Reader Memories of 1981 Memorial Day Flood in Austin: Part 3

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A wall of rain chases a sailboat on Lake Travis during May 1981.
A wall of rain chases a sailboat on Lake Travis during May 1981.

A wall of rain chases a sailboat on Lake Travis during May 1981.

More keep coming in …

“This framed picture hangs in our cabin in Milam County. A reminder of the flood. In the 70’s and 80’s we had a cabin on Comanche Trail, that had 3 levels of decks overlooking the Main Basin of Lake Travis. On the day the rains came I was sitting on the top deck when it began to rain. The top picture was taken from the top deck, and as the rain increased I went to the second deck,and on my way down I took the bottom photo. The photo shows the wall of rain, and a sailboat trying desperately to return to Marshal Ford Marina. The next day we returned to our home in Austin, and discovered we were victims of flooding. When I read your article this morning, I couldn’t help but realize this was the scene described. You may use the photo as needed.” — Bob Mann

This is a long but good story …

“My name is Michael Guess and I had just received my Masters degree from UT earlier that afternoon. It had been raining for days and I wasn’t certain if we would have commencement outdoors as planned. My folks had driven up from San Antonio, my hometown, for my graduation. UT has figured in my life a couple of times over the years at significant events in Austin history.

The first time was my first day of class in 1966 when Whitman was in the tower. I got locked up in Kinsolving dormitory while he was wreaking havoc below. The second time UT figured in my life was my graduation and later that night, spending it on the roof of my house as it started to drift down Shoal Creek.

After sending my folks back home after my graduation, I headed back to my old wooden frame house located on the banks of Shoal Creek, a few hundred yards off W. 6th Street from Hut’s Hamburgers on a street called Wood. I laid back on the couch with my headphones on listening to some very moving music when I thought I detected something more than the soundtrack.

I took off my headphones and it sounded like a freight train was going through the house. When I ran to the window I could see my car floating away down Shoal Creek. The creek had jumped its banks and was now a raging torrent, quickly climbing up past my back steps to the windows of my house.

No time to think. No cell phone or 911. I had to go to the phone book and look up the nearest fire department on the other side of Lamar. If I was going to be rescued they were the only ones that could do it. I called and called again. And again. I lost count and kept dialing until finally somebody on the other end yelled back at me that they didn’t know when they could get to me because their boat was already out rescuing people. He took the information and hung up. There was nothing else to do.

It’s funny what you do when you’re on automatic. I grabbed my wallet and my car keys even though my car was probably in Town Lake (Lady Bird) by now. I went out the back screen door and the water was already up to the top step. The only place to go was up, so I began climbing on top of the railing and reaching for the eve of the roof. Right then the other back door opened to a one room apartment that was also part of the house. The girl who lived there and her boyfriend stumbled out after too many margaritas from Jorge’s. They were in no shape for this event. Not sure I was either.

After swinging myself up on the roof I reached down and pulled them up after me, as well as her little cocker spaniel. We sat on the crest of the roof, straddling it in the driving rain trying to see if anyone was coming to rescue us. Every time the lightning flashed, the dog howled. I was nervous because we were all clustered around the TV antenna which was like a lightning rod.

It was spooky down below because the floodwaters were vacuuming out the entire house as we sat on the roof looking down at the light splintering through the Venetian blinds. We had a morbid sense of humor laughing at our possessions as they were being sucked out of our home. There goes my stereo! Yeah, there goes my waterbed. The next day, what was left that didn’t go down to the lake was scattered and caked in mud surrounding the foundation of what once was our house.

A garage with a guy hanging on for dear life floated past us down Shoal Creek and then shattered when it hit the 6th Street bridge. I prayed for that guy ‘cause I know he probably didn’t make it. We kept squinting in the driving sheets of rain, looking for our rescue boat. But all we saw was a weird parade of cars floating nose to tail in a strange conga line out of the service bay of McMorris Ford. It’s no longer there.

Off in the distance we kept hearing this rising and falling sound that turned out to be the boat’s motor trying to fight the flood’s whitewater rapids. It would nose forward and then slide back several times before it finally got close enough to our house for the fireman to reach out with this pike pole and hook onto the roof’s edge. We couldn’t hear anything they were saying because it was so loud from the flood, but we understood what they wanted.

It meant sliding down the top of the roof, blind, and hoping we would land in the boat instead of the water. I grabbed the dog, positioned it and slid it down the roof in the direction of the boat. Direct hit. Next went the girl and then the boyfriend. I closed my eyes and was hoping the boat hadn’t swung away as I let myself slide into the darkness. Wham! I landed on my back on the prow of the boat and got the wind knocked out of me.

I didn’t care because I knew we’d been saved. It seemed to take forever for the boat to make it the hundred yards or so to the edge of the torrent where the news crew and fire truck were waiting. A microphone was shoved in my face and I was asked what had happened. I blurted out the facts as quickly as I could but the news guy quickly realized that the story was in the girl and her dog. Everything after that finally faded into a blur because I didn’t have to pay attention anymore. Like they say, you’re never more alive when you might die.

For days afterwards, it was a series of couches that I got to sleep on, thanks to all my friends. Someone offered me an apartment downtown (when it was affordable) off 8th and Neches, and I began to settle into semi-normal. I will never forget the generosity of everyone who reached out to help afterwards. I got somebody’s 1950s melmac dishes for my kitchen, the Red Cross helped with toiletries and other basics, and a local men’s clothing store gave me a wardrobe absolutely free!

Austin reached out and helped me get back on my feet. That’s what made Austin great in those days. We were all neighbors even if we didn’t live in the same neighborhood. Some of those people are still around and still care for Austin. I’ll never be able to repay that debt.” — Michael Guess


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