The ‘epic’ Wimberley flood of 2015
Eleven lives lost.
As Wimberley looks back on the Memorial Day Weekend Flood of 2015, it all starts there. Eleven people lost their lives. As tragic as that is, it could have been much worse.
“I was thinking the loss of life was going to be a hundred or so,” Wimberley Fire Chief Carroll Czichos said in “Wimberley: Epic Flood Tests a Small Town’s Strength,” a book produced by Stephen Klepfer, Nancy Williams and Carrol Wilson and published by the Wimberley Village Library with first hand narratives of the flood.
Beyond the loss of life, the loss of property and the scars left on nature in the Wimberley Valley are almost unfathomable. More than 350 homes were damaged or destroyed accounting for more than an estimated $100 million in damage. Since 2015, the city has issued 42 flood demolition permits and 229 flood remodel/repair permits, one of which was issued in 2020 compared to 178 in 2015.
More than 15,000 trees were washed away. In one night, an entire community changed.
(Editor’s Note: Many of the quotes about the night of the flood are excerpts from “Wimberley: Epic Flood Tests a Small Town’s Strength.” The book can still be purchased at the Wimberley Village Library.)
Friday, May 22, 2015
The week leading up to Memorial Day weekend was a normal one, but there was something that stood out.
“And so we believe that between Del Rio, Wimberley, Austin, Corpus Christi, if not record moisture was in the atmosphere, near record moisture or ‘percipitable’ water was in the atmosphere,” Paul Yura, warning coordinator with the Austin/San Antonio National Weather Service, said. “In other words, if the trigger was there, there would be incredible rainfall. And indeed that’s exactly what happened.”
Saturday, May 23, 2015 8:23 p .m.
A Flash Flood Warning was issued for Hays County even though it hadn’t really rained in Wimberley at all.
However, it was raining upstream in Blanco and Kendalia, and it was raining hard.
“Four inches first,” Yura said. “Then five. Our radar was estimating six, then seven, then in the eights and nines. You’re going, ‘OK, this is now getting bad.’ We start hearing some reports of flash flooding. Nothing in Wimberley yet. It’s hardly raining in Wimberley. And we start getting some first indications of how much water truly is coming into the Blanco River.”
Those indications were largely first hand glimpses of the river after an estimated 10 to 13 inches of rain fell at two different parts of the contributing watershed upstream. At that time, there was only one gauge on the river to tell how high the water was and that was located on the Blanco River bridge on Ranch Road 12. By the time that gauge measured the water, it had already passed through much of Wimberley. This means that most people relied on an old-timers network passing along the height of the river to the folks downstream.
“When they started giving us reports from general citizens saying it is the highest water they have ever seen, and realizing that, when you’re in a rural area like this, these people have probably been here 50, 60, 70 years,” Yura said. “It isn’t like this new person just came in and has lived here two years. When we hear, in rural counties, that someone has never seen water like this, we realize that information may go back two generations or three generations of stories. That got our attention.”.
Saturday, May 23, 2015 9:30 p.m.
The first call for help in the Wimberley Valley came in.
The woman was rescued from the second story of a house on stilts at the northern tip of the Wimberley Valley. That is when Czichos called Don Ferguson, who was Wimberley’s City Administrator at the time, and said get everyone out.
“What you do is reverse 9-1-1 to tell everybody to get the hell out,” Czichos recounted telling Ferguson. “I don’t care. Just tell them to leave. This is not going to be a normal flood.”
At about 9:45 p.m., the city opened the Wimberley Community Center as a shelter for people who would need to evacuate.
Saturday, May 23, 2015 10:30 p.m.
The gauge on the Blanco River at the Ranch Road 12 bridge began to rise. The Blanco River normally registers between three and four feet deep at the bridge. By 10:30 p.m. that number had risen to nearly nine feet, which is not even considered a flood, rather just a small rise in the river. But the fury of the river was still in tow. Glimpses at the flood gauge, which reports every 15 minutes, show just how startlingly fast the river can rise.
Tina Pennington, her husband, and her two daughters were one of the families displaced. The night of the flood, after all, was the middle of a holiday weekend. A sleepover with one of her daughter’s friends was happening.
Tina’s husband was in a small soundproof recording studio in a small building in the back. She texted him to come inside. She felt nervous but thought it could be that she fell off the coffee wagon and had four cups that day, against doctor’s orders.
“If I had not had that coffee, who knows,” Pennington said.
The first warning when she woke up was that something was wrong was the sound coming from the river.
“The sound gave me the thought that it was a tornado. The pool ring floated by. Water was bubbling through like a geyser all throughout the house. I then told the girls, ‘Get your shoes on we’re leaving.’”
The water was up, and still rising.
“We had to swim to get out the door and go up the hill next door,” Pennington said. “The electricity never turned off… Neighbors on the other side had to climb on their roof. It was pitch black and you couldn’t see.”
They were able to get help on the cell phone and were able to tell their neighbors that help was on the way.
For two hours the river would rise five feet every 15 minutes. That means, on average, the river raised one inch in height every 15 seconds.
“At 11:15 p.m. I came across the Blanco Bridge,” Julia Osborn said about her drive back from a flight from Colorado. “I remember Don Ferguson standing on the left side of the bridge. I came home and went to bed. I think I was the last one over the bridge for a while.”
Meanwhile, just a little down the river, Gail Pigg remembers that “it was a bad, bad night… Around 11:15 p.m. the alerts said what a significant flood we had (coming later). We went out to the high point of Flite Acres. We looked and it was bad. The worst we ever had seen.”
At 11:30 p.m. a house on Deer Crossing Lane was knocked off the piers and began floating down the Blanco River. Jonathan McComb would be the only person out of nine in that home that would survive.
Around this time, the power went out at the Wimberley Community Center, where more than 100 people had gone to evacuate from their homes. Wimberley High School was opened as the new shelter on the north side of Wimberley. Cypress Creek Church acted as a shelter on the south side of the Blanco River.
Sunday, May 24, 2015 12:00 a.m.
Within minutes of the strike of midnight, the Blanco River breached the bridge on Ranch Road 12. At midnight the height of the river was of 32.43 feet all but breaking the height of the record flood in 1929 of 33.3 feet. This was the moment that Wimberley knew it was seeing a flood that had never been seen before. By 12:30 a.m., the water was a 37.58 feet.
“When the water hit town, it hit with a debris load like you could not imagine,” Ferguson said. “It began to tear through the community.”
The memories of those who experienced the flood are either first hand of swimming through the waters to reach safety or watching their possessions wash away. The terrifying moments of not knowing how high the water was going to rise. There are very few visual images of the flood as it occurred in the dark of night. Many of the most vivid memories are of the sounds. The shockwave of snapping cypress trees could be felt as much as heard as trees that had stood for hundreds of years were broken in two. The sound of houses crumbing as they floated down the river and crashed into the bridge felt like earthquakes.
“You’re pinned in darkness, and the noises you hear are unforgettable,” Ferguson said. “You hear propane tanks popping off. You hear trees snapping like firecrackers. You see a lot of things in the water that I really don’t want to talk about. You’ve done what you can and, at that stage of the game, you’re living on a prayer.”
Sunday, May 24, 2015 1 a.m.
“And then it went to 36 (feet),” Jim Spencer, KXAN weatherman, said. “And then it went to 38. And at this point, I remember saying things that I’ve really never said before. ‘I have never seen anything like this. You have never seen anything like this. No one in their lifetime…’” The gauge on the Blanco River responded for the last time at 40.21 feet. The force of the water washed the gauge away.
“We thought that the gauge had lost power – but it’s got backup power so we didn’t really think that was what had happened,” Spencer said. “The more likely scenario was that the gauge had been damaged or washed away… The gauge was just literally washed away because that was an historical flood.”
Record height is eventually recorded as 44.9 feet, more than 11 feet higher than the previous record flood. But that is just the official record. There are reports from property owners of water rising more than 55 feet in other portions of the river.
The damage from the flood could not truly be known until sunrise.
Sunday, May 23, 2015 6:35 a.m. – Daylight
The next day people were in shock. The devastation was unbelievable.
“When daylight came and we were able to get out and see what had happened, it was more like a tornado that hit the river,” Steve Thurber, then mayor of Wimberley, said.
At this point, officials weren’t sure how many people were missing. First Responders were going house to house to try and confirm where everyone was. Search teams and helicopters went to scan the riverbanks.
“It was depressing to see so many depressed people,” Colleen Judd, who lived next door to the McComb’s home that washed away, said. As for herself, Colleen said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” reflecting back on the moment.
Houses were buried in mud. Shelters on both sides of the river, south of the river at Cypress Creek Church and north, the gym at the high school. By the time the sun rose, cars lined the streets with people bringing donations to the some 400 people who were in the WHS shelter.
Patio furniture had somehow made it inside the Pennington’s home with the doors shut.
“Mud sealed up an entrance that had to be broken into.” Appliances were smashed, everything was in mud, “I realize how lucky my family and the children were able to get out. If I had not woken up, what would’ve happened?”
It turns out that extra coffee may have saved their lives.
Finally they were able to check on the neighborhood. Everyone had made it out and was now OK. The digging out would start. Over the coming hours, days, weeks and months, thousands of people descended upon Wimberley to volunteer to help. There may never have been a more appropriate example of neighbors helping neighbors. Katherine Deichmann was one of the many locals that dug in to help.
“I was eight months pregnant. My brother Triston, boyfriend Tyler and I helped for two straight days with Cathy Cunningham’s blue log cabin on Edgewater. The flood took the ashes of her two sons and dog. I was able to find her dog’s and one son’s ashes. She was so distraught and walking around barefoot. I had to make her sit down and rest every now and then. The water went all the way upstairs.”
“We helped several other houses down Flite Acres.” Pitching in and digging out was now in vogue. The Ranch Road 12 bridge over the Blanco River divided the city in half, but the community kept on working to help those affected.
Dave Osborn remembers going out in the rain on Sunday morning on County Road 1492.
“The next day at 6:30- 6:45 in the morning, Travis Brown, Deputy Constable, was calling to let me know we were isolated from the city. He was the only constable on this side of the river and was going home to get some sleep and come get him if anything happens.”
Osborn jumped in his golf cart and drove down to the Blanco, about a mile or so. A house on Blanco Bend West had a walnut tree down that was so big the house could hardly be seen. The homeowner walked out holding and drinking a Bud Light.
Osborn soon realized that the owner was in shock. “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? He said, ‘We’re fine but everything is gone. I don’t know what to do.’” Osborn and family pitched in to help clean his place. The next day it was off to Paradise Valley.
May 25, 2015
The recovery effort would not be short lived. Supplies had to be trucked in. Ace Hardware became a center for food and information as well as supplies. South River was the Volunteer Resource Center on the south side. The town was split in two because the Blanco River bridge was impassable. In order to get from one part of the city to another, the trip entailed a drive to Kyle then to San Marcos before returning back to Wimberley.
People and businesses volunteered and donated funds very quickly.
The clean up volunteers at first included individuals, families, friends and soon included people from all over the country who just wanted to help. Non-profit groups like My Neighbor’s Keeper and the Blanco River Regional Recovery Team were formed or adjusted to help meet local needs.
The voice of Brookshire Brothers, Ken Kimmons, was one of the volunteers. He helped make sandwiches for all the workers up and down the river. He summed the feeling of the entire community.
“ I love Wimberley. It is such a giving community, and we came together like we always do.”
In the end, more than 6,000 volunteers put in approximately 47,000 hours of time following the flood to help with the recovery, and that is just the hours and volunteers that were documented.
May 21, 2020 Today
Five years after the flood, the overwhelming majority of homes have been rebuilt yet there are still a few blight reminders dotting the riverside.
Those who were here before the flood drive down River Road and miss the canopy of cypress trees that used to shade the asphalt.
Today, the effects of the flood are harder to see.
“I didn’t realize it had impacted me so much,” Johnna Dennis said. “It took me almost four years to realize how much it hit me.”
Dennis was one of the many people whose homes were seriously damaged in the flood. She escaped that night before the water reached her house after listening and heeding the warnings. She spent the night in a neighbor’s barn without power or internet service not knowing just how bad it was until the next morning.
“We were standing out there and the helicopters were flying for the search and rescue,” Dennis said. “The sound of the river and the sky... I have never experienced war but that is the closest thing I’ve experienced that was so bad. It looked like a tornado had gone through the river and the rain and helicopters and the destruction.”
Not too long after the flood, Dennis battled cancer. The fight took all of her power and focus, which kept her from recognizing some of the issues she still had from the flood.
“Last May we had rains like this,” Dennis said. “We were at school talking about Mother’s Day gifts, and I was in a team meeting. I was trying to show them how to do something and my hands were shaking. I was having a hard time talking. Finally they said, ‘Go home. You don’t need to be up here. Go home and see that everything is OK.’”
Another experience with rising water caused her “body to shut down.” She went to a therapist to help her deal with the anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I just didn’t know how bad it was,” Dennis said. “I just knew that when it rained it bothered me. I knew it bothered other people as well, and it just seemed like that was normal.”
She said that three sessions helped the logical part of her brain take over from the emotional part of her brain to understand that this issue is now behind her.
“I didn’t have one trigger when we had these hard rains last week,” Dennis said.
It is all part of the healing process that both individuals and the community are still going through five years later.
Scott Vaughan spent the night of the flood on the roof of his guesthouse with his wife, family friends and dogs until a kayak floated down the river. They were able to use it to paddle to higher ground.
“It is hard to believe it has been five years,” Vaughan said. “I feel like we are over the hump. I always felt that this recovery would take three years, which it took every bit of. To a degree you are still recovering.”
The Vaughans still own the property that was flooded, but they have moved to a home on the other side of the river.
“It is still sad because you see where your home was, and it is totally gone, including the slab, like it was never there,” Vaughan said. “That is weird. On the other hand, it allowed us to land at our old family property, which has been in the family for 103 years and there was a chance the family would lose it after the flood. (This property had also flooded significantly.) We were fortunate to be able to take over this property and restore it as well. We had to tear down one house and rebuild another.”
It may be hard to imagine, but there are some silver linings that have come from the destruction.
“People kept saying things happen for a reason and at the time you couldn’t fathom the reason,” Vaughan said. “But now five years later you can see a reason, at least for us. We are in a better spot. Where our home is now is the spot that when my mom was a baby my grandmother used to wash the kids down in front of our place… Now I get out there and see my grandkids playing in the exact same spot that we’ve been at since my mom was a baby. It means a lot.”
As the years go by and the seasons turn, healing is taking place – even if it seems a bit slow at times.
“It is an evolution,” Vaughan said. “You’d like to feel like you are in control of it, but the truth is you aren’t. You roll with the punches. I think the community has rolled with the punches. You drive around now, and it’s not as noticeable. You still see some broken trees on River Road and on our property the giant cypress trees are all gone. It is hard to relate to that, but now I see some new cypress trees coming up, and these sycamores are growing quickly again. It is beginning to look like a normal riverbank. That healing process is natural for the river. It is also natural for the community… I think it is inherent with us, and we roll with the punches, rebuild and go on. That is all you can do.”
Memorial Weekend Flood 2015 Victims
Jose Alvaro Arteaga-Pichardo, age 29
Ralph Hugh Carey, age 73
Sue McNeil Carey, age 71
Michelle Marie Carey-Charba, age 43
William Charba, age 6
William Randall Charba, age 42
Jonathan Andrew McComb, age 6
Laura Schultz McComb, age 34
Leighton McComb, age 4
Kenneth Reissig, age 81
Dayton Larry Thomas, age 74
Leighton McComb and William
Charba have not been found
Flood by the Numbers
• 11 lives lost • More than 100 swift water rescues • Approximately 350 homes damaged or destroyed • More than 15,000 trees were lost • Record height of 44.9 feet • Estimated flow of the Blanco River was 175,000 cubic feet per second • Estimated 8,445,560,000 cubic feet of water passed through Wimberley • More than 6,000 volunteers put in approximately 47,000 hours of time helping the recovery • At one point the Blanco River was rising at a rate of 5 feet every 15 minutes
Information compiled in 'Wimberley: Epic Flood Tests a Small Town's Strength"
Timeline Ranch Road 12 bridge over Blanco River Saturday, May 23, 2015
8:23 p.m. - Flash Flood Warning issued for Hays County until 11:15 p.m.
10:30 p.m. - The Blanco River was at 8.89 feet at the Blanco River bridge on Ranch Road 12. The first, and lowest, flood stage on the Blanco River in Wimberley is 13 feet. Flood stage had not been reached. On a normal day, the Blanco River is three to four feet in height at the gauge.
10:45 p.m. - The Blanco River reached 12.11 feet, nearly reaching the lowest flood level.
11 p.m. - The Blanco River reached 17.12 feet crossing both the initial Flood Stage and also into what is considered the Moderate Flood Stage.
11:13 p.m., - Flash Flood Warning was reissued for Hays County until 2:15 a.m.
11: 15 p.m. - The Blanco River reached 21.73 feet, just four feet below reaching some low lying houses in the Wimberley Valley.
11:24 p.m. – Flash Flood Emergency issued for areas including Wimberley and Woodcreek.
11:30 p.m. – The Blanco River reaches 26.05 feet and begins to enter the lowest level houses in Wimberley.
11:45 p.m. – The Blanco River reaches 30 feet in height.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
12 a.m. – At the stroke of midnight, the Blanco River reaches the the height of 32.43 feet for the first time. A new record flood has been all but set in the Wimberley Valley soon breaking the record from 1929.
12:30 p.m. – The Blanco River continues to rise rapidly reaching 37.58 fee and has now topped the Blanco River bridge on Ranch Road 12.
1 a.m. – At 40.21 feet, the river gauge at the Blanco River Bridge washed away.
Record height is eventually recorded as 44.9 feet, more than 11 feet higher than the previous record flood. But that is just the official record at the Blanco River bridge. There are multiple reports of water rising more than 60 feet in other portions of the river.