The Rural Texas Towns Buried Under River Mud
Bodies are still being discovered in Wimberley, a week after the Blanco River surged to more than 40 feet. A harrowing report from the storm-ravaged vacation town.
WIMBERLEY, Texas — It was midafternoon on Saturday, May 30, when search and rescue teams announced they had, for the second time that day, found the body of an adult female near storm-ravaged Wimberley in the beautiful and sprawling Hill Country of central-southern Texas.
The previous day, an adult male body was also recovered. None of the three people have been identified, pending autopsies.
This brought the number of recovered bodies in Hays County, the district that houses Wimberley, San Marcos (another hard-hit city), and part of the Texas capital, Austin, to eight. There are still six people last seen in Wimberley listed as missing.
“It’s just so difficult for us, because this is a small community,” Susan Myers, a 61-year-old resident of Wimberley, told The Daily Beast while coordinating relief efforts at the Cypress Creek Church. “We’re all neighbors.”
The grisly discoveries came a week after the Blanco River that borders Wimberley rapidly rose to more than 40 feet, taking the community by surprise and levying destruction as a large weather system developed across Central and Southern Texas.
According to a statement issued by Hays County, preliminary estimates place the county-wide cost at $32.7 million. More than 1,200 homes are damaged, and 209 have been destroyed. Hays County expects these numbers to increase.
“I was here for the floods in 1998, and that was horrible. But it was nothing compared to this one,” Myers said.
Myers was reflecting on another flashflood that many remembered as the worst in the town’s history, until this one. According to her, every neighborhood fell victim to last week’s flood. “Even if your house is still standing, it’s destroyed. Entire pantries and closets are full of mud.”
Walking down residential streets in the sleepy vacation town, one sees all the earthly possessions of entire families caked in mud and discarded on the curbside. What must be millions of dollars’ worth of furniture has been rendered unsalvageable.
Along the banks of the river, vehicles can still be see strewn about as if a child had flung their Hot Wheels at the end of a play session. The monetary toll is immense.
But the human toll has weighed far more heavily on the community, and one family specifically.
The McCombs—Laura, 34; Jonathan, 36; their 6-year-old son Andrew; and 4-year-old daughter Leighton were vacationing with another family in a cabin next to the Blanco River.
Floodwaters quickly grew taller than the stilts meant to keep the cabin above water: 26 feet in one hour, according to authorities.
A large, unknown object was swept into the stilts by the flood, hurling the cabin into the torrent. A short time later, it crashed into a bridge, shattering the home and sending the nine people trapped inside the cabin into the swollen river.
Laura made one last phone call to her sister, Julie Shields, shortly before the house made impact, around 1 a.m.
Shields told CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that Julie said, “‘I just want you to know, the ceiling has caved in, and the house is floating down the water, and tell Mom and Dad that I love them. I love you, and pray.’”
Since then, rescue teams have located Laura’s husband, Jonathan, who suffered a collapsed lung, broken rib, and collapsed sternum, 10 miles down the river. He is expected to recover.
The body of their son, 6-year-old Andrew, was recovered Wednesday and identified Friday. Laura and Leighton are still considered to be missing.
The McComb story is harrowing, and for the residents of Wimberley, profoundly personal. Though the McCombs lived in Corpus Christi, they were well known in Wimberley. The First Baptist Church has been converted into a base of operations for teams searching for the missing family members and a center of support for those dealing with their loss.
Brooke Garrison, a close friend of the McCombs who is volunteering with the search teams, told The Daily Beast that efforts will continue: “Lots of different groups are helping, from several counties. We’re 100 percent committed to finding every single one of them.”
Roughly 80 teams with 1,000 total team members go out to look for the missing every morning, and Garrison says the First Baptist Church sees more volunteers arriving every day.
“Rain has had an impact, but we’ve just had to monitor to ensure our friends are safe,” Garrison said, referring to the rainstorms that have continued unabated across the region.
This May was the rainiest in Texas history. More than 37 trillion gallons of water poured over the state, according to the Nation Weather Service. That’s enough to cover all 268,580 square miles of Texas in eight inches of water.
Late Friday, President Obama said that “a major disaster exists in the State of Texas,” and ordered federal aid to the state. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who personally toured the damage in Wimberley, has also declared a state of disaster in 70 counties, paving the way for state funds to be used to assist storm response.
National organizations including the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are in Wimberley providing assistance, as well as the Texas-based Austin Disaster Relief Network, a faith-based network of volunteers, and Circle of Health International, an NGO that specializes in providing assistance to pregnant women and single-mother families.
But the majority of relief seems to be coming from the community. “We all know each other, we’re just neighbors helping neighbors,” Courtney Goss, 28, told The Daily Beast back at the Cypress Creek Church. Goss said most of the displaced had been put up in housing provided by the residents of Wimberley. Goods and supplies are being donated from Hays and neighboring counties, and volunteers are signing up in huge numbers.
“There’s got to be more than 2,000 volunteers helping us alone,” Goss continued, echoing a degree of solace that both she and Garrison found in the efforts of their community.
There does seem to be some hope ahead. If meteorologists are right, the sky should be clear for a time, allowing for residents to put forth an even greater effort to find the missing, clear the wreckage, and assist their neighbors.
“We’re about to have a string of sunny days ahead, fortunately,” Garrison concluded.