Om 30 May, 1981, I arrived in Austin to begin my last tour in the military. My new boss had invited me to go fishing with him the next morning, and he picked me up shortly after daybreak. As we drove out of my subdivision, I noticed that the dry creek near my house had filled to the brim overnight, and the galvanized pipe guardrails on a pedestrian bridge crossing the creek had been pushed over at a 45-degree angle. Debris covering the banks gave testimony to how high the water had been earlier that morning.
I noticed more evidence of high water along our route through Austin, but nothing like the scene that greeted us as we approached a bridge crossing Shoal Creek, where a small building straddled the center stripe of the street. On the other side of the bridge was a Toyota dealership, with the used car lot on our left and the lot for new cars on our right. The building turned out to be the office of the used car salesmen, and neither of the lots had any cars.
As we eased past the building as directed by a police officer, I saw why. The cars had gone for a swim. They were packed together along the banks of Shoal Creek like you’d expect in a salvage yard. Our route took us past Town Lake, where the entire contents of Strait Music and Lack’s Furniture stores on Lamar Blvd. had been summarily deposited. Grand pianos, sofas, and china cabinets floated serenely downstream.
The Memorial Day Flood of 1981 had welcomed me to Austin. Since that time, too much rain in too short a time has provided other nearby examples of the power water can exert on what we think of a tough, strong man-made objects. When driving east on Bee Cave Road between Old Walsh Tarlton Lane and Mopac, an open ditch on your right crosses under Bee Cave. and follows a natural drainage that runs behind a strip center where the Chinatown restaurant used to be. One year, the water overflowed the ditch and smashed through those buildings. Only some of the walls remained. You could see all the way through the remains of the structures to the tree-covered slope behind them.
By this morning, I had registered at the house over ten inches of rain within the past week from a cold front and tropical storm Hermine. On my way to exercise, it was deja vu all over again as I passed the intersection of Pinnacle and Walsh Tarlton. Two galvanized pipe guardrails on the pedestrian bridge over the normally dry creek had been yanked completely out of their concrete footings.
And the really astonishing fact is how oblivious so many people are to the danger of flowing water. Did you know that over 85% of all drownings in the US occur in private automobiles? Think about that a moment. It’s not when we as a society go swimming or boating or racing around terrorizing sailboats on personal watercraft. We’re in our cars. Dry and comfortable. And we drive into it thinking we’re waterproof, I suppose.
After enduring a few summers in Austin with interminable days of triple-digit temperatures and prolonged drought, I take the position that it can’t rain too much for me until the water is about to rise above my nose. But if it keeps knocking over guardrails within a block from my house, I may have to reconsider . . .