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Bad Water Rising

Flash Floods in Texas

Review by Christopher Dow




The late Texas musician Stevie Ray Vaughan probably was speaking from personal experience when he sang, “It’s flooding down in Texas,” but that matter-of-fact line also highlights an unfortunately predictable aspect of the Lone Star State: It’s going to flood somewhere.


Flash Floods in Texas, by Jonathan Burnett (Texas A&M University Press, 2008), might not mention all of the state’s floods—probably an encyclopedic task—but it does cover twenty-eight of the most devastating, beginning with the Austin Dam break of 1900 and continuing through the Guadalupe River flood of 2002. As his collection shows, few areas of Texas are impervious to destructive inundations.


Floods in the eastern part of the state are generally of the sort where shallow rivers, streams, and bayous overflow their banks and drown the relatively flat countryside. In 2001, for example, Tropical Storm Allison made much of Houston resemble a huge lake with a mirage of a city rising from the water. The rougher terrain of the Hill Country and West Texas is another story. Flooding there frequently is accompanied by rushing walls of water that add incredible violence to the saturation. That was the case in 1954, when an eighty-foot wall of water spawned by rains from Hurricane Alice swept down the Pecos River canyon, taking out highway and railroad bridges and stranding travelers and residents alike. When the deluge reached the Rio Grande, it demolished the international bridge at Del Rio like so much kindling before washing down the river and spreading havoc all the way to Laredo.


Burnett treats each flood in its own chapter that details background information, such as the structures of dams or relative positions of watercourses to cities and towns. He then explains the prevalent weather conditions that led to the flood, how the flood progressed over the landscape, and what the aftermath was like. Each chapter is accompanied by dramatic photos of the flood and, often, of the area both before the water rose and after it subsided.


The case histories show why Texans have gone to great lengths to abate the effects of flooding, such as by building Addicks Reservoir to protect Houston and rechanneling the San Antonio River where it runs through downtown San Antonio. But despite these and other protections, Texas is going to experience flooding nearly every time a hurricane or major tropical storm blows in over the coast. We can learn something about the nature of these events from Burnett’s book, but a century from now, another writer might aptly pen a similar volume that takes up where Burnett’s leaves off.



Reprinted from Rice Magazine, #4, 200

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