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Michael Barnes

Reader Memories of 1981 Memorial Day Flood in Austin: Part 2

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5640935088_ef7e381f17_bI remember this like it was yesterday. I was 11 years old and living in Tarrytown. A few friends and I rode our bikes down to 6th Street and North Lamar Boulevard. Back then, it was mostly car dealerships; no Whole Foods, or trendy shops. Straight Music was at Lamar and about 9th, and it was totally destroyed. We knew that place because that’s where everyone bought their band instruments. Pianos had floated out of the store and were in the middle of the road. The car lots were full of hundreds of cars all caked in mud and debris. Cars were strewn all over the place and many ended up in Town Lake (Lady Bird lake before it had been renamed). — Dude Spellings

Ham-radio operator Claude Green, left, joins Austin police officer Alvin Devane and Gerald Macias, city communications director, in the disaster center set up in the Waterloo EMS station, near 15th and Red River streets. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Kenneth Geiger / American-Statesman

Ham-radio operator Claude Green, left, joins Austin police officer Alvin Devane and Gerald Macias, city communications director, in the disaster center set up in the Waterloo EMS station, near 15th and Red River streets. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Kenneth Geiger / American-Statesman

It was Saturday night and I was going to roller skating rink on Lamar Boulevard  The news said it would be raining that afternoon and evening but there was nothing about flooding.  I drove down Koenig Lane to get there. There is a bridge and a small stream before you get to Lamar. I spent the whole evening skating, having a good time. Midnight was closing time so I got into my small foreign made station wagon and drove slowly down Lamar. It was  raining very hard and I noticed the street lights were out. I turned down Koenig Lane. It was very, very dark. I had no way of seeing the water that was rushing over the bridge. Blackness was what I saw. I drove right into that water. I had had no experience with fast moving water. I looked through the front window and there was no car or person. I looked in the back window and there was no one there either. I was alone and got scared because the car started wobbling and I knew I had to get out! I pushed the door hard and when it opened water rushed in. I struggled to get out of the car. I looked to my left but nobody was there. The water was at my knees and pushing me hard against the car as I struggled to move to the back. I looked up and saw someone standing there at the side of this wild river. The water was midway to my thighs now. As he came forward I saw he was a tall and well-muscled man. He took my hand and guided me to safety and helped me into his truck. I had the distinct impression the car was rusty. The back window was very small and the radio reminded me of my grandfather’s truck. When the man was seated he turned and looked at me with large soft brown eyes. His eyes were quite extraordinary. I felt very safe with this stranger. He asked me where I lived and knew exactly where it was. I was so grateful to him for coming to my rescue that my mouth ran on. In the quiet spaces between my words he did not speak. I never found out who he was. He stopped his truck and I said thank you again wanting to give him some money. He said everything was alright. I got out of the stranger’s truck, walked two steps, turned to wave at him and he was gone!  He had stopped his truck.  Again, one moment I said good-by, walked two steps, turned and he and his truck were no longer there! It took me several months to wrap my head around the fact that I had been saved by an angel. — Nickla Heudier

Intersection 1st Street and mouth of Shoal Creek: What used to be new Toyotas are pulled out of the creek. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. American-Statesman file photo.

Intersection 1st Street and mouth of Shoal Creek: What used to be new Toyotas are pulled out of the creek. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. American-Statesman file photo.

My wife and two children were in Austin on Memorial Day weekend 1981, but I was speaking and performing magic at a military conference in Germany. During a break, I was reading the Stars and Stripes, the military tabloid newspaper in Europe, and I couldn’t believe the headline: “Flash floods kill 7 in Austin, Texas; damage is heavy.” as I recall, the entire back page was filled with photos of the flood damage. We didn’t have cell phones, email, or even Skype back then. Getting a transatlantic call back to my wife required calling in some favors. But I made it through, and she and the kids were okay. The biggest news story in Germany was flooding in my home town in Texas. Stevie Ray Vaughn wouldn’t perform “Texas Flood” for two more years, but whenever I hear it, I still think about that day. — Kent Cummins

Manager Steve Brown, left, walks through Jack Brown's store destroyed at Rollingwood Plaza. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin.  Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman

Manager Steve Brown, left, walks through Jack Brown’s store destroyed at Rollingwood Plaza. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Bob Daemmrich / American-Statesman

On Memorial Day, 1981, I was living in Round Rock with my husband and two children. We lived in Round Rock West subdivision and fortunately lived on high ground because our neighbors on Lake Creek experienced the same fate as those on Shoal Creek, having their homes inundated with torrents of water. The crossings over the creek were out of commission dividing the subdivision north and south. We walked down to the area to see what had happened to our neighborhood and later that day my husband called to report on the devastation at Shoal Creek. He was a service writer at Covert Buick, which was always open on Memorial Day, and couldn’t believe all the new cars in their storage lot behind Huts Hamburgers had been washed into the creek and were mixed up with cars that had washed down from further up the creek. We of course drove down to see him and stood on the edge looking at the jumble of cars battered in all positions possible, wondering if there was anyone in there. Most of them had been spray painted to indicate they had been checked. My 44-year-old daughter still thinks about a VW she spotted and if someone was in it went it went into the creek. When I returned home I got a call that one of my coworkers at the COA and his wife had been killed in Shoal Creek. He went around the barrier on Shoal Creek Street and drove into the water. They had been to a party and she was asleep in the car according to witnesses. I worked in the same small office with this man and 4 others for several years. Later that week we attended their funeral together. This past weekend we watched the news of the flooding again, only this time from high ground above the San Gabriel River. I feel very fortunate that I have avoided Mother Nature’s wrath yet again. We moved here just months before the Labor Day fire in Bastrop, after selling our home in the area of the fire. I went back there too, not to look, but to work at the animal shelter I had volunteered at before moving. It was the least I could do to help. — Linda Mitchell

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. American-Statesman 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. American-Statesman file photo.

I was the chief photographer at KVUE, “Action News.” I awoke to the sound of pounding rain on my Crestview house. There was so much rain that my backyard had three feet of water that just couldn’t drain away fast enough. I went into work, picked up my CP-16 film camera, and started shooting the disaster on Shoal Creek. I first went down to the car dealerships next to Whole Foods around 11th and Lamar. Most cars were gone, but the headlights of one Mazda with popups, was opening and closing continuously on it’s own. Next call on the police/emergency scanner was for a body found at 45th and Shoal Creek. When I walked down from the 45th Street bridge, I saw EMS in a pow wow planning their next move. When I asked where the body was, one of them pointed up. And in the trees 25 feet above me, there it was, tangled in the high branches above street level. They had to use block and tackle to bring it down. — Jim Bowen

This water-logged teddy bear belonging to one of the sons of Sonya Baez on Jefferson was put on a car to dry in the sun. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Mike Boroff / American-Statesman

This water-logged teddy bear belonging to one of the sons of Sonya Baez on Jefferson was put on a car to dry in the sun. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Mike Boroff / American-Statesman

At the time, I lived in a tiny “efficiency” apartment at 4501 Speedway, maybe 25 yards from the bed of Waller Creek (and four blocks from where I live today).  The weather had been wet for several days before that Sunday, and the ground was saturated. That afternoon the sun came out, but everything was horribly hot and muggy. A friend of mine was in from Nacogdoches to spend the weekend, and a mutual friend of ours also came over to visit that evening.  A little before dark, the thunderstorm that had been threatening all day turned loose, and we got rain of a sort that I’ve only seen once or twice in my life.  Official weather records count 10 inches of rain in four hours; other sources say more than 12 inches fell. We heard and commented on how heavy the rain was, but didn’t realize just how bad it had gotten until one of us looked out the window and saw water over the concrete walkway — not standing, but moving water, and it looked to be coming up. We all began at once to pile my floor-level stuff onto taller things, because we had no idea how serious it might get.  (That effort saved my vinyl collection and my books and magazines from being ruined.) Meanwhile, it was still raining and the water kept rising. We decided we’d be best off to get up to the second floor of the building while we could, and I started to open the door. Fortunately, Liz (my friend from Nacogdoches) stopped me and pointed out that the water, which by now was coming in around the door, was only an inch or two deep inside the apartment but more than a foot deep outside. I took her point, and we all climbed out the apartment’s one window and dropped into knee-deep water. The building, and the apartments next to it, created a kind of backwater where we were, so we didn’t have to fight the current to get to the stairs. We climbed up, and found seven or eight other people up there as well — some of them residents, others people who’d pulled into our parking lot to try to get out of the spreading pool.  Someone brought out a jug of wine and some plastic cups, and we passed them round as we stood on the walkway. Strangely, the storm didn’t have much wind with it, so we were all able to stay dry as we watched the flood happen.  An Austin Police Department patrol car had been parked earlier at the intersection with lights on, but the rising water floated it so it bobbed across the intersection until it fetched up against a light-pole guy wire, lights still going. The rain let up an hour or so later, and a couple of hours after that the water went down enough that our local friend was able to get his car out and go home. The apartment was, of course, uninhabitable with mud and wet, so Liz and I spent the night on the couches at the Canterbury Association, since I still had keys (after my term as an officer was over, the chaplain never asked me for them back). The landlord had to rip out and replace all the carpet and most of the furniture, so I camped out for a week or so until repairs were done. — Sam Waring

Strait Music Co. on Lamar, the day after the deluge. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Chuck Flores / American-Statesman

Strait Music Co. on Lamar, the day after the deluge. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Chuck Flores / American-Statesman

I have lived in Austin since 1965 and here is my 1981 deluge account! Hearing a break in the torrential rains, I headed out on foot from my garage apartment on Pressler between Fifth and Sixth streets to buy some milk which I would need in the morning. It was Sunday night after 10 p.m., and no one was out. There was a convenience store on the southwest corner of Ninth and Lamar, so I headed up Lamar from Sixth Street and was just walking into the store entrance when I saw a fleet of cars floating down Lamar from their lot at 12th Street! I alerted the store clerk to call someone, and we went out and watched Whole Foods on the west side of the street fill up with water. Suddenly we noticed a man clinging to a parking sign around where Louis Shanks used to be, and it was around then that a few police had arrived. Around the time I believed he would be rescued, I walked home in mild shock from seeing such an unexpected spectacle! All for a quart of milk. — Eric Bieri

Raging flood waters crumpled this wall at Rollingwood Plaza. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Stanley Farrar / American-Statesman

Raging flood waters crumpled this wall at Rollingwood Plaza. 1981 Memorial Day flood in Austin. Stanley Farrar / American-Statesman

In 1981, I was living on Bullard Drive in a rented duplex. Bullard backs up to Shoal Creek on the east side, I lived on the west side, about 1/2 block from the intersection of Shoal Creek Boulevard and White Horse Trail. I was in Atlanta for a business convention over Memorial Day weekend. A colleague called my hotel room around 7:30 a.m. EST, as I was getting dressed to go to my first meeting, saying “You’d better turn on your TV, Austin’s on the news!” I did so immediately to see the devastating reports of flooding, then called my parents (who also live in Austin) right away to check on them, my sister, and conditions in Austin and my neighborhood. My mother said she knew it had rained hard, but they were OK, and hadn’t yet seen the news. I told them to hang up right nowturn on the news, and call me back! When they called back, my father said “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” I said “bad news first,” and he said “Your house flooded, but the good news is, only 6-8 inches and not nearly as bad as houses on the east side of the street.” And he went on to give me more details of the disaster, including how one of my neighbors, on the corner of Bullard and White Horse, had had her brick garage blown out. (As it turned out, she and her son were able to get out of the house and clung to a tree until they were rescued.  We heard later that another neighbor had died.) I got home a couple of days later to find my duplex beginning to dry out, as my parents had come over to move furniture out and pull up the soaked carpets. While all the furniture and other items that were on the floors had been damaged, nothing was irreplaceable, and I was, and am, forever grateful for the minimal effects compared to those of many others on my street and throughout Austin. I moved out of the Allandale neighborhood in 1983, but have never forgotten that time. It was a great lesson that, in the end, lives are what’s important, and the rest was just “stuff.”  That, and the kindness and support of an entire community who rallied to help neighbors and strangers. — Lynda Shanblum