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Nature had given us warnings...

Warnings of the 1998 South Texas flood began for me the week prior to the actual water flow. Unfortunately, I was not paying attention.

My 18-year-old cat refused to come off the roof of my back porch. My neighbor George Tatum’s calf was leaving his pasture daily to come to our family’s corral, which is the highest location on the Higgins family ranch. If I had known, I would …

Then Friday, Oct. 16, was Floresville High School’s Homecoming game. At halftime I left for San Antonio to get some supplies to finish the corsages for the 10th annual Sutherland Springs Old Town Days Coronation. Of course, I listened to the game on KWCB and not the weather.

Then Saturday, the 17th, I was up early to go pick up a student for the archeological dig in Sutherland Springs so I still was unaware of the amount of rain which had fallen in the Texas Hill Country.

I know the Cibolo Creek is a fickle being — yes, a being — so if I had paid attention to the warning signs, I would have been more concerned.

No news is not good news

When the dig was canceled, I took my student home and went home to clean house and do more preparation for Old Town Days. Sandra Shaw and her daughter Alicia came to turn in raffle tickets and we spent a couple of hours talking about the upcoming event and local history; I still had not listened to the news.

Then soon after Sandra left, Pat Higgins, then the SSVFD chief, called and asked me if I was aware of the flooding possibility and that we were expected to have levels of water just as high as the 1973 flood. Well, I still was not concerned because the 1973 flood waters did not affect us. I knew the mobile home was 3-1/2 feet off the ground so I was not concerned. Anyway, the "big house," as our family called it, (which is where my mobile home now sits) had not been affected by the 1973 flood either so I just continued to clean house.

By 2 p.m. I attempted to call Robert and Florence Higgins, who were out of town, but I could not reach them because during times of rain, calls usually cannot be made from Sutherland Springs out of Wilson County so I still was not concerned. I thought my aunt and uncle would need to know about the flood possibilities as well as to tell me what flooded in 1973. Around that time it was lightly misting so I put the houseplants out on the front porch wheelchair ramp to rinse off the household dust.

Then I called Mrs. Ed Johnson, whose house was flooded in the 1973 flood, to ask if she thought we would be flooded out this time. Mrs. Johnson’s reply was, "Honey, just listen to an old timer; the creek is not going to flood us out this time."

Evacuation begins

Luckily, I called Sandra Shaw to let her know about the situation and she in turn developed a calling web and began to get all residents in the flood area alerted. Thankfully she did. There were 53 families in the Sutherland Springs area that were affected by the flood. At 4 p.m. I opened the Sutherland Springs Community Building for anyone who may have needed shelter.

By 8 p.m. I had gathered clothes and pet food to last a couple of days. By this time I knew the creek would close the F.M. 539 N. bridge, yet I still thought I would be back in my house in a day or two. I was still trying to reach my aunt and uncle. Sandra was now calling me every 30 minutes to encourage me to leave. Sandra had taken my neighbor’s children, the youngest of the Nogues family, to her house and then to the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church.
Another bit of luck for our community was that the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church has a kitchen, rooms for children to sleep and play in, and a telephone. The community building is only one room and has no phone service so the church became the command center. Church members worked nonstop for two weeks to help those affected by the flood.

At 10 p.m. I spoke with Kip Workman of the LaVernia VFD to inquire if the F.M. 775 bridge over the Cibolo Creek was closed. I knew if the bridge were closed, New Town Sutherland Springs would flood. The Dry Hollow area was being evacuated and I was told of a large wall of water coming down the Cibolo. I wished that the TV media could video the creek so people could actually see what we were in for. Yet, due to dark of night and on-and-off rain, that was not possible.

Now I was concerned and I had decided to leave, maybe to my Mom’s little shotgun house which I did not think would flood, or to the community building.

I then called Vera and Leroy Ploch to warn them. They were closer to the creek than I was. Busy, busy, busy was all I got; then I got their answering machine so I thought they were gone. I found out later that they did not leave until after 3:30 a.m. when Vera stepped out of bed and into ankle-deep water.

At 11 p.m. my friend JJ Mendez who was renting a room from me came back to the house. We checked goats and sheep. We thought they would be fine. We picked up some household items and placed them on tables. I even put my family archives (deeds and other documents) in a file cabinet on the kitchen table. My photo albums and most cherished books I put on top of my 5-foot-tall chest of drawers and asked God to protect them.

Oct. 18

At 2 a.m. we drove around the neighborhood and those in danger of flooding seemed to be gone. My closest neighbors, the Nogueses, were even driving out of the driveway. We went back to the house to get my dog and my uncle’s dog, release my yard dogs, feed the cat on the roof, and get our two days of clothes.

I even put water in jugs into the refrigerator because I knew the well would go out. We left in our trucks without anything of value because we feared a wall of water might sweep our trucks down the creek.

The dogs and I spent the night in the community building. Several curious people stopped by to visit. Henry Beisenbach and I had a long visit. We both were in denial. Neither of us believed our houses would be affected. As it turned out, Henry and Helen’s house was completely covered.

At dawn, I went to check the creek level. The flood water was rising on John and Babs Campbell’s house. I still thought my house might be spared, since I knew that the Campbell’s house had flooded in the past. Then to my surprise Mr. and Mrs. Nogues and their sons Lupe and Jose drove up. They were awakened by the rising water in their house. Yes, I finally realized that my house also must be flooded since my house was lower than theirs.

I volunteered my time at the barricade. Then around midday the excitement rose as a water rescue took place. I knew Pat Higgins and others were rescuing people yet I had no idea it was his parents. The small motorized boat just could not make it across the heavy current.

The boat ran out of fuel and drifted until it was caught on a fence line. A helicopter came and lifted two people off the boat and as the people were removed, the boat loosened and drifted out of sight. To my surprise my aunt and uncle stepped out of the rescue basket. Neither of them noticed my livestock. Then — whoosh — out of the trees came a wildlife service rescue boat, with Pat Higgins, his dog, and the others who were in the boat. They were able to get Robert and Florence out of their home. A friend had reached Robert and Florence who came back to secure their house and were trapped by the rising water.

By early evening the excitement began again as we noticed the flood water was lowering around the Campbell’s house.
Monday was also spent volunteering at the barricade to relieve the local firemen who had been on duty now over 24 hours. Then at 3 p.m. we were notified that anyone who lived in New Town Sutherland Springs would be allowed to go in a caravan to check their property.

Examining theaftermath

We traveled via U.S. 87 through Stockdale. The highway between Sutherland Springs and the bridge over the Cibolo Creek near S.H. 97 was eroded, as was the surface of the bridge. TxDOT allowed our caravan to pass; yet the bridge was closed to all other traffic. We drove up S.H. 123 and through Las Palomas Estates and back down F.M. 539 back to Sutherland Springs.

The aftermath as we checked New Town Sutherland Springs made me feel like I was driving into a black-and-white movie. The sky was overcast and a light mist was falling. Then I noticed the flood debris in the trees, fence lines, and on the highway.

Donnie Steele met the caravan at the entrance to Higgins Grass Farm to tell us he put three horses in one of our pastures, which had no fence damage.

He also told me my cat was a flood casualty.

When we drove down my driveway, I could see the wheelchair ramp and my houseplants were gone. I noticed the water mark on the mobile home. It was just above the base of the kitchen window, 7 feet.

While JJ buried Felix, I tried to get into my house. My key would not work in the front door and I could only open the back door about 9 inches. The bookcases in the hallway had fallen and blocked the door. Raymond Gibbons, being smaller than me, was able to squeeze in and unblock the doorway.

The first look

When I first looked into the house I immediately thought how thankful I was that I had given my grandmother’s book collection away. I wondered if I could salvage any of my books.

In the laundry room the clothes I had just washed Saturday still hung. They were high enough that only the hems were muddy.

However, the washer and dryer had floated around. The footstool and a box I had in the living room were now in the laundry room. In the kitchen, the refrigerator was laying face down. The good well water was contaminated.

The file cabinet that I had placed on the kitchen table was covered in mud, as were the documents inside. Then in my bedroom and in the guest room, furniture had also floated and landed front side down, except for the 5-foot-tall chest of drawers. Thank you, God, for saving my antique family photos.

The mattresses also floated which saved more photos and my Sutherland Springs Community Association paperwork.

Unfortunately, the water rose to the drawer where I had stored the SSCA checkbook.

The dining-living room was a mess with furniture and paperwork that had floated all around. I resolved then and there to clear out my paperwork after Old Town Days. Things stick in my mind like I had placed the floral bouquets for Old Town Days on a chair that floated so the arrangements were unharmed. Antique bowls and water pitchers floated and landed safely on the floor.

In JJ’s room we found his TV had floated and landed on its backside, balancing at the edge of a table. It was getting dark so we gathered a few items of value and joined the caravan to leave the area.

The TxDOT crew did not want to let us pass back across. After a plea to the Wilson County sheriff’s dispatcher we were allowed to go back to our temporary housing.

Temporary housing

Vicki Andrews and Loni Martin housed me for three weeks and thankfully they allowed me to wash flood-soiled items. I know of some people who were afraid to allow flood- soiled items to be washed in their machines.

The Ruffin-It-Ranch was nearby so Lisa McNulty boarded my dogs. With the help of my sister Jeanne and her friend Rob, we cleaned my mother’s shotgun house which was the only structure on the farm which did not take on flood water. (Some of my students and I built a yard fence so the dogs would have a safe place to live.)

Oct. 20
On Tuesday, TxDOT opened the F.M. 539 N. bridge and the cleanup began. When Billy Gorie and I drove up we noticed my dog Freckles was on the farm. I wish I knew where he went during the flood. His yard mate Buck was across the creek and downstream about three miles and he too was safe.

The Mendez brothers came to help clear out my carport and uncover my 1968 Camaro. Bear Ogburn and a group of Marines carried my furniture outside while Sue Jarutowicz and Robbie and Ferman Varnell packed the salvageable items in the kitchen.

Thankfully the county helped haul large trash items to a dump; the Stockdale VFD helped hose away the mud; GEM provided a burial place for my livestock; Eagle Creek VFD brought lime to cover my livestock which was wedged under a nearby house trailer; people I did not even know stopped to offer their time.

The Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church provided meals for two weeks and organized donations for those of us who needed clothing and household items. The Sutherland Springs River Oaks Church and the Floresville Christian Fellowship Church brought meals to those of us who were working.

My co-workers generously gave financially as well as donating their time. A Lutheran youth group from Iowa even came down to Texas to help in the summer. There are many more people who also helped.

Life after the flood

JJ brought a trailer; the Nogues family remodeled; my cousins began to look into a house to build on higher ground; my aunt and uncle bought a mobile home to also move to a higher location; and I prayed for weeks to God to show me what to do.

Then the second Saturday of December I was in the Floresville Wal-Mart parking lot when Bennie Herrera greeted me and we began to pray and ask for guidance. The next day I was working in the mobile home, and I had my answer!
I am now buying my aunt and uncle’s house. I have remodeled it into a duplex. Through the help of many of my friends and students the work is complete and I will move in just before the one-year anniversary of the 1998 flood.

The flood was a major inconvenience yet life goes on and in many instances it is improved. The flood was also a learning experience. I learned that our U.S. FEMA system needs to be adjusted. If adult children own property that their parents are living on, the house is considered a rent property and FEMA offers no assistance.

Then if you move from your flood-damaged location to another location which also was damaged, SBA will not fund a loan, a low interest government loan, even if the property is higher than the 100-year flood level.

I have a request — that people have understanding for those who were affected by the flood. We need to talk about what we have been through so we can heal. Also many of us still have debris to clear away and fences to mend all of this takes time.

Click on the following links below to read the corresponding stories
Elaine Kolodziej Sheryl Camber Florence and Robert Higgins
Fabian and Lorraine Lyssy Tambria L. H. Read Margie Keutz
Jerry (Mrs. Johnny) Kypfer Marty Kufus Vicki Poore
Amanda Lewanski Marianne Hall-Little