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'Seek Higher Ground Immediately': Sifting Through the Wreckage of Texas' Deadly Floods

At least 27 people are dead from severe storms and flooding in Texas, where legislators have yet to enact policies that address projected climate change impacts on the state's infrastructure.

by Eva Hershaw
Jun 1 2015, 2:05pm

Photo by Eva Hershaw

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The one thing that Kara Buse may never forget about the night the Blanco River crested at 43 feet is the sound that the old towering cypress trees made as they surrendered, one by one, to the rushing waters of the historic Memorial Day weekend flood.

"That sound keeps replaying over and over in my mind," Kara told VICE News. Her husband Bryan, who has lived on the Blanco since he was five, said that each one "rang out like a shotgun" as it snapped.

The couple was staying in his childhood home in Wimberly when the river began to swell just after 11 pm on Saturday. The last thing they heard before the power went out, leaving them in the dark, was a firm voice on a local news station: If you live along the Blanco River, seek higher ground immediately.

With no roads out and the water quickly rising, they began walking across the surrounding Hill Country with a number of stranded neighbors. Five miles later, around 4 am, they were picked up by a family member on a local road.

That night, the Blanco would crest nearly 10 feet higher than its previous record of 34.4 feet, set in 1929, and almost 30 feet above the flood stage at 13 feet. Once the water went down, Kara and Bryan returned to the house to assess the damage.

"I went to the river and just stood there among the mangled trees," Bryan told VICE News. "Nothing could prepare you for that kind of devastation."

The remains of a road that crossed the Blanco River are visible as the water recedes, but the missing bark shows how high the water rose over Memorial Day weekend.

Bryan and Kara Buse survey the damage left by the historic Memorial Day weekend floods.

Across central Texas, flooding since Memorial Day weekend has killed at least eight people and statewide the death tally stands at 27, while 11 more remain missing. Governor Greg Abbott has declared a state of disaster in 70 counties and over the weekend President Obama announced that federal aid would be sent to three of the worst hit. Damage in Hays County alone, which includes Wimberly, is estimated at $32.7 million.

While the rain continues to fall, receding waters have allowed space for reflection in a state where population growth in some of its most vulnerable regions has outpaced aging infrastructure. Climate scientists have taken the opportunity to point out the need for more action, indicating that the past week's events are but a taste of what the state can expect in a warmer future with more extreme weather events.

San Marcos lies fifteen miles east of Wimberly. It is the fastest-growing city in the United States and sits within Hays County, the fifth-fastest-growing county in the country. The area is known as "flash flood alley" for its steep slopes, shallow soil, and high rates of rainfall. A population boom means there's a larger human footprint, replacing natural surfaces that once absorbed rainfall and floodwaters with impermeable ones, like concrete and asphalt.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has given Texas a D grade for flood control, noting that there is no statewide floodplain management plan despite the state paying out more in flood claims than any other state.

Related: Extreme weather displaces far more people than war — and it's getting worse

Last Friday, when the legislature voted on the state's biannual budget, longtime Democratic Representative Sylvester Turner, from Houston, derided his colleagues for failing to dedicate sufficient funds to update state infrastructure that might protect residents from extreme weather events.

"This week's rain and floods have made it clear. If we do not invest in our infrastructure in a very real way, all of us will suffer, whether we are in urban Texas or rural Texas," Turner said. "I think we made a serious mistake."

And, while the budget eventually passed, the legislature failed to pass any bills calling for studies or planning measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change across the state. Session comes to a close on Monday, and only one of those bills — calling for state agencies to consider climate change in strategic plans — even made it to debate on the House floor.

This comes despite the fact that several climate scientists, including the Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, have affirmed that the heavy rainfall experienced across the state is constant with what scientists expect in a warming world. A report by Climate Central shows that 40 of the lower 48 states have seen an overall increase in heavy downpours since 1950.

Across Texas, the recent rains have smashed historic records. In Austin, seventeen and a half inches of rain fell in May, making it the wettest May on record since 1895, when the city received 14.1 inches. The statewide average for the month, currently at 7.5 inches, easily beats the previous record for the wettest month statewide, set in June of 2004 at 6.6 inches.

But prior to the recent rains, Texas found itself in the grips of an ongoing drought that, since 2010, has cost the state more than $8 billion in agricultural losses. This rapid swing from dry to wet is what some have described as "weather whiplash."

"We have already begun seeing a trend towards more intense rainfall, while at the same time more intense periods of drought — indication that expectations of weather whiplash as a result of climate change are well placed," Climate Nexus, a non-profit research and advocacy group, said in a statement last week.

A volunteer worker gazes through what were once the river-side windows of the Buse river house. 

Back in San Marcos, Lee Buse, Bryan's father, digs through some oil samples he has recovered from the flood. As an independent geologist, he has spent his life traveling the world, predicting where oil and gas lie beneath the surface.

"I am just now finding out what has been saved," Lee Buse told VICE News, pushing aside jars and asking, in a thick Texas accent, if anyone had seen his prized oil sample from Russia.

"This was filled with Siberian oil," he said, as Bryan handed him a cracked, horse-shaped jar. "It was from the first joint venture between Russia and the US — I was there for it, and now it's gone."

A few miles away, local musicians have gathered in the center of Wimberly to play a benefit concert for flood victims. Statewide, relief efforts have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

At the Buse residents, a busload of volunteers showed up that morning with gloves on, ready to help.

"When I saw that overwhelming support, I teared up and cried," said Lee. "All these strangers coming to help me. I mean, my family has to help - but these were strangers."

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Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva

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