Central Texas Flood
by Mike Cox
first day it started raining, people took it as good news.|
Drouth Ends,” the Sept. 9, 1921 Austin Statesman proclaimed. The page-one story’s
first paragraph set the scene: “Breaking a drouth that had prevailed for more
than two months, drying up small streams and water holes and causing heavy losses
to farmers and stockmen, rain …began falling throughout Central Texas early this
By noon that Friday, the weather station at the University of
Texas had measured 1.3 inches, the first measurable rainfall in the capital
city since July 8.
The meteorological factors leading to the drouth-breaker
began the morning of September 6, when a tropical storm developed in the Bay of
Campeche. By afternoon, the storm had compacted, with towering rain-filled clouds
swirling around a small eye. The storm would have become even more powerful had
it been farther out in the Gulf of Mexico with more time over warm water, but
prevailing winds pushed it ashore at Vera Cruz only 24 hours after its birth.
lashing that coastal city, the rain-swollen system veered northward to Texas.
Crossing the Rio Grande the night of September 7, the storm decreased in strength
but remained pregnant with precipitation as it drifted toward the parched, unsuspecting
middle of the state.
San Antonio, a light rain began
on September 8. The rain continued the next day, growing more intense. Lingering
over the northern portion of Bexar County, the storm dropped a foot-and-a-half
For the people of San
Antonio, the rain could not have fallen in a worse place—Bexar County’s highest,
rockiest terrain. Running down hillsides and draws, rain water filled Apache and
Olmos Creeks and surged into the San Antonio River, bearing down on the Alamo
Sudden rises on Alazan and Martinez Creeks sent water ripping though
low-lying areas on the city’s west and south sides. “Rescue workers began helping
dwellers of the flooded districts to safety as early as 11 o’clock,” the San Antonio
“Entire families were washed away,” police officer Jack
Thompson said the next morning. “The cries of the helpless and the barking of
hundreds of dogs made the night one of terror. We saw people within twenty-five
feet of us, yet unable to reach them.”
By midnight, nearly fifty houses
had been washed away, “churned into a shapeless mass of debris,” as the newspaper
At 1:30 a.m. Saturday, a 12-foot wave swept across much of downtown.
People still up and about raced up stairs in the city’s high-rise buildings, barely
ahead of the lapping flood water. Others, trapped outside, tumbled downstream.
An extra put out by the San Antonio Light declared: “This flood is the greatest
disaster in the history of San Antonio.
Such structures as…the St. Anthony Hotel…, several hospitals, the central telephone
exchange, the city hall and police and fire headquarters and countless other structures
along the low-lying river valley were in the pathway of the flood.”
the storm had not finished with Texas. From San
Antonio, the weather system moved northeast, dumping 18.23 inches of rain
on Austin. Six persons drowned along
Onion Creek south of town.
Williamson County took a much more severe blow.
The north and south forks of the San Gabriel went on a rampage. At its juncture
with Brushy Creek, the river grew ten miles wide. The Little River also flooded
in Milam County, cresting at 53.2 feet in Cameron.
Continuing its northeastern track, the storm left the Brazos River running 54
feet deep at Bryan.
took a while for the enormity of the disaster to sink in. Floodwaters washed out
telephone and telegraph lines, making communication virtually impossible. Washouts
also interrupted railroad service, further hampering the spread of news. Except
for the larger urban areas, communities coped in isolation with the flood, not
realizing the disintegrating tropical storm had affected 10,000 square miles of
Texas. Three days went by before the Associated Press
reported that more than 200 people had died.
With 51 deaths and 13 missing
and presumed dead, San Antonio
got most of the headlines, but other areas endured a higher death toll. Williamson
County lost 93 people in the flood, 87 of those victims in and around Taylor.
The final death toll went in the record books as 224, but some deaths may have
gone unrecorded. It was the deadliest flood in Texas history, and one of the most
damaging with property losses estimated at $19 million.
The storm also
set precipitation records. Thrall,
a small town in Williamson County, recorded 38.2 inches in twenty-hours. That
still stands as the most rainfall ever measured at a U.S. weather station in a
years later, work began in earnest to tame the San Antonio River. The 1900-foot
Olmos Dam was completed in 1927, followed in 1929 by a flood bypass channel to
divert water past the downtown bend in the river. In 1938, the federal Works Progress
Administration began construction of a series of sidewalks, pedestrian bridges
and various park-like features in the heart of the city along the river.
Southwestern Venice, the River Walk annually funnels hundreds of millions of dollars
into the San Antonio economy, the
upbeat legacy of a killer flood.
© Mike Cox
3, 2009 column
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