In Southern California, the joke goes, there are four seasons: earthquake, fire, flood, and mudslides. In South-Central Texas, there are but two: drought and deluge. Lately, it has been all drought in the Lone Star State.
But as any Angeleno knows, what's dry will burn. And the flames have been crackling throughout Texas, particularly along the broad 1-35 corridor, running from Laredo to San Antonio, and from there north of Austin. Currently, more than 170,000 acres are ablaze: since January, the Texas Forest Service has responded to 2,800 fires that have torched nearly 2.8 million acres; local fire departments have fought more than 16,756 fires that have consumed another 876,000 acres. Those are heartrending numbers even in fire-seasoned California; in Texas, they are bewildering. It's not over, either, as the kindling-dry weather patterns that have fueled the nine-month-long siege remain locked in place.
With so much of the region already blackened, I know how tempting it must be to pray for rain--as recently performed by the unctuous Governor Perry (of course, he'd better get down on his knees after slashing the Texas Forest Service's budget by 30% even as the state went up in smoke; a Republican Nero). More rational, perhaps, is to hope against hope that a hurricane or tropical storm--even a minor tropical wave--will steam overhead and douse the intense firestorms.
However understandable, these entreaties come with a catch: be careful what you wish for, a caution Southland residents know full well.
Ninety years ago, during another blisteringly hot summer, Texans turned their eyes heavenward, only to watch in horror as monster storm blew ashore; it ended up doing a lot more than just soaking the parched land. On September 9-10, 1921, San Antonio went under water. So did Austin, San Marcos, and New Braunfels, along with the smaller communities of Taylor and Thrall. This scouring event traumatized the region; it lost much when deep in the night the skies opened up.
Crashing down was a staggering volume, the very-wet result of a slow-moving hurricane that several days earlier had roared into northern Mexico. As it spun over the Rio Grande, it dumped upwards of six inches on Laredo, sinking low-lying neighborhoods. Pressing north, it cycled along the Balcones Escarpment--to which I-35 runs parallel--and there the storm unleashed its full fury. Thrall recorded an eye-popping 38.21 inches in a twenty-four-hour period, believed to be the second largest amount ever to fall in a single day in the continental U. S.; for the record, Alvin, TX received 43 inches in 1979. More than 23 inches fell on Taylor, and Austin got 18.23.
These fixed-site numbers do not tell the whole story, however, because upstream from each of these towns, heavy rains were slashing down into the folds of the Edwards Plateau, rocketed off the pan-hard ground into the gullies, streams, and creeks that fed into the Little Colorado, Guadalupe, Comal, and San Antonio rivers.These roiling surges in short order blew over their banks: farms, ranches, and feedlots were inundated; houses and barns were swept off their foundations to careen downstream; uprooted trees became battering rams, slamming into buildings, tearing up transportation infrastructure, and hammering bridges.
Property damage was intense, but the loss of life was more so: in Taylor, 87 people died, and another six in its home county of Williamson. Six were swept away in Travis County, and the statewide total climbed to 215. By all measures, the 1921 flood was Texas' most punishing.
Nowhere was more battered than San Antonio. Its 18th-century Spanish planners had platted it in a flood basin, locating its streets, plazas, and residential areas between two river systems, the San Antonio to its east and San Pedro Creek to the west. As a result, the community periodically had foundered. Until its roads were hardened in the late 19th-century, even light rains had turned the streetscape into a muddy mess; new middle-class housing built in the mid-19th-century was jacked up two to three feet above ground level in hopes of keeping clear of moderate flooding (a strategy that had some success).
Yet nothing protected the central core during the blockbuster floods of 1819 and 1865, when both waterways raged through the town, trapping residents and devastating homes, shops, and churches.
As destructive as those floods were, the 1921 one was far worse. This claim, on the face of it, doesn't add up. Unlike the cities and hamlets to its north that experienced double-digit rainfall, San Antonio received only a bit more than seven inches. Yet much of it fell during a concentrated burst during the evening of September 9. As the storm cell stalled over the Alamo City, local tributaries rose swiftly, and then jammed into San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River. Despite their larger size, these riverbeds could not contain the churning flow, sending wave after wave down alleys and avenues. The peculiar nature of the city's siting proved disastrous.
The Austin American caught some of the horror that resulted. On the Westside, which was the location of a large Latino barrio through which Alazan Creek wove, the usually "placid rivulet of water became a rushing torrent in less than half an hour," rising more than "eight feet in approximately twenty minutes." Almost immediately, the small homes and shacks near the creek began to float off their foundations "and it was a barrage of these that hurled themselves against the International & Great Northern trestle. By midnight between forty and fifty houses that a few minutes before vomited men, women and children in all stages of dress and undress, were being churned into a shapeless mass of debris where they lodged against the railroad bridge. Their tremendous weight and pressure against the trestle soon cracked that structure in the middle, which pushed itself against a second trestle that broke shortly after under the strain."
Most of those who died--and the final tally was more than 50--did so here, in San Antonio's poorest, most disadvantaged district.
Downtown there was little loss of life yet the damage was considerable given the density of the built environment. Most of the bridges that crisscrossed the San Antonio River gave way, their foundations undercut by the swirling water's erosive force or snapped before the pile-driving energy of trees, vehicles, and other wreckage that elsewhere took out foundations, punched in windows, and gouged out roadways.
Commercial and civic buildings were flooded; St. Mary's Street Catholic Church, like many other facilities with limestone footings, would prove structurally unsound and would have to be torn down. The Bexar County courthouse was a mass of sodden paper, streetcar rail lines were twisted like pretzels, and massive maze-like mounds of busted furniture, beams, street pavers, and dead animals choked the city. It lay in ruins, a seeming war zone.
In time, San Antonio would dry out and rebuild, as would the other communities that had been submerged. All of them would invest in flood-control measures designed to prevent such extreme damage from occurring again (and these have worked more often than not). But as durable as these structures have been, they might be sorely tested this summer should a major storm sweep up from the Gulf, channeling thick bands of tropical moisture along the rugged Balcones Escarpment. The resulting clash of deluge and drought, of wind-driven rains smacking into heat-hardened terrain might prove as fierce and fearsome a reckoning as the swirling inferno now charring vast stretches of South-Central Texas.
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.