Houston News & Search
Photo: Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle
COLUMBIA LAKES – The rain had stopped; the sun, finally, emerged from the sky. While Houston began the slow process of drying out, water continued to surge toward Brazoria County and the small subdivision of Columbia Lakes.
Rising creek levels had already threatened to breach levees around this community of 2,000 people, spread across a pancake-flat basin 64 miles southwest of Houston.
But residents here spent another day waging a furious fight, struggling against an expected surge from the Brazos River and a one-in-at-least-500-year rainfall that threatens not only their own subdivision but dozens of communities in Brazoria County.
It had begun Tuesday morning, when 34-year-old Seth Irwin, 34, sat down to yogurt and peanut butter when he looked out his window and saw the grass near the levee glistening.
“Is that water?” he thought.
The mechanical engineer rushed upstairs, grabbed his AR-15, and peered through its scope. Through the crosshairs, he saw a 30-foot wide wave pouring over the top of the levee.
He called a friend – 32-year-old Keith Bailey – grabbed a chain saw, plywood, and two-by-fours and rushed over to the flooding area.
Unchecked, the waters likely would have filled the community with 4 feet of water. Tuesday, however, Irwin, a mechanical engineer with Philips 66, marshaled local residents and was able to build makeshift levees in two spots, hemming the water in.
News of the breach spread across Brazoria County. Around 8:30 a.m., a county official showed up and told them to evacuate.
Irwin and his friends didn’t think so.
“We ain’t leaving,” he recalled telling the official. “We’re going to get to work.”
‘Pretty wild out here’
Brazoria County officials warned that the worst is still to come.
County Judge Matt Sebesta said the Brazos will continue to rise and spill over its banks there, too, flooding areas that haven’t yet been touched.
“The water will be up for possibly the next week,” Sebesta said Wednesday. “We’ll just have to see how the water flows.”
Sebesta reported there are no known flood-related casualties in the county’s rescue jurisdiction, which includes Alvin, Manvel and Pearland. About 820 rescue and retrieval missions have resulted in evacuations in the county, he said.
In Fort Bend County, a Katy pastor and his wife died after driving into floodwaters a few miles from the Brazos River. Donald Rogers, 65, a pastor at Second Baptist Church in Katy, and his wife, Rochelle, 58, a florist, called 911 for help but died before rescuers could arrive.
Flooding from the Brazos River is threatening a wide swath of Fort Bend and Brazoria counties. In Brazoria County, major flooding spread Wednesday to the eastern side of the river, where entire neighborhoods were overtaken by several feet of water in some spots.
Local officials also shut down about 10 miles of Texas 35, the main route cutting east-west through the county, between Angleton and West Columbia. Parts of the highway were covered with 4 to 6 feet of water. Volunteers launched boats into a ditch alongside the highway, finding a few residents who stayed behind and waved off help.
Brothers Aaron and Matt Kelley launched their fiberglass-bottomed boat from Highway 35, spending more than an hour searching Bar X for stragglers needing support, without any luck.
“It’s pretty wild out here,” said Aaron Kelley, 39, a charter boat captain. “And we’re still expecting 4 more feet.”
Projections call for the Brazos to rise near West Columbia and the city of Brazoria as waters from river push southward. A gauge near West Columbia measured the river at just under 30 feet as of Wednesday afternoon.
The San Bernard River, located southwest of the Brazos River, is also expected to rise several more feet in coming days.
‘I think we’re OK’
Back at Columbia Lakes, Irwin and about eight to 10 neighbors worked furiously over 19 hours, reinforcing the plywood holding the waters back, throwing down wet mud, bags of sand, bricks and whatever else they could scavenge.
They ran fuel to keep temporary pumps running throughout the night, forcing water back out into the levees outside.
On Wednesday, Varner Creek – which surrounds the community – had dropped an inch or two.
But the muddy, surging floodwaters of the Brazos were still on ther way, mixing in some areas with the waist-deep rainwater that still had not yet drained away.
By then, news of the battle being waged at Columbia Lakes had spread across the county. At noon, nearly 40 Brazoria County residents – many of them from nearby towns – were digging into a pile of sand, filling hundreds of bags.
“A lot of my students and friends live here,” said Tonja Davis, computer teacher at nearby Columbia High School.
She and her family turned out to fill sandbags in the afternoon sun.
“Unless it starts downpouring, I think we’re OK,” she said. “But nobody wants to say that.”
She and the rest of the volunteers poured sand into burlap bags, which volunteers carried to areas of the subdivision where rising waters might need to be checked.
The levees had lengthened, small white lines snawking along the top of the grassy berm.
Then another challenge – an open valve beneath the levee was letting water leak into fields in the northwest part of the subdivision. The Municipal Utility District that services the subdivision hired a diver to try to close it.
“Normally we would do this before the storm, but it came up so quick,” said Morris Ryder, the Varner Creek Utility District’s grizzled water operator. “It happened too fast.”
Despite the dire predictions from county officials, they were skeptical that the Brazos would swamp Columbia Lakes. Earlier predictions had warned that it would crest at 40 feet, but more recent estimates suggested a crest at just 32 feet, levels Ryder thought the levee could handle.
“The more it drops, the better we are,” Ryder said, moments before Justin Hendrickson, a diver from Salt Water Salvage, pulled on a blue-and-black wetsuit and scuba helmet and trudged into the brown waters.
‘Just go 24/7’
He disappeared beneath the surface, 25 yards from shore, until he found the valve and began to screw it closed.
At 3:44 p.m., his voice echoed out of his colleague’s radio.
“I think it’s closed!”
The news meant water could no longer flood into Columbia Lakes underneath the levees and allow Ryder to pump out the football-field-size pond of water that had accumulated nearby in recent days.
An hour later, Irwin and his neighbors were set to reassemble, to fill more sandbags.
The creek had dropped another 21/2 inches – 4 inches below when it had started pouring over the levee Tuesday.
With luck, the water levels would continue to drop.
“If not, we’ll bring a crew out, and just go, 24/7, man,” Irwin said.
Just after 5 p.m., they headed back to the sandpit to fill more bags.
Houston News & Search