Point Austin: It's Rainin' Down in Texas
Marking time and history by the Texas floods
The telling quotation making the social media rounds this week is from an unnamed state meteorologist in 1927: "Texas is a land of perennial drought, broken by the occasional devastating flood." I first saw it posted on the city's "atxfloods" web site (still trying to keep up on Wednesday with the nearly 300 closed low-water crossings, while more rain threatened). It put me in mind of Elmer Kelton's elegiac 1973 novel, The Time It Never Rained, set in West Texas during the devastating 1950s drought. Kelton's tale can make the drought catch in the reader's throat like a West Texas sandstorm – it's easy to forget that the novel concludes with a torrential gully washer that appears to destroy stoic Charlie Flagg's last chance to save his ranch.
Most of us have been lucky enough to avoid the worst consequences of the latest deluge, but across Central Texas and now Houston (and elsewhere), many folks are trying to piece their lives back together – and as I write, the count of lives directly lost is nearing 20. Here in Austin, our neighbors are drying out as best they can, crossing fingers that Onion Creek doesn't rise disastrously once again. As Nina Hernandez wrote this week ("Flood of Memories," May 25), the same rains that began to refill the Highland Lakes left a wide swath of destruction across the state, touching many lives beyond those directly damaged.
I can mark my almost 40 years in Texas by near-misses with high water: the 1981 Memorial Day Austin flood, within a few days of the birth of my eldest son; the 1992 Houston flood, which stranded me downtown, away from my family, as the waters reached but finally did not enter our Heights home (the house washed away in a subsequent flood); and now the Austin flood of 2015, which gave us a scare in Windsor Park but mostly hit the folks along Shoal Creek.
First, Do No Harm
In these parts, it never rains but it pours, and we console ourselves with mordant reassurance like that of Doug Sahm's lyric, "You just can't live in Texas, if you don't have a lot of soul." One blessing of the rains is the brief distraction they offer from the slow-motion disaster that is the 84th Texas Legislature; as Molly Ivins liked to point out, one thing we learn early in covering Texas politics is that things can always get worse. Texas politicians have not yet met the Florida standard of officially outlawing the words "climate change," but they do know it's easy enough to make such inconvenient knowledge inaudible under the noisy pandering of constricting women's reproductive rights while promoting the ever-expanding rights of gun owners.
Texas has always endured volatile weather patterns, and we can't be certain how the worldwide effects of global warming might have had specific consequences in aggravating extreme weather events. Nevertheless, a reasonable course would be trying not to make things worse – as, for example, via a statewide "water grid" (dubbed "Gridzilla" by Lege-watchers), attempting to solve by dam, pipeline, and poured concrete what should be addressed, first of all, with conservation. If nothing else, the latest round of Texas floods should teach us a bit of humility when it comes to building ourselves out of harm's way.
At least until the perennial drought returns.
Hello, I Must Be Going
This week's issue marks a Chronicle transition: After nearly 15 years in the chair of News Editor, I'm stepping away, to become a full-time staff writer. As of June 1, I'll be handing over the editorial reins of the News section to Mary Tuma and Amy Kamp (now ably assisted by Nina Hernandez). It's been a good, long sojourn, but I'm eager to strike out more on my own, get a bit further away from the reams of press releases and emails and other people's copy, cure my chronic desk-itis, and actually chase a story or two.
Readers probably won't see dramatic changes immediately; current plans call for me to remain on the "Point Austin" perch. Mary and Amy have already taken on much responsibility, and have reached out to new writers who will increasingly enliven the news pages, not to mention the exciting and insightful work appearing under their own bylines. They join a distinguished line of writers and editors who have passed through this neighborhood during my tenure, and to whom I owe enormous thanks: Lou Dubose, Erica C. Barnett, Robert Bryce, Mike Clark-Madison, Cheryl Smith, Katherine Gregor, Rachel Proctor May, Lee Nichols, Jordan Smith, Wells Dunbar, Nora Ankrum, Monica Riese, Amy Smith ... and a host of freelancers that I couldn't begin to list (see our Archives pages).
And I owe thanks as well to Managing Editors Cindy Widner and Kimberley Jones, all my Chronicle colleagues, and of course to Louis Black and Nick Barbaro, who hired me at a difficult personal juncture, and kept me on even when (perhaps because) some readers were calling for my head on a platter.
Mary, Amy, Nina: That, too, comes with the territory.