The flood that ate Austin

I could have died in Shoal Creek. Have you looked at it lately? Its rocky trail snakes through Austin completely devoid of water. Another casualty of the drought, it looks like an engineering project that is unfinished.

When I look at the dry bed, I see a creek that tore across our city in 1981 producing a torrent that killed 13 people and caused $35.5 million in damage.

So why relive this now.  Well my high school classmates recently held a 30-year reunion last weekend and though I didn’t go, I had a moment of reflection on my graduation and the flood, both life-changing events that happened within days of each other.  Like it or not, people seem to find comfort in marking anniversaries especially when they involve natural disasters. It’s sort of like rereading a book, but wishing you could change the ending.

Here’s how it started……

Hunched over our purses like they were precious cargo, we splashed through deep puddles in our high heels and threw our caps and gowns into the backseat. We had never seen sheets of rain come down so fast, so hard. We had just finished a rehearsal of our graduation ceremony at Johnston High School and we were primed for an evening of parties.

Once at the restaurant, we  chatted away oblivious to the rising danger all around us. In an era without cell phones, we had no idea the floods raged throughout the city stranding motorists and trapping hundreds of homeowners.

My friend and I left the party to go home and stopped short of  an intersection covered with some water  just a block down from the restaurant. Everything looked dark and still. As a caravan of high school friends waved us on, I gunned the accelerator thinking I could drive through the water, but abruptly came to  stop with a force of nature I had never felt.

Seconds later , this wall of water we thought was hovering around our tires was reaching for the hood. I instinctively put the car in reverse, but, of course, it went nowhere. Sensing that we needed to vacate, my friend said “put the windows down!”

My finger furiously flicked the switch up and down.

“I did! I did! It’s stuck,” I said remembering the windows were electric. We managed to steal enough leftover energy at that point to get the window down halfway.

It had only been seconds but the water was over our hood making my heart race. I threw my car in reverse again hoping for a miracle, but it was too late.  I slammed my hand over the air-conditioning vents as if I could stop the gush of water running in. “It’s coming in, the water. Oh, God.”

My panic and disbelief that we really might float away was palpable even though the current was still. “What do we do?” I asked my friend.

“Come on, we’re going to have to climb out.”

She put her feet on the seat and her arms out the window and began moving her body in Houdini-inspired contortions through the tight opening. I did the same thing and we both fumbled to retrieve our caps and gowns, a mandatory item for graduation night.

Holding our cap and gown above our heads, as if we were surrendering to the flood police, we trudged across Anderson lane to Handy Andy grocery store where dozens of people waited for the water to recede. My friend and I put our caps under a large bag of Gravy Train dog food in hopes the ripples would flatten out.

We stood in the parking lot and watched the water continue to rise to the top of my car. No one said anything about the enormity of that moment and how we probably would have been rescued, but it seemed like a close call. I began to understand the frightening force of the flood as a giant trash dumpster  was floating and couches from Louis Shanks furniture store were resting on the banks.

That night in bed I would have my ear to the radio listening to horrific stories of people who refused to leave their home and unimaginable rescues with helicopters. My story was a silly mistake, theirs a horrible tragedy.

The next day I was at Covert Buick car dealership waiting in a line wrapped around the block with other people inquiring about whether their car could  be saved from the flood damage. It turned out my brand new car – a birthday present – was a total loss. Fortunately my life was not.



Sarah Barnes
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  • thomas blom
    Posted at 22:29h, 12 January

    Wow, great story. I love that after the heart-pounding escape from the car with stuck windows, the two of you thought to de-wrinkle your cap and gowns under a bag of dog food! Youth… 😉

  • Sarah
    Posted at 08:02h, 13 January

    Yes isn’t that hilarious? Better yet, those mortar boards were still warped on the top and my mom could tell who I was because the top was wavy. Good times! Stay dry.