In October 1998 former Comal County Judge Carter Casteel recalls leaving her home in a dress and a set of pearls.
“When it was over for me that day, I had to go to Walmart to buy underwear and sheets,” Casteel said.
At the time Casteel and her family were among thousands of flood victims in Comal County. They lost cars, boats and everything they owned.
“My husband and I had lived with our children at 285 Rio Drive since 1973, so we had been there for about 26 or 27 years without a flood event,” Casteel said. “It had 6 feet of water in it in 1972, but I thought we were safe, really. In 1998 we had 10 feet of water in our home.”
In the city of New Braunfels no lives were claimed as a result of the flood, but other parts of the south Central Texas region were not as fortunate. Casteel notes that the same rivers that draw people to communities for recreational activities have the potential to devastate when conditions are right.
Her term as judge ended on Dec. 31, 1998, and she said she moved into a new house in November 1999 after living in her downtown law office on Mill Street for just over a year.
Rebuilding New Braunfels
By the year 2000, Casteel said much of the city had regrouped from the flood.
“All of us started immediately cleaning, of course,” Casteel said. “We had lots of folks come in—the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, people from Minnesota. We had lots of folks come in the community and from outside Texas.”
Casteel recalls Willie Nelson performing at Gruene Hall to raise money for flood victims.
“I think he raised about $35,000,” she said. “He had not been to Comal County in years, and he was invited, and he came. I got to give him an honorary plaque.”
A self-proclaimed optimist, Casteel said she saw the region’s strength shine through in a time of disaster.
“The thing about Comal County is we’re pretty resilient,” Casteel said. “As one person said to me, ‘Why don’t you sit down and cry?’ The problem is I still have to go in there and clean up that mud. Everybody just put their boots on and tried to move forward.”
Mike Shands, who served as New Braunfels city manager from 1992-2001, said he also recalls how the community took care of each other during the hardship.
“Nobody was asking, ‘What about overtime?’ Everybody just said, ‘I’m here for the duration.’ Some of us stayed up 48 hours straight, slept four hours then stayed up 48 hours more the first four days because we needed that much work,” Shands said.
After the flood of 1998 local governments brainstormed what they could do to protect the community in future flood events. The result was flood-driven projects, policies and emergency preparedness initiatives.
“Whether you believe in climate change or not there’s certainly different patterns we’re facing, so those kinds of experiences we’re going to continue to have and plan for,” Casteel said. “I know the county has a wonderful plan of action, and I know the city does as well.”
Shands said the flood of 1998 spurred a renewed interest in flood prevention.
“The law says under Federal Emergency Management Agency that you have to build 1 foot above the base flood elevation,” Shands said. “I’ll tell you what did happen. We had a lot less argument with people when we said you need to build above the one-foot elevation.”
Amy McWhorter, historic preservation officer for the city, said increased awareness is also key.
“Just helping people prepare and making a plan to get out and understanding what the risks are [is important],” McWhorter said. “And also to know that as taxpayers, kind of looking at where that tax revenue goes, that there’s been a lot done to increase safety [and]protect property losses, which brings people’s flood insurance down.”
Commemorating the flood
As the 20th anniversary of the 1998 flood approached in October, the city began discussions about a way to commemorate the event but decided to hold off until the 25th anniversary comes around.
“That was 20 years ago, and those memories haven’t really been collected. So we thought for the 25th [anniversary]we could do something a little bigger, but we were hoping to get some public participation to help tell the story,” McWhorter said. “A lot of city staff didn’t live here then, so we just need a little help from the community.”
In the 1998 pre-smart-phone era digital photographs were less common, and Shands said he urged city department heads to capture photos of the event.
“I said, ‘All of you want to take pictures because we do want to remember what this was like, and I said 20 years from now when none of us are around no one is going to remember what this looked like,’” Shands said.
Shands collected dozens of photographs, which are on file in the archives of the New Braunfels Public Library. He said the city discussed finding some way to acknowledge the flood immediately following the event but decided it was too soon.
“We always came back to something that was perhaps a permanent structure, plaque, something like that,” he said.
McWhorter said although a decision has not been made for what the 25th anniversary commemoration will look like, it could range from online web pages to a documentary-quality film.
“You’re not necessarily celebrating it, but it is part of our history, and it does speak to the resiliency of the community and the responsiveness of the community to fund projects to help prevent further loss,” McWhorter said.
The city is urging those who have photos and video footage of the 1998 flood to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Currently an exhibit is on display in the New Braunfels City Hall lobby, 550 Landa St., that provides more information on the flood.