Heavy rain struck the Austin area Oct. 30-31, bringing back not-too-distant memories for some Southwest Austin residents who have been affected by flooding.
The latest storm marked about two years since October floods devastated parts of South Austin and flooded homes near Onion and Williamson creeks, resulting in damage to homes, lost lives and buyout proposals.
Longtime South Austin resident Ken Jacob said he saw flooding Oct. 30 in the Onion Creek neighborhood located along the northern portion of the Onion Creek waterway, also known as upper Onion Creek.
“So many of the same people that received damage, either minor or significant [during the Halloween 2013 floods], were the same ones that were hit once again, which has made it very, very difficult for them. Some of them were just barely back in their homes or weren’t even back in their homes yet,” he said.
New initiatives are in the works to help address flooding, particularly when it comes to prevention and preparedness.
Members of the Travis County Commissioners Court, including Judge Sarah Eckhardt, received an update Nov. 3 on the county’s ongoing relief efforts. First responders and staff patrolled and performed rescues during the flood.
“We have a lot of additional work to do,” Eckhardt said.
In October a new Flood Mitigation Task Force established by Austin City Council began discussing plans to help improve city strategies.
Two residents were appointed to represent each of Austin’s 10 geographic City Council districts and the mayor.
Jacob, who serves on the task force, said the city has recognized it needs to take action.
Possible mitigation measures
The task force is split into three working groups, which will examine funding priorities, operations and maintenance strategies, and buyout policies. The group will develop recommendations to present to City Council in the spring, task force member Matt Rienstra said.
“Some people on this task force are personal victims [of flooding],” he said. “We want to try to help the people who have been wiped out over and over again to get out of that area and [help prevent]it in totality from happening to other areas.”
Part of that goal will be providing guidance on prioritization and funding for solutions, he said. Rienstra, who lives in the Circle C neighborhood, said though District 8 has not seen as much flooding as other parts of Austin, helping neighbors is a priority for the district.
“Any time you see people’s lives lost or their homes destroyed, I think people of our area are very concerned about it,” he said.
At the task force’s Oct. 20 meeting, members received an overview of area flood history and mitigation from Kevin Shunk, city of Austin flood plain administrator with the Watershed Protection Department. Mitigation strategies he described included structural
solutions—adding pipes or ditches, low-water crossing upgrades, floodwalls, and detention or retention ponds—and non-structural solutions such as permanent road closures and buyouts.
In Texas, most flood deaths occur when people are in their cars, he said. About 6 inches of water can make a car float, Shunk said.
Rollin MacRae, Southern Oaks neighborhood resident and task force member, said he has seen some high floodwaters in Austin City Council District 5.
“I have seen Jones Road underwater four or five times; I’ve seen Manchaca [Road] underwater three times,” he said.
Some residents have voiced concerns about development causing more flooding, but MacRae said if developers follow city rules, that should not be an issue.
“What people don’t understand is that if you dump a huge amount of water on a piece of land … [the land is]all impervious; [the water]all runs off,” he said, adding that solutions to flood mitigation in Southwest Austin could include buyouts and localized drainage projects.
Buyouts and study
Resident Ryan Poulos, who lives in the city of Austin 25-year flood plain of Williamson Creek west of South Congress Avenue and south of St. Elmo Road, said in the time he and his wife have lived in their home they have become very interested in the weather.
“I used to enjoy a nice thunderstorm coming through and the rain hitting the roof, and now it’s a matter of life and death,” he said, adding they are first-time homeowners.
When he began receiving alerts about tornado warnings and flooding Oct. 30, he said he rushed home to take his dog to safety and returned home later that day to find the backyard flooded.
The city is in the process of offering buyouts to Williamson Creek-area residents, said Mapi Vigil, managing engineer with the city of Austin Watershed Protection Department. In 2014, City Council approved $78 million in certificates of obligation for buyouts in the lower Onion Creek and Williamson Creek areas and earmarked about $18 million for buyouts in Williamson Creek’s 25-year flood plain.
More than 60 homes were identified, and in June 2015 council approved plans to proceed with buyouts on 38 of the properties that were affected in October 2013. One offer has been made. The city is following the federal Uniform Relocation Act, which aims to cover moving expenses as well as the difference it would take to afford a “comparable” house in Austin, Vigil said.
After the city takes possession of the house it can demolish the structure and leave the site undeveloped, she said.
Since Poulos bought his home in 2014, he does not qualify for a buyout, he said. Poulos said excluding one or two homes does not accomplish the goal of getting residents to safety.
“With the danger we have experienced in the Heartwood area … we don’t want to wait for three years [for a buyout offer],” he said.
Vigil said homes that did not qualify may be in the next buyout group of homes, but a proposal for those buyouts must go before council for approval. She added if residents experienced flooding the weekend of Oct. 30, 2015, they should alert the city by calling 311.
The city of Austin has bought out about 260 homes in lower Onion Creek since October 2013, Vigil said. No buyouts have been offered in upper Onion Creek, but Vigil said a Watershed Engineering Division study is underway there on potential structural solutions and is slated to be completed in fall 2016.
“We are trying to find ways to be able to maintain our neighborhoods and to be able to rebuild and continue on,” Jacob said.
Many area homes flooded, he said.
“It took this huge rainstorm that came over Onion Creek to help us realize how bad it can be,” Jacob said, adding a significant part of damage was a result of drainage ditches overflowing and flooding homes. “By the afternoon things were beginning to settle down, and people were breathing a sigh of relief and saying you know, maybe we dodged a bullet. It’s not so bad. Then came the creek.”
Addressing Oct. 30-31 floods
On Nov. 5, Mayor Steve Adler declared a local state of disaster for the Austin area as a result of the flooding. City officials held meetings to discuss mitigation plans including potential buyouts.
Nearly 500 homes were flooded in Austin, and about 60 roads within city limits were closed because of the Oct. 30-31 flooding, said Scott Prinsen, city of Austin public information specialist. The city is working strategically to determine the best way to expedite mitigation efforts, Prinsen said in an email.
City spokesperson Jacob Dirr said the city opened Dittmar Recreation Center and other recreation centers as safe havens during the flooding.
“When there is a disaster [the city has]to deploy a lot of assets—there are staff and vehicles and fuel for those vehicles and logistics requests,” he said.
Federal funding assistance is helpful for recovery, he said.
“People have the misperception that as soon as a disaster happens, [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]is going to come and start handing out checks. … The only caveat is that takes time, and it is not for certain,” he said.
At press time, county staff was awaiting a response from the state about a disaster declaration, which could result in receiving federal funding for recovery efforts.