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Guadalupe River residents rebuilding after flood losses

American-Statesman (11/16/2002)

By Jeremy Schwartz

CANYON LAKE — It doesn't have a name yet, this Martian-like landscape of gorges, red mounds and canyons cut a mile long into the earth below Canyon Dam.

It is 70 feet deep in some places and has uncovered fossils, ancient shells and freshwater springs. What would have taken nature thousands of years to create was formed in about 24 hours over the July Fourth weekend when billions of gallons of floodwater roared over the spillway of Canyon Lake, gouged a new path to the Guadalupe River and wreaked havoc along a 20-mile stretch of some of Central Texas' most beautiful land.

The legacy of the flood can be found in the numbers just for Comal County: Estimated damage was $87 million, including 443 damaged homes, 120 of which were ripped from their foundations or left unlivable.

But the flood's awesome power is best seen in an almost incomprehensible gorge, where boulders the size of mobile homes were ripped from the earth. It is mostly dry now, leaving a geological oddity.

"It's one of the most incredible land features I've ever seen, and I've done quite a bit of traveling," said Byron Augustin, a Southwest Texas State University geography professor who was among the first to see it. "Walking up the canyon was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life."

Up and down the Guadalupe River, from Canyon Lake to New Braunfels, life has been transformed by the flood. The river itself has changed, becoming higher as it filled with rocks and silt. New rapids have formed and old ones have been wiped out. New bends in the river have appeared.

As cleanup continues, the people who live here are dealing with their own bends in the river. They are struggling to rebuild shattered dreams, stay a step ahead of bankruptcy and restore their homes and sense of security.

Home for girls

Under the shadow of Canyon Dam, the New Life Treatment Center is an oasis for troubled girls. By the time they reach the center, many have lived in dozens of foster homes, and most have been sexually abused by relatives. The 20 acres along the river are the first respite from fear many have ever experienced.

"We work with some of the toughest kids in the state," said Martha Wynn, executive director of the center, which is run by Lutheran Social Services. "It's just absolutely therapeutic. They sit on benches; they feel safe here."

When word of the impending flood came, the girls packed their clothes and fled their newly built dormitory. Officials at the center thought they were simply taking a precaution and would be back in a few days. The center had not bought flood insurance because it was outside the 500-year flood plain -- the area predicted to flood in a deluge so severe that it is given only a 1-in-500 chance of occurring in any year -- and had been assured it would be in danger only if water flowed through the spillway, something that had never happened.

But merciless rain in the Hill Country during the previous two weeks had sent a bulge of water toward Canyon Lake that it could not contain. When the water overtopped the spillway, which was designed to keep water from going over the dam, it rushed directly toward the girls center. In the following days, center officials found a ghastly sight: buildings torn from their foundations, others submerged in water and mud, limestone boulders littered everywhere. In all, $2 million in damage.

The center is being rebuilt, thanks to help from the community. Churches, civic organizations and individuals have donated $1.2 million, and volunteers have racked up 5,800 hours of help, cleaning buildings and moving equipment. If all goes well, the center hopes to have the girls back by Christmas, to what will be a larger and nicer facility. The girls are staying in a semipermanent dorm at Austin State Hospital.

"The girls have difficulty with any kind of change," Wynn said. "We've actually lost some girls who couldn't handle it. They're anxious to get back."

Retirement dream

Former Dallas police officer Mike McDonald had just finished his dream house along the Guadalupe River at Horseshoe Falls. He and his wife had vacationed along the river throughout the years, and he vowed to build there when he retired. He had designed his wooden home himself and was settling into an idyllic retirement when the floods came.

McDonald didn't buy flood insurance because he also was outside the 500-year flood plain. His property suffered more than $115,000 in damage.

He is rebuilding, but it has wiped out his savings and saddled him with what amounts to a second mortgage from a low-interest federal loan.

"This is what we always wanted: to live on the Guadalupe," McDonald said. "I saved all my lifetime to live here. . . . It's sickening to think about."

McDonald is not angry at the whims of nature, but rather the government agency he thinks is responsible for the flood: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps built the dam in 1964 to reduce floods on the river. It controls flood releases when the lake goes over 909 feet above sea level.

Such was the case July Fourth, when the lake reached 943 feet. The Corps opened the floodgates full blast in an attempt to reduce the volume of water heading toward the spillway. When the spillway flood converged with the river about a mile downstream, it dumped 70,000 tons of limestone into the middle of the river. That created a giant plug that prevented the river upstream from flowing. For several hours, McDonald and his neighbors believe, that stretch of river became a bathtub and the flood releases kept it overflowing, flooding their homes.

McDonald and his neighbors considered suing the Corps, but a Dallas law firm told the group that such a suit would be unwinnable.

The Corps has steadfastly defended its actions during the flood, saying its procedures are spelled out in congressional acts. Lake Manager Jerry Brite denies that the Corps' actions caused flooding in McDonald's neighborhood and blames it on the renegade spillway water that made its way back toward the dam. Brite said the flood releases had minimal impact, and compared them to a garden hose in a municipal pool.

"We've had the hardest time getting people to understand that," Brite said. "People don't understand that concept of how water works."

McDonald has been working on his house nonstop since July and hopes to finish by December. His back yard has been turned into a pool. Horseshoe Falls, which gave his subdivision its name, has been destroyed. The grassy park there has been turned into a moonscape by the limestone.

Still, McDonald is optimistic. "It hasn't changed our minds, because you have to feel the Corps and the people in charge will do what they can to prevent it from coming again," he said. "You lick your wounds and keep going."

Business losses

During August and September, Al Zator does brisk business renting tubes and rafts to tourists floating down the Guadalupe River. He says it's good work: It keeps him close to the river and beats working 9 to 5 for a boss. What Zator makes over the summer is about three-fourths of his yearly income.

But this year, Zator has been scrambling, selling shrimp throughout Comal County to pay the bills and trying not to worry about his lost income.

"It's better not to think about it, because there's certainly nothing you can do about it," he said. "You can't have a stroke about it. It's done."

Much of the Guadalupe River between the lake and and New Braunfels remains closed because officials are worried about what lies beneath: trees, refrigerators, twisted metal. Cleanup is expected to begin soon.

George Cushanick, manager of the Comal County Water Oriented Recreation District, which taxes businesses on the river, estimates that outfitters lost $4 million in revenue. The area as a whole probably lost $10 million to $20 million as tourists stayed away, meaning lean times for secondary businesses such as restaurants and hotels.

In New Braunfels, the economic blow was less than estimated.

Michael Meek, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said July sales tax was down 19 percent from last year, but August was down only 1 percent. Meek credits the rebound to an aggressive statewide marketing campaign to remind tourists that the Comal River and Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort were still open.

As a result, New Braunfels is not going to be taking much of a budget hit and won't have to raise taxes or cut programs, he said.

Meek said the flood also provided an important lesson: "We saw that we had too many eggs in the water-industry basket."

The city is focusing on diversifying its tourism base and is seeking to redevelop downtown, with an expanded convention center as its anchor.

Cushanick has another suggestion: Turn the newly formed spillway gorge, called Barranca de Caliza (Limestone Canyon) by some, into a tourist attraction. The Corps of Engineers is considering the possibility.

Most of the outfitters and businesses in the area plan to come back next year. "Some are making their facilities better than ever," Cushanick said. "This is their livelihood. They're just not going to go away."

Loss in New Braunfels

Near Crest Lane in New Braunfels, the Guadalupe River is quiet and serene. It's hard to believe that this river was ever a raging fury until you look down and realize you're standing on the foundation of a home that was washed into the Gulf of Mexico.

A few houses away, Mary Lee and Fred Maxwell are toiling in the back yard of their severely damaged home. He is building a new deck from scratch; she's replacing the pear and apple trees swept away by the flood.

"Here we are, almost 80, both of us, and we want somewhere to settle down and rest for our last days," Mary Lee Maxwell said, half in jest.

The couple lived in their motor home in their driveway for months after the flood, slowly cleaning and rebuilding. Every so often, neighbors or the high school ROTC would come by to help. The couple had practice -- they went through the same thing during the floods of 1998, and Maxwell said they were just getting over that one when the July Fourth floods hit.

"We'll be back in shape -- if we live that long -- in about a month," she said, beads of sweat lining her forehead.

The coming months will be filled with uncertainty for the Maxwells. They have two vacant riverside lots they were hoping to build on, but that plan is in limbo. The city will be adopting new flood plain maps soon that will likely extend the river's floodway and flood plain, meaning building will be banned in some areas and homes will have to be elevated in others.

The city tried to approve new maps in August, but the proposal was derailed when residents came out against it, saying it would have a devastating effect on their property values. The Federal Emergency Management Administration is putting together a new map that is expected to be voted on by the end of the year. The owners of more than 160 homes in the city asked the government to buy their damaged houses.

While FEMA will likely buy about 20 New Braunfels homes, which will be destroyed and the land turned into open space, the agency will not buy vacant lots. That leaves the Maxwells with property taxes on land that might not be inhabitable.

"Every morning I get up and say, 'Thank you, Lord, for a new day,' " Mary Lee Maxwell said. "Because you just don't know when you go to bed. You're just so tired."