News

Revisiting the Wimberley Memorial Day Floods One Year Later

Drew Andrew Smith/Getty Images

The devastating flooding that overtook the small town of Wimberley a year ago is still raw and fresh for those who experienced it. The scars of the disaster are still evident around the small Texas Hill Country town. Partially repaired homes and broken tree trunks are just some reminders of the powerful waters that rushed through the area, destroying 350 homes and claiming 13 lives.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2015, the Blanco River rose to a record 40.21 feet before it washed out the flood gauge.

Typical good advice during a flood is to stay put. Don’t go driving around, as that’s usually how people are washed into rivers and killed. Ralph Carey knew this.

He and his wife Sue, along with their daughter Michelle, son-in-law Randy Charba and grandson Will were in their Wimberly vacation house on the Blanco River for Memorial Day weekend last summer.

The Careys had invited the Charba family, along with friends Jonathan and Laura McComb, and their son Andrew and daughter Leighton, to celebrate the McComb’s 10th wedding anniversary at their vacation house. The Careys built the house in the early 80s and had weathered more than a few floods on the property, so they didn’t worry too much about the rain at first. They made preparations by moving their vehicles up to the top of the nearby hill and securing kayaks in the basement.

But this was no ordinary flood. In one hour, the river rose an unprecedented 20 feet. In the ensuing flash flood, the house was washed from its pillars and floated down the Blanco River, before it crashed into a bridge and broke apart. Johnathan McComb was whisked six miles downstream and sustained two broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken sternum and multiple gashes and bruises. He escaped by climbing an embankment into the back yard of a home. The day after the flood, the McCombs’ dog, Maggie, was found safe, albeit high in the branches of a tree.

Jonathan was the sole survivor of his family. The bodies of his daughter Leighton, and Michelle and Randy Charba’s son, Will, have still not been recovered.

CF0BIMWUUAArsnx.jpg-large
The McComb family

Eight of the 13 lives lost that night belonged to the Careys and their guests.

The other victims included Larry Thomas (74), who was swept away outside his home when he was no longer able to hold on to the gutter he had been clinging to. His wife, Carol, survived by holding onto a bush until neighbors found her the next morning. Jose Alvaro Arteaga Pichardo (29) worked later than normal that Saturday and was found the next morning, deceased, in his sodden vehicle. Kenneth Reissig (81) was found near the Blanco River close to the Blanco/Hays County line, Zachery Jones (43) was washed away in his vehicle in Blanco County, and Jonathan Walker (23) was found in Travis County after trying to get his truck through a flooded low water crossing.

The families of the flood victims have spent the past year trying to cope with their new normal. Austin resident Cristen Daniel (pictured below), the sister of Michelle Charba, along with her husband Alan, have found support from friends and neighbors, and are now fervent advocates of Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR), a volunteer-led disaster response team.

In an interview with KXAN, the Daniel family said that they have decided to keep the property where the vacation house once stood. “We’ll keep the memories going and carrying on,” Cristen said. “We will replant, we will rebuild, we will be in the river with our kids and their kids will be in the river with their kids,” said Alan Daniel.

The Charbas and the McCombs were both residents of Corpus Christi, and in response to their loss, locals put up yellow ribbons around the city to show their support. Yellow ribbons are classically tied around trees to signify hope that someone (usually a soldier) will return home.

Jonathan McComb has spent the past year doing his best to heal in the wake of losing his entire family and so many close friends. He has traveled with TEXSAR to Wimberley several times to aid in the ongoing search for his daughter Leighton and the Charba’s son Will.

“They never let me search, so I just stand there, which is tough. I’m there for moral support and to thank them. It’s nice to have someone there when they’re searching to see what they’re searching for.” McComb told the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

McComb has kept mementos of his family around his house. The children’s backpacks still hang on their hooks in the mudroom where they were last left, and crayons and drawings still clutter their craft table. McComb revealed in an interview with NBCDFW. “They were all incredibly unique and beautiful and I miss them,” McComb reminisced.

In October of 2015, his family visited him in a dream in which he spoke to his daughter Leighton. “I said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘We’re OK. We got picked up by a man on the river and it was Jesus.’ That was huge for me, hearing that.”

He is redecorating the master bedroom in the home he shared with his wife in her honor, it was something she had planned to do before she died. He also kayaked the Blanco river in memorial of his family this year on the one-year anniversary of the flood. Below is a picture from that trip.

Texans, especially those on the Gulf Coast and in the Hill Country, are used to floods, but a lot of factors came into play to create the tragedy that was the Memorial Day floods. Since most floods aren’t flash floods, evacuating during flooding flies in the face of all safety advice Texans usually receive, so most were reluctant to leave their homes.

The swift rise of the waters, the intensity of the storm and the dark of the night made rescues difficult at first, and then completely impossible. The small size of the town and its limited resources made it ill-equipped to handle a catastrophe of such magnitude, and the fact that it was a holiday weekend meant that many of the people calling 911 weren’t familiar enough with the area to direct emergency services to their locations.

In the aftermath, Governor Abbot approved $6.8 million to fund more flood gauges and floodplain management plans across the state. Three new flood gauges have been placed on the Blanco River, and Wimberley has been testing an emergency siren. There was already a phone warning system in place, but residents say the warnings are too frequent and vague to indicate when real danger is present. But as with tornados, flash floods and the damage they inflict are difficult to predict. In addition to these precautions FEMA redrew the floodplain boundaries and recommended residents move their homes higher up the banks.

To address the community damage, the nonprofitBlanco River Regional Recovery Team, (BR3T) was established and has, so far, rebuilt 44 of the homes destroyed by the flood, and aided in the cleanup of several hundred others.

Source: This article sources information from an article in Texas Monthly entitled “When the River Rises”

recommended for you

Revisiting the Wimberley Memorial Day Floods One Year Later