Anatomy of a Drowning

A Flood of Bad Blood Deluges Onion Creek

As befits a house of worship, the Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, off the stub of Pleasant Valley Road that runs south of William Cannon, sits on a hill. This is a good thing, since, according to city and federal authorities, everything below it is fixin' to wash away.

On a rainy Saturday morning two weeks back, a couple hundred people crowded into the prefabricated building that houses the church. Latecomers found themselves parking within the boundaries, as presently defined, of Onion Creek's 100-year floodplain, though the creek itself is more than 1,000 feet distant. Which means that the neighborhood across Pleasant Valley, flanked by the creek on three sides, is now within what the city defines as the 25-year floodplain. Which means residents are now subject to development restrictions that prevent them from, for example, replacing their homes should they burn down. Or adding on to their cramped quarters with so much as a deck. Or moving a mobile home (the reigning housing option for about half the residents, though they're so tricked out you'd barely know they were prefab) onto an empty lot for which they just paid $18,000 in cash, and whose seller did not inform them, and probably didn't know, about these restrictions, and who has now disconnected her phone.

Which makes the residents of this Onion Creek neighborhood very angry indeed, and as they ascend to Beautiful Savior, they are in no mood to either worship or witness a political tap dance. The meeting features an assortment of city staff -- Drainage Utility director Mike Heitz, Development Review and Inspection head Alice Glasco, and Heitz' deputy Theresa Duncan, the overseer of Austin's floodplain management. Plus Councilmember Daryl Slusher, who seemed to walk in almost by accident, and ended up wrangling the frustrations of the crowd, single-handedly and on the spot. People stormed out in a series of huffs. Residents screamed and cried. City leaders were called liars and fools, as opposed to the typical silent suspicions of the same. Accusations were leveled of a grand plot to drive the neighbors from their homes. Class warfare was declared by mainstream, church-going, Anglo working men and women of Far South Austin, in no uncertain terms. Much was said about tax strikes and lawsuits and vigilante action, and mass descent on the council chambers a la PUD Night.

In short, mild-mannered city officials were deluged by a 100-year flood of bile from the no-longer-silent majority, and showed themselves to be up Onion Creek without a paddle.

What happened? Not enough, and that's the problem; despite having three years to do so, the city failed to convince the 1,000 or so folks down here that anyone north of the river gives a flip about their problems. So far, the Onion Creek fiasco has been a primer on how the City of Austin goes about making a bad thing worse.

The background: Onion Creek, the longest creek in Texas by some accounts, has its headwaters somewhere near the Hays-Blanco county line, meanders through Hays and Travis Counties, and then skirts the southern Austin city limit, running through several subdivisions and into McKinney Falls State Park, where it joins with Williamson Creek, crosses through the hay fields and the back edge of Bergstrom, and eventually dumps into the Colorado. Its 400-or-so-square-mile watershed, spreading into five counties, is by far the largest of any of the bakers' dozen creek basins that make up Austin.

If you've lived here in Bat City for any time, you probably know more about drainage and floodplains, watersheds, detention ponds, and impervious cover than most Americans. But in case you don't: Every creek in Austin flows through an area defined, under the auspices of the notorious Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA -- the hurricane people), as its 100-year floodplain. This does not mean it floods once every 100 years, but that there's a 1% chance of its being inundated every year; it's possible to have three or five 100-year-floods in a row, or to go for 200 years without one. Within that area, based on data provided by FEMA, a locality has to define a narrower floodway -- in Austin, the 25-year floodplain, or a 4% annual chance of inundation, though other heuristics are used by other cities -- within which development will be as difficult as possible, if not completely impossible. By doing this, the city can participate in FEMA's flood-insurance program -- which covers all of us regardless of watershed status -- and is eligible for federal assistance should any of our creeks jump its banks and wreak havoc. Indeed, Austin's restrictions are so strict that the city qualifies for a discount on its FEMA insurance, though the Drainage Utility's current mantra is "That's not why we do it." Rather, the need to safeguard lives and property makes the 25-year floodway The Forbidden Zone.

As watersheds fill up with impervious cover, and as geographic data gets refined, floodplain definitions change. In Austin, FEMA has twice in the last two decades embarked on "more comprehensive" studies to define the floodplains of our creeks, Onion among them -- in other words, they've admitted they screwed up the prior studies. Usually, the difference between one floodplain definition and the next amounts to a couple of feet of elevation, and the number of properties that, due to the change, become officially flood-prone can be counted without taking your shoes off. With its last study (published in 1993) of Onion Creek, however, FEMA raised its 100-year flood level more than 20 feet, which means that the 25-year floodway -- which used to comprise mostly the parkland and easements flanking the creek -- now swallows this entire neighborhood, all the way to Pleasant Valley Road. Unless property owners can secure a variance -- which requires individual review by both Planning Commission and City Council, supporting testimony from both city and private civil engineers, and usually the beneficence of St. Jude -- they can forget about ever improving or selling their lots and homes.

The city feels it has no choice but to shut down development in the neighborhood -- as FEMA sees it, these folks have always lived in the floodway and on borrowed time. To which many residents counter that, in the two or three decades they've lived there, their homes have never flooded -- not during the Memorial Day flood of 1981 in which more than a dozen people died, not during the Christmas flood 10 years later that hit Southeast Austin particularly hard. This might imply that FEMA's estimates are wrong, wrong, wrong. Then again, recorded flood data from before the subdivision's existence (circa 1973) reputedly shows that these parcels have been well under water during previous storms. The city will restudy the area, but doesn't expect the situation to change much. (In Hays County, local officials and property owners took FEMA to court and got the flood level lowered five feet, but even this -- an unlikely prospect in Austin -- would still leave the bulk of the neighborhood under the hypothetical deluge.)

Apparently, says Duncan, some old-timers at the meeting remembered those floods in the 1940s and '50s, and took her aside afterwards to share these memories, but were afraid to say so in front of their neighbors. Why the reticence? Judging from their several hours' worth of pained complaint, 'twould seem the Onion Creekers want to separate city heads from city bodies not over the flood level, but over the city's less-than-inspired response to the news; conceding the accuracy of the FEMA estimates would have provided the city with cover it clearly did not deserve.

The FEMA study, after all, was done three years ago, Hays County had already litigated it, and the reconstruction of the Onion Creek bridge along William Cannon -- approved in a 1986 bond election -- had been cancelled and reassigned to the relevant state and federal agencies, because a bridge to accommodate the newly risen waters was beyond the city's financial means. Yet no one in the neighborhood was notified until late 1995 that the floodplain had changed (or, for that matter, why the bridge hadn't been built). The Drainage Utility (which in 1993 was still part of Public Works where floodplains were concerned) says it took 18 months to compile the relevant database of property owners, which many Onion Creek residents find hard to believe, and you probably do too. Even at that, many at the meeting never received this letter. Those who did learned merely that, as one resident describes it, "our zoning had changed, and maybe we should think about getting flood insurance."

Much of Austin is already within 100-year zones, and the consequences to property owners are fairly negligible. But within the narrower floodway, things get ugly. Unfortunately, the city doesn't have any established procedure for notifying folks in that floodway that their property has effectively been condemned. On most creeks, the 25-year zone is already claimed by the city as easement, and never before have 600 homes been reclassified en masse as potential flood bait. In fact, the city typically doesn't even calculate the floodway for an entire watershed; only when property owners attempt to pull permits does the city determine whether that particular parcel is in the Forbidden Zone. It was such a case, concerning a property from which you can't even see Onion Creek, that made the city, and the neighbors, realize that they were, literally, in deep.

So in itself, it wouldn't quite be fair to second-guess the city's Onion Creek response, since it's no doubt true that, as Duncan puts it, "We didn't have any idea of the magnitude of the problem." However, by its own admission, the city knew back in 1993 that it had trouble on its hands, since it protested the greatly expanded floodplain with FEMA, to no avail. (The decision not to follow Hays County's lead and litigate was made somewhere higher up the city food chain than where Duncan sits.) And it would stand to reason that, if lives are at stake, the city would want to know which, and how many, properties in this newly swollen floodplain were likewise in the floodway, instead of waiting for them to be uncovered via standard procedure and risking staggering liability if we'd had a flood last year instead of a drought.

Luckily, the Onion Creek neighborhood is still there, and its occupants don't, or at least didn't, think they've lived in mortal danger for decades. Instead, they feel screwed by senseless bureaucracy, and rumor has rushed in where the city failed to tread. A common suspicion is that the city wants to clear out the neighborhood, for reasons having something to do with the new and nearby Bergstrom airport. This seems unlikely, since adjacent neighborhoods across Onion Creek and closer to Bergstrom seem little affected by the new FEMA boundaries. These developments downstream -- to say nothing of subdivisions upstream like the Onion Creek Country Club -- are far more affluent than the area by Pleasant Valley Road, with its prefabs and prominent Capitol Metro service. Don't think for a moment that this truth has been lost on the residents; at least a quarter of the comments made at the meeting were paraphrases of "Once again, it's either South or East or Southeast Austin gets the shaft." (When Heitz noted that if Onion Creek were let alone, FEMA could pull the entire city's flood insurance, a man in the back yelled out: "I don't give a damn about the folks in West Lake Hills." He was applauded.)

It didn't help that city staffers came to the meeting, their main chance to set Onion Creek minds at ease, with neither a good explanation for what has happened so far, or a good plan for what happens next. It fell to Slusher, perceived by the calmer souls in attendance as one of the good guys, to craft an impromptu strategy from the crowd noise -- forming a team of relevant department heads (not all of whom bothered to show up at the meeting), considering granting a mass variance to the neighborhood instead of to one property at a time, and the like.

Such measures might help quiet the passions of the neighbors, although some residents would likely not have been mollified if Jesus Christ himself promised them a task force. But the only real answers to the Onion Creek question appear to be a massive flood-control project upstream -- the tentative price tag for that is $15 million, and the unresolved technical and legal details are many and vivid -- or a buy-out of the entire neighborhood, which may end up being cheaper for the city, given that property values are likely to plummet in the area. Flood control is more politic and clearly the choice of the neighborhood, but no one has $15 million lying around, and getting it would require the support, through votes and tax collections, of the West Austin fat cats that the neighborhood vilifies, since Onion Creek property won't generate that kind of revenue in 100 years.

As the meeting wore on, this unsavory truth seemed to dawn on the residents, whose cries to take money from Boondoggle X and spend it on their working-class selves became more muted. So add one more massive and inevitable liability to the growing list of fiscal demands clouding the city's budgetary future. Geographic destiny has dug a hole in Onion Creek about a half-mile wide, and the city's lackadaisical response has continued to widen the chasm. But, as Slusher assured the crowd, "Y'all are becoming a top priority real fast." Forestalling the floodwaters might be the easy part; the real challenge will be bailing out the bad blood that now swamps Onion Creek.

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