Reader Memories of 1981 Memorial Day Flood in Austin: Part 1.

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Wrecker drivers Mike Lind and John Yonnie prepare to remove cars from 5th and Shoal Creek. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.
Flooding at Whole Foods Market at 10th and Lamar. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.

Flooding at Whole Foods Market at 10th and Lamar. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.

How can I forget the rainy storm during the Memorial weekend in 1981 in Austin, Texas? My eldest brother drove my red 1976 Nova Chevrolet with two of my sisters and me in the car as we left the Holy Cross Hospital on East 19th Street (Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) going north to go home, leaving my mother alone in the hospital with my father who was in coma as a result of his terminal lung cancer. It rained very heavily and the twilight skies were dark as if they mourned my father. We spoke little and as soon as we turned from MLK heading north on Hwy 183, the lighning followed by thunder, then the heavy pouring made the visibility near zero. The car crawled pass Loyola Lane and my brother said he hoped to find an overpass for us to stop under. There was none. ​All the cars along 183 inched little by little and we finally got to the intersection of 183 and Manor/Springdale. The rain water poured downhill as we turned from Springdale toward our home near LBJ High School; the lightning and thunder continued. Six days later my father took his last breath. — Dr. Kim Thinh Hovanky

Fina Mae Ross shows the water line where flooding came in her house on Shoal Creek Blvd. in North Austin. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.

Fina Mae Ross shows the water line where flooding came in her house on Shoal Creek Blvd. in North Austin. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.

Like a lot of people, I went to sleep during a terrible rain storm the night before Memorial Day in 1981. I woke up early to go to work at Kinsolving Dorm and  was in complete disbelief to see a river in front of my duplex. My duplex was at 1308 Old 19th St.   A dead-end street with only one address on it. It was situated right behind and a little higher on the hill from, then KVET-CASE radio station. KVET-CASE would be the building on very high concrete pilings at the intersection of MLK and Lamar. Of course we had no phone or electricity, so I walked to the bottom of my driveway and swan to the radio station to call my employer that I wasn’t making it into work. The folks in the back office saw me swimming and opened a window for me to climb in. The water came right up to the top of the concrete pilings. After an unsuccessful attempt to contact Kinsolving, I swam back to my duplex to wait it out. 24 hours later, still with no electricity and no way to get out of our duplex, we lit candles and combined our food resources with our nice duplex neighbors until the water receded. To this day I remember sitting on the roof deck and seeing nothing but water over our beloved “front yard” Pease Park. — Peggy Little

Wrecker drivers Mike Lind and John Yonnie prepare to remove cars from 5th and Shoal Creek. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.

Wrecker drivers Mike Lind and John Yonnie prepare to remove cars from 5th and Shoal Creek. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman.

I was 19 years old at the time, working as a bus boy at the County Line on the Hill on Bee Caves Road. My family at the time lived in the New Camelot subdivision across Bee Caves from the County Line and I used to walk to work … back when the traffic on the road was probably 1/10th of what it is today. Of course, because of its hilltop position, the restaurant didn’t suffer any flooding.  The manager that night was a woman around the age of my mother. We were getting updates on the flooding via radio. She knew that I had walked to work … she actually lived in the same neighborhood. So when she asked me how I was getting home I replied: “Backstroke!” The only damage that my home sustained was a load of debris in the pool, given that the house was located on a slope. I remember the flooding along Lamar … pianos and other musical instruments floating down the street from Strait Music, cars from a Volkswagen dealership along the same stretch of Lamar bobbing in the current. Also badly hit was a strip shopping center in Rollingwood at the first bend in the road as you were headed westbound — it was badly damaged — I seem to remember that there was a Schlotzky’s location there. — Mike Gwynn

Eric Moody and Mark Mann check some of the home furnishings washing out of the door of Louis Shanks Furniture or North Lamar. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. File photo.

Eric Moody and Mark Mann check some of the home furnishings washing out of the door of Louis Shanks Furniture or North Lamar. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. File photo.

I feel rather guilty about my experience, to tell you the truth. I was 27 years old, living in an old two-story frame house at 705 West 11th St, where I was paying a whopping $125 a month rent. I had entered my weekend with the simple joy of having three days off from work, and without television, radio or phone at the time, I was blissfully unaware of the chaos just down the hill on Lamar. I spent the weekend enjoying the rain and doing arts and crafts. It wasn’t until I walked downtown to work on Congress Avenue the following Tuesday and stopped to pick up my morning paper (the American-Statesman, of course) at a stand near a local business that I learned of the devastation. I felt guilty then that I hadn’t known, and perhaps have been able to help someone in need. That’s my story! — Tina Jackson

The Dunn family returned home from the flood shelter at Palmer Auditorium to find the flood damage to their home in northeast Austin was not as bad as expected. Reginald, with his wife, points to how high the water and mud rose in their home. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Mike Boroff / American-Statesman.

The Dunn family returned home from the flood shelter at Palmer Auditorium to find the flood damage to their home in northeast Austin was not as bad as expected. Reginald, with his wife, points to how high the water and mud rose in their home. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Photo: Mike Boroff / American-Statesman.

One of the things that gets lost in the stories of the Memorial Day flood – and something that should be remembered this week with more storms coming – is that the flooding continued all week. I remember that because, in addition to barely escaping death on Memorial Day, I came within a whisker of missing my wedding a week later, on May 30. On Memorial Day Saturday, my future wife and I were out sailing at our family lake house on the Hudson’s Bend area of Lake Travis. As the day got late, we decided to head back into Austin for dinner with her parents. We finished packing up the car and started the car to leave when we noticed a black wall moving slowly downstream. Just ahead of the wall, a 22-foot sailboat was desperately tacking back and forth, trying to stay ahead. They lost the fight, and just in front of our cabin the sailboat disappeared into one of the strongest deluges of rain and hail I have ever experienced in 58 years as an Austinite. In seconds, we went from bright sunshine to a black, moonless night. I turned the car headlights on and struggled to safely guide the car under the shelter of the carport ten feet away. I never heard what happened to the sailboat. When the storm let up a bit, we headed into town. At Elizabeth’s parent’s house on north MoPac, the rain was falling so hard it was coming down the chimney and flooding the living room. We used towels and clothing to build a barricade, and Mom stayed busy mopping up the streaming water behind the line of towels. I was worried that I left my windows up at my house at 32nd and Guadalupe, so Elizabeth and I decided to make the trip to check it out. Driving slowly through the torrent, we headed down an on-ramp onto MoPac. But I couldn’t see the highway, so I stopped. Elizabeth was yelling at me that I couldn’t stop on an on-ramp, but when I stepped out of the car to see what was going on, my foot descended into what was already a foot of water, and rising. If I hadn’t stopped we would have driven into a river that had inundated MoPac at that point, and would almost certainly have been part of the death toll for that night. We backed up the ramp and returned to her parent’s house for the night. A week later, on Saturday afternoon the clouds looked threatening but the worst seemed over. As I drove my old Buick down Lamar to pick up my groom’s cake at Sweetish Hill, it started raining again, and by the time I headed back up Lamar to my house, Lamar had become impassable. Surrounded by water, I drove up onto a grassy hillside to escape, and became trapped. Since cell phones didn’t exist back then to call for help, I had to wait hours for the water to recede. When it finally did, I raced home, grabbed my tux and sped to All Saint’s Episcopal Church on the UT campus, now over an hour late. The Rev. Chris Hines was just starting to address the packed church, explaining that I was the first runaway groom he had ever experienced, when I burst into the church, soaked from the rain with my tux and cake in hand. Luckily, the rain subsided during the service, and when we arrived at the Headliners Club for the reception, perched atop a bank tower in downtown Austin, we were rewarded with a triple rainbow arcing across the southwest. A great omen for what in a few days will be 34 years with the greatest women I have ever met. And a wedding week I will never forget. — Howard Fomby


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