They thought they were safe, then river surge left Whar­ton for­ever changed

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily Fox­hall

WHAR­TON — Ken­neth Pospisil saw the flood com­ing in the city of Whar­ton, while he and his neigh­bors grilled ribs on their Free­dom Road lawn.

Sharon Thyssen no­ticed it in the town of Glen Flora, where she’d planned to cel­e­brate her 62nd birth­day with her hus­band and friends.

Linda Holmes spot­ted it in her coun­try home, when she looked out a win­dow and saw her yard shin­ing.

For res­i­dents of ru­ral Whar­ton County, some 60 miles south­west of down­town Hous­ton, the flood­wa­ters came quickly — in a mat­ter of hours, per­haps faster. They ar­rived as a wall of wa­ter, push­ing across fields, over roads and up to doorsteps.

The flood­ing caused by the Colorado River surging far be­yond its banks would cause dam­age that would leave the area for­ever changed, even as the na­tion’s eyes

re­mained fixed on the dev­as­ta­tion in Hous­ton.

Out­side of Whar­ton, no one seemed to no­tice the force that res­i­dents of this ru­ral com­mu­nity strug­gled against.

“We feel like we’re the for­got­ten city,” Whar­ton City Sec­re­tary Paula Fa­vors said.

Four days af­ter Har­vey made land­fall on Aug. 25, the ris­ing river took thou­sands by sur­prise as it swamped neigh­bor­hood af­ter neigh­bor­hood in a string of towns and into the city of Whar­ton.

It stayed high for days, flood­ing more than one in three homes in the county seat. Peo­ple likened it to a war zone. The floods af­fected more homes around it.

The county of some 42,000 saw the bulk of the dam­age in its east­ern half, where much was af­fected, the emer­gency man­age­ment co­or­di­na­tor said. A tally of the dam­age has not yet been com­pleted.

Res­i­dents re­called it the same way. Un­til that mo­ment, they con­sid­ered them­selves safe. Then they had no time to think. Some fled. Some stayed put. Some found them­selves forced onto rooftops or into at­tics.

But they saw wa­ter and knew it was time to go — or fig­ure out how to stay and sur­vive.

Just as Hous­ton plan­ners knew to watch cer­tain spots af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey swept through, emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials in out­ly­ing coun­ties knew to watch the rivers. They knew how fe­ro­cious they could be­come.

In Fort Bend and Bra­zo­ria coun­ties, the Bra­zos River threat­ened levee sys­tems. In the Tierra Grande sub­di­vi­sion, the San Bernard River put nu­mer­ous homes at risk.

Whar­ton County res­i­dents had the Colorado and San Bernard rivers with which to con­tend. The for­mer had caused is­sues be­fore, re­peat­edly flood­ing the his­tor­i­cally black sec­tion of the city of Whar­ton in re­cent years.

Be­fore Har­vey struck, Whar­ton County Emer­gency Man­age­ment Co­or­di­na­tor Andy Kirk­land asked around about other past floods. He ex­pected the river this time, as pre­vi­ously, to con­nect with and fill other wa­ter­ways around the city. But he didn’t pre­dict that it would hit with such force.

“We were not ex­pect­ing that wa­ter to come rolling across the prairie,” Kirk­land said. “We did not know that it would be of the mag­ni­tude that it was.”

The city be­gan with a vol­un­tary evac­u­a­tion, said Fa­vors, the city sec­re­tary. Then the un­think­able hap­pened: Wa­ter en­tered her 1880s-era home in Egypt, a town up­river from Whar­ton and 11 miles west. Wa­ter hadn’t got­ten into that house since 1913. Fa­vors knew things would be bad.

She was right. By the time the river would crest, the city would be nearly boxed in by wa­ter. Emer­gency Medical Ser­vices would be fly­ing peo­ple out in he­li­copters. The EMS di­rec­tor would lose his own home.

Fuel would run low. So would gro­ceries.

The al­ready-sat­u­rated ground would have an im­pact on wa­ter ris­ing faster, said Katie Landry-Guy­ton, se­nior ser­vice hy­drol­o­gist for the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. Rain had fallen con­stantly, and in great amounts, both lo­cally and up­stream.

It would be­come crit­i­cal how peo­ple com­mu­ni­cated, said John Hof­mann, ex­ec­u­tive vice president of wa­ter at the Lower Colorado River Author­ity, which pro­vides a ser­vice to help keep peo­ple in­formed.

That be­came the first chal­lenge. The ra­dio sta­tion isn’t based in their town. The news­pa­per prints only a few days a week.

It was hard to be­lieve what was com­ing.


— Whar­ton County Of­fice of Emer­gency Man­age­ment Face­book post

For 34 years, Sharon and Michael Thyssen had lived in their sto­ry­book pur­ple home in Glen Flora. They loved the pre­cious town. Made up of roughly a dozen streets, it was home to artists, the el­derly and farm­ers, they said. Michael, 64, was the town bar­ber.

The Thyssens knew the river was ris­ing. On Tues­day af­ter­noon, they de­cided to take some doc­u­ments to a safe place — just in case. They saw the wa­ter com­ing across the corn field in the dis­tance.

Forty-five min­utes later, the cou­ple re­turned, ex­pect­ing to join neigh­bors to cel­e­brate Sharon’s 62nd birth­day. Wa­ter now was up to their an­kles. There would be no birth­day sup­per.

They fled with wa­ter lap­ping at their shins.

“It was just a shock to ev­ery­body,” Sharon said.

Down the street, Tr­ish Win­kles felt like she was liv­ing in a night­mare. She had nu­mer­ous res­cue an­i­mals that she could not leave.

Win­kles herded dogs into crates on the porch. She ush­ered cats in­side. She watched, pan­icked, as the wa­ter be­gan to rush past her house like Ni­a­gara Falls.

Her legs would ache for days from the ef­fort of try­ing to walk through the tor­rent that de­fied pre­dic­tion.

“Ev­ery­body was caught off guard,” said Win­kles, 63. “This was like noth­ing any­body had ever ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore.”

Flood­ing here was wreak­ing havoc, and still Hous­ton re­mained the fo­cus of the news, noted her neigh­bor, Roy Freese, 66.

Along with many other prop­er­ties, the Thyssens’ home flooded. So did the post of­fice and Win­kles’ an­tique shop, one of the only busi­nesses still open in town.

Win­kles would have trou­ble calm­ing her mind in the weeks that fol­lowed. The tears would keep com­ing.

“It’s never go­ing to be the same now,” said Freese, who works in real es­tate.

He stood on the wrap­around porch of his home, pic­turesque ex­cept for the step still caked in dirt.

Aug. 29, 10:44 p.m. UR­GENT MES­SAGE FOR RES­I­DENTS OF THE OR­CHARD OR PEACH CREEK ACRES: If you live in these ar­eas you should be leav­ing im­me­di­ately and seek­ing shel­ter else­where.

Linda Holmes flicked off her TV. The net­work had changed from con­stant news to reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming. “I guess we’re done,” Holmes re­called think­ing.

That’s when she saw her lawn shin­ing with wa­ter.

Here, in the un­in­cor­po­rated county, Holmes and her hus­band had re­tired 10 years prior. It felt like the coun­try. They had a horse.

Holmes woke up her hus­band. Al­ready, the wa­ter seemed too deep to leave safely.

Wa­ter seeped through the floors. It didn’t stop ris­ing. Fi­nally, Homes con­cluded, they had to get in the at­tic.

The 71-year-old turned on all the lights in the house to sig­nal their lo­ca­tion. She called her daugh­ter in Cal­i­for­nia. She hung up quickly to con­serve power.

Her son-in-law con­tacted law en­force­ment. No one could come res­cue them un­til morn­ing. Holmes prayed.

“I thought we were go­ing to drown,” Holmes said.

Time and again, Holmes climbed down the lad­der to look and lis­ten. But a boat didn’t ar­rive un­til day­light. She is 5-foot-4, and, by then, the wa­ter came up to her chin. It would be days be­fore Holmes could re­turn. She watched for any news of her home. But she saw none on TV. It was only “Hous­ton, Hous­ton, Hous­ton,” she said.

Wa­ter did reach the ceil­ing. It ru­ined ev­ery­thing. Her mother’s Bi­ble. The “fi­nal fur­ni­ture,” as she’d put it, re­fer­ring to fancy leather so­fas they’d re­cently bought. All her clothes, save the red shirt she had worn since her res­cue.

She hadn’t died, but in a way it felt like she had.

Com­mu­nity mem­bers ral­lied to­gether.

“That’s how we sur­vived,” she said.

Aug. 30, 3:22 p.m. We have re­ports that the wa­ter from the Bau­man (sic) Slough and Peach Creek is en­ter­ing the north side of Whar­ton ... Please be care­ful and be aware of this sit­u­a­tion.

It was early af­ter­noon and Ken­neth Pospisil, 54, had just re­turned from help­ing to res­cue some­one. They put some of the evac­u­ated woman’s bak­ing sup­plies in their freez­ers but had two slabs of ribs that wouldn’t fit. So they de­cided to cook them.

P os pisil had raised a fam­ily in this one-story Whar­ton home with a sweep­ing lawn. His 29- year-old daugh­ter, An­nie Zim­mer­hanzel, and her hus­band, Cody, had come over with their 1-year-old and planned to stay for the storm. They ex­pected it to be safer here than in their home a short drive away.

Then they no­ticed the wa­ter com­ing up the ditch, across the pas­tures. They grabbed medicine and clothes. In 15 min­utes, wa­ter rushed over the drive­way. They needed to go, even if the ribs weren’t done cook­ing.

“We just left ev­ery­thing,” Zim­mer­hanzel said.

At least 2 feet of wa­ter would en­ter the home. It would ruin her wed­ding dress, her baby books. Their pos­ses­sions, like those of so many oth­ers, would end up in a soggy, stinky pile on the street.

Whar­ton is a place where rel­a­tives live across the street from one an­other. Some, like Zim­mer­hanzel, have known their neigh­bors their whole lives. Much of the city that was af­fected is low-in­come or work­ing class.

Of­fi­cials estimate roughly 1,300 of 3,200 homes in the city of Whar­ton suf­fered dam­age.

Across town, Juan Cantu and his fam­ily faced the same de­ci­sion. They thought the storm was over, that they were safe. And then the road be­came a river.

“It was just un­real,” said Cantu, 40. “You can’t be­lieve it.”

They, too, left im­me­di­ately and re­turned later to dev­as­ta­tion. He still re­mem­bers how the fam­ily’s house smelled when they first got to it, like sewage and craw­fish. Now Cantu and his fa­ther sleep on mat­tresses in the gut­ted res­i­dence.

Across the street, a rel­a­tive, Ene­d­ina Castel­lano, goes to her ru­ined home each day to wait for FEMA, the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency. To fix the house, the 76-yearold wor­ries she might need to use money she had set aside for her burial. She sat on a swing­ing bench in her drive­way on Mon­day when the mail ar­rived. She checked to see if she’d got­ten any bills.

She longed for more help to deal with the dev­as­ta­tion.

“It was a lost town,” she said. “That’s what they say.”

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

“I thought we were go­ing to drown,” Linda Holmes says about the night her Whar­ton County home flooded.

Michael Cia­glo / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

A cu­ri­ous fe­line walks past piles of flood de­bris put out on East Emily Av­enue in Whar­ton. Four days af­ter Har­vey made land­fall, a ris­ing river took thou­sands by sur­prise as it swamped towns and the city of Whar­ton.


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