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Austin, Central Texas to begin recovery from major flood event

Friday, November 1, 2013 by Michael Kanin

People across the Central Texas region woke Thursday morning to a major flood that local officials say will likely go down as a record event.


Some parts of South Austin and Hays County received almost 15 inches of rain, sending creeks out of their banks and people out of their homes ahead of the rising water. At least one fatality was reported in Austin when the body of a man believed to be in his 50s was found in Onion Creek.


More than 1100 homes were evacuated late Wednesday and early Thursday in three Onion Creek area neighborhoods. Two shelters remained open Thursday night for those unable to return home.


Though by noon skies had cleared, City of Austin and Travis County officials found themselves reminding the region’s occupants that issues remained.


“Even though the sun is now shining and it is a beautiful day, standing water is still a danger,” said Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.


Officials in Hays, Williamson and Caldwell counties also reported significant flooding, causing massive property damage and forced evacuations. One death was reported in Caldwell County when a motorist was swept from his car at a low water crossing. The Hays County town of Wimberley reported 13 inches of rain and heavy flooding overnight.


Officials were not quite ready to frame the event – as much as 15 inches of rain in the San Marcos region, according to Kerr; three inches fell at Austin Bergstrom International Airport – in terms of history. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, however, was confident about the nature of the Wednesday evening rains.


“Obviously, we’re still in process of determining what records are but I think I feel confident in saying there will be records set with this particular event,” he said. According to KXAN Weather, this October, with 13.49 inches of rain, will go down as the wettest October in Austin history.


One photo from the flooding went viral early Thursday, as local freelance photographer Reagan Hackleman braved the rapidly rising waters of Lady Bird Lake near the Shoal Creek inlet and snapped an iconic shot of water rising about the waist of the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, with the Austin Skyline in the background.


Among the casualties was the Austin Energy Onion Creek substation. The facility sits near the confluence of Onion Creek and the Colorado River. At peak, it had four feet of standing water—and that event forced Austin Energy officials to shut down the substation’s operations.


As of mid-day Thursday, Austin Energy spokesperson Carlos Cordova told In Fact Daily that crews had not yet been able to assess whatever damage – and costs so associated – may have been inflicted on the substation. Cordova added that the utility would re-route power to the roughly 2,000 customers served by the facility.


At the peak of the storm, 8,500 Austin Energy customers were without power.


Austin Water Utility operations were also affected by flooding. According to City Manager Marc Ott, the utility was forced to release a batch of partially treated wastewater into the river. AWU also reported damage at four lift stations around the city, with varying amounts of wastewater dumped into Onion Creek, Marble Creek, Williamson Creek, Bull Creek, Lake Creek, Brushy Creek and the Colorado River. Ott was careful to note that City of Austin drinking water was not impacted.


Ott, Leffingwell, Kerr, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, Austin Travis County EMS Chief Ernie Rodriguez, and Captain Frank Lofton of the Travis County Sherriff’s Department were part of a Thursday news conference to detail flooding impact. Ott noted that flooding in some parts of the region was dramatic enough to force some residents to cut holes in their roofs to avoid the onrushing waters.


Though no party appeared ready to benchmark the flooding, City of Austin Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Otis Latin did offer an observation. “I’m not quite sure about the comparison to 2001 and now, but this flood – I know our flood early warning engineers are saying that this flood is one of the highest levels of floods that we’ve had in recent times,” Latin said. He added that he was sure that “we did have a lot of water at a level higher than the previous floods that we’ve had.”


Both Barton Springs Pool and Big Stacy Pool were closed because of flooding. Officials had been planning to reopen Barton Springs on Thursday after repairs made after the flooding of Oct. 12-13. However, both the pool and Lady Bird Lake are off limits as is Barton Creek.


All local trails are temporarily closed “due to the unsafe conditions created by last night’s flooding and heavy rains. Department staff are placing barriers, cones and caution tape in many areas of trail and ask trail patrons avoid the trails until they are reopened,” according to a statement from PARD.      


Austin Energy spokesperson Leslie Sopko put combined public and private infrastructure damage estimates for the 2001 event – a November flood – at $27 million.


While the flooding was over for Austin and nearby communities, those living downstream were still watching rising waters.

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