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Surviving a disaster and making the best of it
(Published in the Wilson County News, Oct. 28, 1998)

By Elaine Kolodziej
WCN Publisher

It was the ultimate rude awakening — one of those moments that forever changes your life and instantly changes your priorities. It was Sunday, Oct. 18, 1998, at about 7 a.m.

We have lived about a mile and a half from the San Antonio River for more than 25 years and several times have prepared to evacuate. We've had 18 inches of rain before, but never has the water gotten close to flooding.

The flood of '98 was different. In an instant, the wrath of nature left us with a new perspective about what is important. We escaped with our lives so it was not important that we lost — in a matter of minutes — a lifetime of memories, including yearbooks, baby books, and wedding albums. We lost all home movies, videos, and even tax records. We also lost a lot of other "stuff." But stuff can be replaced, and our new perspective tells us that we have too much stuff anyway. In fact, this experience made us realize that people are slaves to their stuff.

My weekend had started like any other. I had been at the office all day Saturday, Oct. 17. I pulled into the garage late in the afternoon in the midst of an intense downpour — the kind of cloudburst that dumps buckets of rain in a few minutes. During this deluge, I called the house on the cell phone from within our garage because the family was unaware that I had arrived home. I wanted them to open the door so that when the rain let up, I could make a run for it.

Lightning struck nearby while I was on the phone, significantly affecting the outcome of the rest of the events that weekend. Our telephones were out. We could call out, but no one could call us. No one was able to warn us of the pending rise in the San Antonio River. It's true, we still would have been flooded, but certainly we would have put up some of our irreplaceable photo albums and other priceless memorabilia. We also could have saved three vehicles if we had had just 20 minutes warning. The vehicles were insured, but the inconvenience has only added to the distress.

At 4 a.m., I began listening carefully to every weather update and newscast from. Never once was the San Antonio River mentioned as to when it would crest or if it would flood or how much. In fact, during this time, Wilson County was hardly mentioned. (Even this Sunday in church, a letter from the Archbishop to all parishioners pleaded for aid in flood-ravaged areas, but did not mention Floresville. In fact, the Floresville area, if not the city limits, suffered significant damage in many areas near the river.)

Perhaps it was my guardian angel that fateful Sunday morning, I don't know, but just before 7:00, I asked my husband, Al, if he wanted to go to 8 o'clock mass. He had gotten up about 6:30 and checked outside. Everything was fine. We had only a few inches of rain at that time. I walked back to the bedroom to get dressed for church. About that time Al said he thought we might have a problem. I knew he was serious. He said that water was running through our back yard, almost as if a dam had broken somewhere. The water had come as if from nowhere. We thought of the Dos Rios plant located a few miles away.

Wanting to know what was happening, I immediately called the sheriff's office. I wasn't surprised to learn that they were inundated with calls. I was put on hold; the dispatcher said she would check to see if the river was flooding. Meanwhile the water was noticeably higher. Anxiously I redialed, and asked the harried dispatcher again: what was going on with the San Antonio River? I was put on hold a second time. By this time we had knocked on the doors of Keith and Kristen and told them in a voice they did not question that they should get up and put on some clothes. Our voices didn't sound real even as we told them we were going to have to leave our house. They didn't know what was happening.

The evacuation

Still on hold, I am deciding what I can take. I hung up and called back a third time. By this time the dispatcher could sense my frustration. She told me not hang up again, but the water was rising rapidly. Kristen and I got our purses and I took my briefcase with my laptop computer, and we all prepared to leave. Kristen asked if she could take "K.J." our housecat. I hesitated and shrugged "no." The cat would be nervous. Besides, we could always get her later. Little did I know, there would be no such opportunity. Luckily, Keith, behind my back, motioned for Kristen to take the cat. We stepped out the door into two-foot deep, murky water.

We were in a panic. I dropped my keys. The swirling water was so dense there was no way I would find them. Kristen and I frantically groped around. She found them near her feet. Thank God! My husband backed his truck out. Keith followed in his truck. Kristen threw her cat into our white van, and we left while we could. We inched our way up to Bradly's store just a little more than a half mile from our house. As we were making our escape, our closest neighbors also were coming out with two vehicles.

Once at Bradly's, we were blocked in all three directions. We had nowhere to go, and the water was rising. There were about a dozen or more people waiting there by this time, all trying to figure out what to do next. A call was placed to the sheriff's office, and we waited for the Graytown-Cañada Verde Volunteer Fire Department to come and get people out. My only thought was that I had to get to Floresville. If downtown Floresville was going to flood, I would be there at least to save my computers. I was not going to lose the newspaper too!

As we waited, we called two other neighbors with our cell phone, trying to warn them, but got no answer. We didn't know at the time, but they had been evacuated. Someone had knocked on doors earlier to warn them. Apparently officials didn't realize that we who were a mile and a half away were in greater danger than were those who were warned to get out. In the meantime, we called our son Karl to let him know what was going on. We wanted someone to know where we would be.

After what seemed like an eternity, deputies arrived, along with Sheriff Tackitt. What a welcome sight they were. After some quick negotiations, Tackitt said that we could pass by staying in the left lane which was higher. The water was gushing over the pavement as we drove in a caravan. The deputies stood by.

We proceeded down F.M. 1303 to F.M. 775 and then down U.S. 181 on into Floresville. No one spoke. After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at the office. We arrived at the office I had a mental picture of water flowing down the streets in Floresville too, but thank goodness, it was only raining lightly. We emerged from our vehicles and just hugged each other. We had made it and we were safe. Our office would temporarily become home.

• The Wait •

We sat around, made coffee, listened to the radio, television and the police scanner. We were numb. We started calling family members to let them know what was going on. The entire day's experiences were surreal. Somehow, the day passed. We could find out little from anyone. It was a full 12 hours after our escape before the news reports began warning people down river from San Antonio to the east and southeast that the river would flood. It was the ultimate irony.

Word spread and people began to call us at the office. A friend brought us three bedrolls and some clothes. Kristen and I went to Wal-Mart to buy toothbrushes and other essentials. People began to call as they heard about the flood. "Need pillows?" asked a couple of friends.

"No. We're fine," I replied, not giving it a second thought. That glib remark was made while I was still standing. It was a long night without pillows! This, however, taught me a valuable lesson. In a crisis situation like this, never say "no thank you," because you have no idea what to expect next. The next night some Good Samaritans brought us pillows. Now we had lots of pillows and bedrolls. The following day another good angel, brought us three foam mattresses. What luxury! It's getting better.

One thing is certain. In a disaster such as this, you need friends. Thank you, friends. Without you, I think Al and I would have just sat there and stared at the mess. We would not have known where to start.

An article in Sunday's San Antonio Express-News was entitled, "Where flood victims can get help." Numerous places were listed for emergency loans. This is not the kind of help people in a disaster need at the time. Disaster "victims" (I really can't think of myself as a victim, but just someone who was handed some extraordinary challenges.) first must struggle through those first few hours and days when everything is bleak. someone who was handed some extraordinary challenges.) first must struggle through those first few hours and days when everything is bleak. You don't know what to do first or where to turn. That is where friends and family make all the difference.

As it was, when we could get into our house, people began to arrive to help — 21 of them that first day — and they kept coming. Every day someone new would come and they would bring new supplies and new expertise. Each morning would begin the same. We were facing an daunting task and didn't know where to begin. That's when some other kind person would arrive and start us once again on a roll.

For those who lost more than we did — and there were many — we want to help. If anyone knows of families in need of support, please let us know here at the newspaper. And, to those who have helped us and continue to do so, "Thank you, friends."

(Click here for update published on the 1st anniversary)