What really caused Wharton County’s severe flooding?
Why weren’t we given more timely and accurate flood warnings?
Who is to blame?
These questions have been asked numerous times and today’s column attempts to provide needed answers.
First, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) did NOT open flood gates and they did NOT release large amounts of water. In fact, Lake Travis could have held thousands of additional acre-feet of floodwaters, but all the heavy rainfall occurred below the dams.
Second, there was NEVER a levee or dike break at or near Eagle Lake ... or anywhere else. Wharton County’s raging floodwaters were the direct result of 15 to 20 inches of local downpours coupled with near record rainfall runoffs from northern counties.
It is highly unlikely that forecasters and local emergency responders could have anticipated the severity and extent of flooding because no one alive has ever experienced such a unique weather occurrence.
Hurricane Harvey approached Texas as a Category 1 storm Friday morning and then quickly propelled itself to Category 4 by evening landfall.
Harvey spent most of Saturday slowly promenading inland from Rockport to Cuero. After basically spinning in place during Sunday’s early morning hours, Harvey bizarrely turned back east and started toward Matagorda Bay where it eventually settled most of Monday and Tuesday.
Upon landfall, most hurricanes typically move inland toward Central Texas and beyond. Our meandering Harvey took such a liking to the Gulf Coast that it stayed for the better part of five days.
Thankfully, Wharton County did not receive the severity of wind damage that ravaged our southern neighbors, but Harvey’s 15 to 20 inches of local rainfall completely saturated fields and flooded county wide rivers, ponds and creek beds.
By Sunday morning, the latest LCRA river reports confirmed three days of heavy rainfalls in northern Travis, Bastrop and Fayette counties had gorged the Colorado River and were now raging toward us at record amounts and flow rates.
By 9:15 a.m. Tuesday, the City of Columbus reported a near record 49-foot river cresting. Oddly in Wharton, the river was still only 43 feet which quickly brought chills to our Emergency Management Coordinator Andy Kirkland who took off driving north in search of the missing floodwaters.
The Colorado River takes a couple of sharp turns just above Glen Flora. It was here that the raging flood waters, coming at record speeds, stayed straight, jumping the banks and thundered east through fields toward the San Bernard River.
With limited information on pre-1913 flooding events, Andy called several of Wharton’s more senior statesmen to ask what possibly happened before dams were built on the Colorado River.
Our local octogenarians recalled stories of the Colorado and San Bernard rivers once meeting many years ago. They remembered hearing that combined floodwaters of the now conjoined rivers took a more northerly path around the City of Wharton.
By Wednesday morning, those stories of yesteryear became modern reality as the typically dry Peach Creek and Baughman Slough basins were now bursting with record amounts of raging Colorado River floodwaters.
The onslaught of water stormed into town behind WalMart ... then over U.S. 59 at the Baughman Slough crossing south of the original Hinzes BBQ ... on toward Wilke Road and around the Wharton County Museum ... across business 59 through the TeePee motel and Auction barn ... and finally into the city’s northernmost homes and Wharton High School.
So What happened? Whose fault was it? Why didn’t we know?
The truth is Wharton County was faced with what some would call The Perfect Storm.
None of us living today had ever seen or experienced such a rare weather event. Very few could ever imagine, much less predict, that a Category 4 hurricane would bizarrely lurk along the Gulf Coast for five days; that it would drop 15 to 20 inches of rainfall on an area that annually receives 43 inches; that massive upstream runoffs would thrust raging Colorado River waters toward us at record flow rates; that the Colorado and San Bernard rivers would nearly meet for the first time in 100+ years; and that generally dry Peach Creek and Baughman Slough basins would swell and plunge tumultuous floodwaters into the northern homes of Wharton.
As your county judge, I assure you that local officials are asking questions, studying reports and seeking more effective solutions for better protecting our families, animals and homes.
Together with state and federal river experts, we will update river modeling, insert more gauges and determine what preventive methods can better ensure future floodwaters stay within the channel.