Flooded Out

Neighborhood activist Leon Thomas shows a map of floodplains bordering several East Side subdivisions near Salado Creek. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Flooded Out

By Michael Cary

East Side residents cry foul in FEMA buyout

A marker near City Hall cites the massive deluge that occurred on October 17-18, 1998 as the Flood of the Century.

Torrential rains caused widespread and deadly flooding. Thirty-one people died after as much as 30 inches of rainfall fell on South and Southeast Texas. The San Antonio River basin experienced peak discharges that were equal to or greater than 100-year floods.

With Salado Creek's banks already clogged with trees, underbrush, and trash, it was not a good time to have a 350,000 cubic-yard pile of dirt - believed to have illegally come from the construction site of the Alamodome in 1991, sitting alongside the bank of Salado Creek between Belgium Street and Gembler Road.

Leon Thomas, a resident of Meadowview North, said the dirt and debris caused about six inches of water to flood his house, whose lot, according to 1996 Flood Rate Insurance Maps, borders Salado Creek's floodplain. Thomas' home was built in the 1960s, and had never been flooded until 1998, when the floodwaters backed up due to the pile of dirt.

Meanwhile, some residents of the nearby Willowood Subdivision had to be rescued by police officers driving water jets. On Meadowview Park, which sits adjacent to the KOA Kampground along the banks of Salado Creek, the water rose like never before. Some of the homes, which were built as early as 1962, had about a foot of water inside them for the first time in 40 years - again, residents believe, because of the dirt.

Three years after the flood, the City began removing the dirt, and announced plans for a new dam to be built in McAllister Park that would lower the floodplain about two-and-a-half feet. Removing the dirt would lower it another two feet.

Given these remedies, why did the City announce its plans to conduct a voluntary buyout of 18 homes in Meadowview Park through the Federal Emergency Management Agency?

Because City staff, namely Public Works Director Thomas Wendorf, produced a new Flood Insurance Rate Map, used by FEMA to determine which homes in a community can purchase flood insurance, that showed the 18 homes are now located in the Salado Creek floodplain.

Only five homeowners took the City up on its offer. The City tore down the houses, leaving the neighborhood along Timilo Street looking a little snaggletoothed and unkempt; the City-owned lots were overgrown with weeds last week.

But Leon Thomas alleges these 18 houses do not lie in a floodplain, and contends that the Alamodome dirt and a clogged creek were problems that could be addressed to prevent further flooding in the neighborhoods. "They `the City` are lying. They know they're lying, and I know they're lying," Thomas, a member of the United Homeowners Improvement Association Inc., said.

He points out numerous piles of dirt on the KOA Kampground property along the Salado Creek bank, and wonders if the owners are building up the floodplain and altering the landscape, which could mean more houses would flood in the three subdivisions during a heavy rainfall.

"If people knew what they were doing, they would be raising hell," Thomas said.

KOA manager Judy Swalley said the campground's owners, Alamo Kampgrounds Inc., would have to answer questions about plans for the piles of dirt in the 41.5 acre park.

Monica Ramos, special projects director for the Public Works Department, said she was working on answers to residents' questions by press time.

And residents have also called their Councilman, District 2's Joel Williams, about the long-standing complaints.

Harold Williams, administrator for Meadowview Park and no relation to Joel Williams, alleged that the City intimidated residents, who are mostly elderly, into selling their homes. An August 5, 2002 memorandum from Wendorf identified the 18 houses targeted for voluntary FEMA buyout, including this caveat: "If you do not accept this offer and are again flooded, a building permit to fix damaged homes would be issued if the total repair estimate does not exceed 50 percent of the pre-flood appraised value."

In other words, the letter warned homeowners they wouldn't be allowed to rebuild if their homes suffer damage that costs greater than 50 percent of their values.

During a buyout, appraisers determine the pre-flood value of the homes, and if money is available through either FEMA or other sources, the City buys and tears down the houses and subsequently owns the empty lots - ostensibly to prevent any future construction on the buyout sites.

There is no obvious benefit to the City to own empty lots that cannot be further developed. The City incurs an added expense of mowing and cleaning the five empty lots in Meadowview Park.

Thomas, Williams, and other members of the association contend that City staffers harassed homeowners, or otherwise put pressure on them, to sell their homes, instead of working to lower the floodplain by clearing out the creekbed and building flood control projects along Salado Creek.

John Ranson, of 818 Timilo, the third house off Gembler Road, said the City wanted to pay him $45,000 for his house, which he had already cleaned and repaired. "I said, 'What about the repair money?' I spent $15,000 to repair damage from the flood. I told them no. I wanted at least $70,000."

Louise Hill, 85, who lives at 822 Timilo, said she refused to sell her house, where she has lived for 44 years, and has no plans to go anywhere. "I saw the water coming," she recalled of the 1988 flood. "The drainage was all blocked up with trash, logs, brush in the creekbed, the debris dammed it up."

Hill said she believes she will die soon, and plans to leave her home to her descendants. "My house is paid for. I don't owe any taxes. Why would I move?"

"All we want is to have them clear the creek out, show some compassion, listen to us," Harold Williams mused. "And it would be nice if the houses that were torn down were replaced. Families and friends have been torn up and displaced. We're in a state of grievance. It's a great loss." •

Public Works Director Thomas Wendorf was among those who could not be reached or couldn't answer questions by press time. See next week's Current for Wendorf and the City's response.

` By Michael Cary `

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