Should Texas towns rebuild?
Residents, politicians debate rebuilding twice-soaked homes.
NEW BRAUNFELS, TEXAS — This time the water rose seven feet in his living room. But Mike McQueeney, a 10-year veteran of this area, has seen worse: The flood of 1998 went higher than his roof.
Back then, he did what everyone along the Guadalupe River, one of two rivers that run through New Braunfels, was doing: He restored and rebuilt his home. In the process, he lost a quarter of a million dollars. Now, hauling wheelbarrow-loads of sheetrock out of his house for the second time, Mr. McQueeney is having second thoughts.
"Yeah, we'll rebuild again," he says, as friends help him tear out walls and scrape inches-thick mud from his floors. "But this time we'll be looking to sell. We want to buy property on the hill."
His determination is classic Texan: flinty, stubborn, and prepared for anything. The state is home to some of the most active weather in the world, from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico to tornadoes in the Panhandle to decade-long droughts out west. When disaster strikes, most residents just rebuild, content to keep living in what they say is the greatest state in the Union.
But in the wake of widespread flooding that has damaged almost 50,000 homes and caused 24 counties so far to be declared national disaster areas, state officials are now taking a hard look at how to balance sentimentality with safety.
"The rivers are part of the history of New Braunfels, so people have a real link to the water around here," says Mayor Adam Cork. "But we have to find a way to enjoy that water without putting lives at risk or spending taxpayer money unwisely."
He says it's time to consider buying people out of their flood-prone homes and instituting a building moratorium in these areas. That may flap a few unflappable Texans.
For many people in this German settlement where the Polka is still popular and bratwurst can be found at the local market dealing with disaster has become second nature. Just two weeks ago, for instance, crops in this area were suffering under severe drought conditions and water restrictions were in effect for townsfolk. Now, many fields have washed away and water is plentiful.
The town even originated in bad weather: In March of 1845, Prince Carl of Solms Braunfels and his men spent a long, cold night camped on the land he'd purchased for the first Texas settlement of the German Emigration Company.
The severe storm that ripped through the area deposited snow in their tents "which could be rolled in the hand, but by noon had melted," he wrote. "Taking this as a good omen, we established our German colony here, to which I gave the name New Braunfels."
Prince Carl didn't realize the river-laden land he purchased was susceptible more to flooding than snow.
Over the hill from the receding Guadalupe River, at a local middle school doubling as a Red Cross flood-relief shelter, Hilda Hooper says she also plans to rebuild.
"I own the property," she says. "And nobody has told me, 'You can't put another house there.' "
On a linoleum lunchroom table, Ms. Hooper has spread out recent snapshots taken of her mobile home, which has floated off its foundation. Many of the relief workers and fellow homeless peer over her shoulder. She seems almost proud of the images that show the home wedged against a tree about 100 feet from where it once rested along the river banks.
She also lost her home in the flood of 1998, but says, "It hurts worse this time."
For some new to the area, the experience is alarming. Linda Hammon and her family settled along the Guadalupe River just two years ago, after being reassured that floods happen quite infrequently.
"I didn't want to move here, but Mom did not win out in this one," she says as she washes family collectibles in a large tub outside their destroyed home. The cluttered driveway looks like a garage sale with recently cleaned glass vases and children's toys, a porcelain cow collection, and swan figurines.
Her son emerges with an old family photo from the early 1900s, covered in mud and soaked under water for 48 hours. She clears the dirt from her grandmother's face and points out the 13 brothers and sisters clad daintily in petticoats and top hats then drops it into a box with other ruined photos.
"I'm devastated, but what can you do?" she asks. "You go forward."
But unlike many of her neighbors, Ms. Hammon doesn't think going forward includes being allowed to build here again. She'd rather see the area become parkland.
"Two floods in less than two years," she points out. "People and their property should not be in the way of disaster."