Oregon has anemic rain. It lasts forever, but for the most part, it’s a puny, spitting rain. Tedious but unoffending.
We hit our first big thunderstorm as soon as we crossed over the Texas border, and we’ve been dodging wild weather ever since. It’s not to be laughed at, actually. What’s happening here in Texas is scary and tragic. Twenty-seven people have died from Texas weather this week, thousands of homes destroyed, and the flood waters are still rising.
We have managed, by pure happenstance, to be around or near a lot of it, yet completely unscathed. For us, mostly it has been an inconvenience of wet campgrounds and closed roads, but there have been a few scary times, and as we drive by flooded rivers and fields, we are subdued by its power and thoughts of all the people devastated by this.
Thunder, Tornadoes and Deluge near Austin
We were lucky to have my sister and brother-in-law’s cabin to escape to after a deluge of rain camping at Inks Lake State Park. And we’d just settled in when another crashing thunderstorm hit, pounding the metal roof and lighting up the bedroom all night.
The next day, Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, was oddly gorgeous. Sunny and hot, and all those memorial day boats who’d come to Lake LBJ for skiing and drinking hit the water at once. We inflated our blow-up canoe and paddled around a bit ourselves, dodging the waves of jet-skiers.
On Memorial Day Monday, my brother-in-law Don drove us into Austin to have lunch with my niece. After lunch, we drove to the SoCo district, a quirky fun shopping area, just as rain started pelting, thunder crashing. We lingered in an antique store to wait out the worst of it, where all the customers were listening to a weather report on a 1950s radio: flash floods and tornado warnings in nearby counties.
The weather was obviously not letting up, so we finally made a run for the car and started the 90-minute drive back to the cabin. We left just in time, I think. Austin got four inches of rain in one hour and many roads flooded soon after we left.
We were nearing Bee Cave, a small town west of Austin, when all four of our phones started beeping with an alarm. “Seek shelter immediately,” the automated warning said. A tornado had touched down nearby. Fortunately, we were near an HEB grocery store. We pulled in and ran for it, laughing at our dripping clothes as we pushed inside.
The employees had just opened the doors again after herding customers to the back of the store to wait out an earlier warning. They opened up cash registers and checked people out before they got news of the latest one and shut down again. We spent a good 20 minutes in the back of the store, lingering with other customers and red-shirted employees by the meat cases, checking our phones for updates, texting relatives. Strangers talked to each other like new friends with a giddy nervousness. Employees passed out cookies and laughed like it was a party. My sister and I took a silly selfie, caught up in the drama of it, but constantly aware that the roof could blow off at any second.
A half an hour later, we were back on the road. Don was gripping the wheel and driving through impossible rain. More phone alarms for flash floods, but we persevered. We could barely see the road ahead of us to tell if there was flooding, but we were grateful for the taillights in front of us that led the way. If the road was washed out, they’d discover it first. We made it back to the cabin just as the rain let up and the clouds gave way to a beautiful sunset.
Tragedy in Wimberly
The next day, Beth and Don drove back to their home in Sugar Land, near Houston, concerned with reports of flooding there. Kate and I headed south toward San Antonio. We had heard news of a house full of people being swept into the Blanco river in the night. Two families with three kids between them, one set of grandparents, nine all together. They’d rented an A-frame for the holiday week, on stilts right over the river. At one in the morning, one of the women called her sister, saying the house was floating down the river. It smashed into a bridge soon after. The woman’s husband was the only survivor. He managed to pull himself to shore 12 miles downriver and drag himself to a nearby house for help. The other 11 were presumed dead.
It wasn’t till we hit the roadblock at the bridge in Wimberly that we remembered the name of the town. We’d just driven through the cute downtown area, bustling with people, and had wished there was a place to park Bessie so we could check it out. An officer at the bridge waved everyone left, where we would have to detour back toward Austin and take Interstate 35 south. When we passed an area set up as the rescue center, filled with emergency vehicles and boats, the gravity of the inconvenience hit us. We were quiet the rest of the way, lost in thought, eyeing mud-brown flood waters along the road. Later we heard they were looking for rescue volunteers, and the thought of searching for bodies makes me shudder. But we could have helped in other ways. In retrospect, we chided ourselves for not stopping to offer whatever we could.
More Thunder and Rain
We stopped in New Braunfels, where the Guadalupe River State Park was shut down due to flooding, but surprisingly people were flocking to the river for tubing and rafting. When I noted my surprise to a tube rental employee, she said, “Are you kidding? The river’s never been this high or fast. This is the best ever!” I was so hot in the muggy 93 degrees, I actually considered it. But one look at the muddy, debris-infused water and the rapids in rocky areas, and I was convinced these people were crazy. As were the ones camping on the river’s edge.
We stayed there three nights, and for two of them there were wild thunderstorms. One set off a flash flood alert on our phones in the night. We were on high ground but wondered about all the campers down on the river’s edge.
Beth and Don’s house in Sugar Land was unaffected by the storms, but in Houston proper, there was horrible flooding. I-45 was turned into a river floating with cars. I-10 was closed. People were stranded in malls and at a stadium. Homes underwater. More than 80,000 were without electricity. Houston and many other counties were declared a state of disaster by the governor, and Texas (who had petitioned for secession from the union not long ago) was now eager to receive federal disaster relief.
Skeeters in Corpus Christi
From New Braunfels, we headed southeast to Goose Island State Park, near Corpus Christi, to meet Beth and Don again. It was the only state park in eastern Texas that was still open, the rest all closed due to flooding. And it looked like Corpus Christi was going to be spared the next series of thunderstorms.
We did actually get decent weather there for a couple of days before a thunderstorm reached us, but all the recent rain had hatched record-breaking numbers of mosquitoes. We couldn’t step outside without slathering on the strongest form of repellent we could find, and even then the nasty insects dove into our ear canals and found their way under our clothes. Our arms and legs were splattered red and black with the carcasses of smashed mosquitoes.
Today we drove to Sugar Land and will stay the week at Beth and Don’s house. The weather is great but the rivers are still high. Tomorrow is the first day of hurricane season, and I’m thinking it’s about time we head north.