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Weekend rains boost flash flood fears

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By LPR Staff

Editor/POST-REGISTER

 

A wall of water charges downstream. Relentless and terrifying in its beauty, the whitecaps and swirling surface hide the mountain of mud, sticks and death hidden in its depths. It slams into the passenger door of a pickup truck.

Fifteen miles away, a father tucks his children in, patting their heads as they slumber. Their s

oft breath fills the room. They are sleeping and they are safe, oblivious to the storm that rages outside their window. The weather can’t get to them tonight.

The shriek of a pager in the night, with nightmare words to follow.

“Swift water rescue.”

As Central Texas braces for yet another storm system, which could bring up to eight inches of rain into the region for the weekend, this thought scene becomes all-too-clear for the 30 or so volunteer firefighters who have been trained to engage in swift-water operations. Caldwell County has one of the highest swift-water mortality rates in the region – and the volunteer resources hope to make sure that this flood season, those statistics change.

“We have around $2,300 invested in equipment and training for everyone we have trained in swift-water,” said Chief Mark Padier of Chisholm Trail Fire-Rescue (CTFR), the County’s first fully-equipped volunteer rescue team. “And we haven’t bought a boat yet.”

Last week alone, CTFR responded to two swift-water rescues, one where the victims were able to be walked out of shallow water before disaster, and a second, on the county line between Caldwell and Bastrop Counties, which could have been more disastrous.

“We were lucky that he thought to shake the branches of the tree, upstream from where his truck was,” Padier said. “We were about to deploy in the area of the truck [several meters downstream from the victim’s location].”

The calls have become more and more common, as rains pummel this drought-accustomed reason of Central Texas; the calls have become more disastrous, as drainage systems stretch to their limits and make flash flooding more likely – and more deadly.

“We really want to focus on the idea of ‘Turn Around, Don’t Drown,’” said Caldwell County Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey earlier this week. “We want people to really understand that the barricades are there for a reason, and even when they think it’s safe to cross, it might not be.”

Case in point: last weekend, Padier’s crew responded, after the rains had stopped and under the bright sun, to a call where the driver of a Dodge dually lost his vehicle in a surge. It was that driver who thought to shake the trees to attract attention.

“That was the only place he could have been that he would have been safe,” Padier said. “If he hadn’t found that tree, if he hadn’t been there… He probably would have died.”

Drivers who choose to ignore barricades do not only endanger themselves. Based on the training they have received, Caldwell County’s volunteer fire/rescue departments who equip swift-water teams put additional personnel in the water. According to Padier, there are two up-stream spotters, to notify teams of any surges or debris approaching, as well as one volunteer downstream for every person in the water, whether rescuer or victim.

“People get complacent when the sun comes out,” he said. “They don’t stop and think that, even though it’s not raining here, it may still be raining, or it may have been raining hard, upstream.”

This weekend, in fact, Padier had to leave a cart of groceries at the supermarket, while he scrambled to gather his gear and make the scene of a swift-water rescue.

“After that, I went out to Polonia Road where [Cynthia McKee] died on Halloween,” he said. “And I saw where someone moved the barricade. They just moved it. I followed the tracks, and saw that they drove down to the creek, and drove into the water, and thankfully thought better of it, and backed up.”

But that driver didn’t replace the barricade, Padier said.

In Texas, it is a Class B Misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine, 180 days confinement, or both, to drive “around a barricade where a warning sign or barricade has been placed because water is over any portion of a road, street or highway.”

The legal consequences may be the least of the costs.

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