Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Texas Reader: Gone in a Flash

Exploring Texas' great floods.

By E. Dan Klepper

"Large-scale development of Texas has surged in the past one hundred years. Floodplains have been developed without knowledge of the historical flood data – and even in spite of this crucial information," explains Jonathan Burnett in the introduction to his Flash Floods in Texas (Texas A&M University Press). "This development has placed the residents of Texas in the path of some of the most extreme flash floods in not only the United States but also the world. In many such inundations, the deadly surges arrive in the middle of the night. Victims of these events often remember the terror of being awakened as water floated their beds away or as debris broke open doors and windows."

Burnett illustrates his point with a concise narrative of each of 28 devastating floods (out of many) that deluged Texas towns and communities throughout the 20th century. He sets the stage with a brief historical synopsis, provides an overview of precedent conditions, and details the storm rainfall with a quick read-out of statistics using basic charts.

Textbook hydrology is kept to a minimum, allowing simple maps of flood plains and corresponding briefs on the creeks and rivers that fed each surge to explain how dams broke and bridges washed away. With the preparations complete, Burnett then unleashes the monster, giving readers an insider's view of wanton destruction through archival photographs and thrilling accounts as thriving cities across the state end up underwater.

Although Burnett is an engineer in the semiconductor field, with theoretical work in hydrology and floodwater flows, he keeps the academics of flash floods to a minimum, letting a documentarian's candor dominate his literary style. As a result, readers will find themselves caught up swiftly in the narrative.

"I drove on into the business district and noticed the water steadily coming up on Houston Street," reads one account of the 1921 San Antonio flood featured in Burnett's story. "I parked my car and directly the water had come up a little farther, and kept on rising and rising. The whole thing came up so suddenly that I can't understand yet just how it all happened. Practically all of the stores in San Antonio's business district, except those on Alamo Plaza, were flooded. One can find any sort of article of furniture about the streets – sofas, roll-top desks, chairs, tables. Lights went off about 12:30 on Saturday morning, and the only sounds were the crashing of wreckage, the roar of the water and an occasional scream."

Burnett's Flash Floods in Texas offers an elementary case of hydrology gone awry, then serves up a series of uncluttered disaster dramas in full throttle. The science Burnett delivers is easy to grasp and important for any Texan living in a floodplain to understand.

The eyewitness accounts are at the heart of Burnett's message. The Texans to be found within his text – some brave, others just lucky – are able to unravel the stories of loss and escape in riveting, first-person narratives only because they survived the most precarious circumstances to tell them. Many of their fellow flood victims, some just an arm's length away minutes before the surge, did not.

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