‘FORGOTTEN CITY’ RECALLS THE SHOCK
They thought they were safe, then river surge left Wharton forever changed
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.
Aug. 29, 4:37 p.m. TO GLEN FLORA RESIDENTS: PLEASE LEAVE THE AREA ASAP. FM 102 IS EXPECTED TO BE CLOSED WITHIN THE HOUR.
— 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.”
“I thought we were going to drown,” Linda Holmes says about the night her Wharton County home flooded.
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.