Houston News & Search
Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff
WEST COLUMBIA – The waters in West Columbia rose steadily, like most everywhere else in Southeast Texas, filling fields, breaking down riverbanks and flooding roadways.
So Seth Irwin set to work.
He and his neighbors scrounged up plywood and bricks from nearby construction projects. They found bags of sand and planks of lumber, working for hours pounding in stakes to create an artificial barrier to hold back the water threatening his Columbia Lakes community.
“What were we going to do,” said Keith Bailey, 32, who joined Irwin for the construction project. “Sit at the kitchen table and watch this happen?”
Columbia Lakes was among a string of communities in Brazoria and Fort Bend counties evacuated Monday and Tuesday, as water from the Brazos River overtopped a levee in Brazoria and pounded another, threatening homes, businesses to engulf the small community of about 4,000 southwest of Houston.
And upstream, residents in key areas of Fort Bend County were also evacuated amid fears the Brazos could reach historic flood levels in coming days.
In small towns and rural areas up Highway 35 toward Alvin, water rose several feet in many neighborhoods, nearly touching rooftops on single-story homes. Unlike the western half of the county, residents on the east side were not subject to a mandatory evacuation. After torrential downpours Monday and early Tuesday, the area’s largest bayous all flooded.
Members of the all-volunteer fire department in Liverpool, home to about 500 residents, feverishly coordinated from headquarters with boat-toting county residents. As residents called for help, volunteers scribbled new assignments on a white board and huddled to map out routes.
Using vessels ranging from kayaks to airboats, a few dozens volunteers fanned out, dodging submerged cars, downed power lines and yard fences.
Tylor Land, a volunteer firefighter in neighboring Danbury, and Sean Blakeley, a local resident donning a cowboy hat, were dispatched in their canoe to rescue two people and four dogs.
“We just had to fight against a strong current, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle,” Land said. “We knew we could swim if we had to.”
Jim Turner, a 62-year-old Liverpool resident who’s lived in eastern Brazoria County his whole life, said the flooding surpasses any disaster he’s seen. He suspected many residents of Liverpool stayed behind because prior storms petered out after dire warnings to evacuate.
“Folks that have been here and lived here for years, they never, ever expected this,” said Turner, whose son suffered severe flooding damage to his Liverpool home.
“This is so out of the ordinary. We’ve been through hurricanes, we’ve been through tropical storms, we’ve been through everything else, but nothing like this.”
Beefing up the berm
Bailey, a barrel-chested offshoreman who lives just a few hundred very flat yards from the levee, had joined the effort to hold back the rising waters of Varner Creek, the creek flowing along the southern edge of the subdivision.
To the east, the swollen waters of the Brazos also threatened to add water to the creek and send it spilling over the berm that protects Columbia Lakes from flooding.
It was not the only barrier they’d erected. Earlier in the day, a few hundred yards away, water had threatened to overrun another section of the stream.
They had used bricks, cinder blocks and sand to erect that barrier, holding the water back and slowing the water to a trickle, rather than the knife-edge he’d feared would cut through the earthen berm, unleashing the rainwater-swollen creek across the subdivision.
Some residents had decided it was better to evacuate than stick around.
Danny Hill, 38, has lived in the community since 2014 and weathered a house fire in 2015.
They’d finally moved back in shortly before Christmas of 2016.
“We’re hoping it will be OK, but if it rises to the (levels) they’re predicting, it will fill the subdivision,” he said.
He’d gone to evacuate his daughters and ex-wife when their home in Dickinson flooded, then returned to his home in Columbia Lakes to grab a few supplies.
Throughout the day, Bailey and Irwin watched the berm. Around 4 p.m., after word of the levees possibly failing had spread across the community, approximately a dozen men showed up with a tractor and dump truck and sand, red clay and a pile of shovels.
“We’re just trying to beef it up a little,” he said.
They would have to see what the next day would bring.
Could have been worse
From atop Mullins Crossing in southern Simonton, the Brazos River is mostly indistinguishable from the hundreds of acres of flooded grazing land that stretch into the horizon.
About 80 percent of the Fort Bend County town’s 800 or so residents saw severe flooding this week, Mayor Louis Bourdreaux estimated Tuesday, with most of the water converging into the highly populated Valley Lodge neighborhood.
A cafe was lost, and a few cattle had to be rescued from the fields. But no one was seriously injured, he said, and he knows things could have been much worse.
Last year’s Tax Day Flood devastated the town, forcing officials to be more proactive in their emergency management approach, he said. And residents, some of whom he said were still rebuilding from last year’s storm, were more likely to heed evacuation warnings or take precautions for the floods.
“It’s considerably calmer than it was last year,” Bourdreaux said. “Originally the projection was that the water was going to be way higher. Fortunately it’s not.
“But there’s still flooding.”
Bruce Allen, 67, spent the last few days eyeing a stick he’d driven into the ground outside of his home. Slowly the water crept up, about a dozen or so feet past where it reached last year. It swallowed Barnes Road – a main road into town – but stopped short of his home, where a less-fortunate neighbor was staying for the time.
“It’s spooky, without a doubt,” he said, of the storm’s effect on the neighborhood, where at least half of the residents left before their homes were seriously damaged.
“You don’t really factor for an 800-year flood,” he said.
Protecting his turf
In Richmond in Fort Bend County, 34-year-old Wyatt Sebesta wasn’t leaving, even as the Brazos built toward unprecedented levels, even as his neighborhood flooded again.
Officials were saying the levees could be at risk of failing, prompting mandatory evacuations in places previously thought largely impenetrable.
But for Sebesta, and many in his neighborhood, the seeping of floodwaters into homes was expected. It had happened a year before. They had no barrier to protect them.
Some neighbors there believed the levees guarding the pristine, new subdivisions had only made things worse for them, pushing more water their way. Engineers said that was a misperception. The river doesn’t discriminate in who it floods, the county judge said.
It wasn’t right, Sebesta said, but he felt sure his house would again likely take on water in coming days while new subdivisions had a better chance at staying dry. But he remained loyal to his turf: Last year, he had stayed in his neighborhood to help people out by boat and keep an eye on the surroundings.
This year, with two boats, a kayak and his revolver on his hip, he planned to do it again.
The neighborhood was a struggling one, where many people were still in the process of fixing their homes after the last floods.
Residents already knew the anxiety and fear that many people were feeling as Hurricane Harvey ravaged their homes. They knew the scramble of trying to save their belongings, of choosing what to leave behind.
Gumesindo Cerda, 59, still hadn’t been able to repair his kitchen, leaving him and his two children unable to cook for a year. They lived mainly on the second floor, and his floors and walls downstairs stood again to be ruined.
From his backyard, Cerda could see the Brazos River, which usually flowed at about 10 feet.
On midday Tuesday, the mighty river roared past at 52 feet.
Robert Downen contributed to this report.
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