Collapsed house after Austin Halloween Flood

A condemned houses in the aftermath of the Austin, Texas Halloween 2013 flood.

In the early hours of Halloween 2013, Austin, Texas suffered from a record-breaking flood. Some 1,100 homes were affected by the floods with hundreds of those seriously. Flood response was dangerously delayed by a faulty flood gauge and improper human monitoring of the rapidly rising Onion Creek. Because of the city’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude toward the residents of the floodplain, many remained asleep as water began to pour into their homes:

Onion Creek was transformed into a raging river last Thursday. The Halloween flood set a new record for high water levels in the creek. More than 1,000 homes were damaged and five people died.

At a town hall meeting in the Dove Springs area Tuesday night homeowners had a lot of questions, and one comment caused concern.

‘We relied too much, me, on technology and gauges that were not working properly,’ said Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Flood survivor Norma Jeanne Maloney took to Facebook to tell how she and her partner Dawna Fisher were awakened by rising waters:

Dawna Fisher woke me up to tell me we had a problem. Half asleep I said ‘Say again, what kind of problem?’ ‘We have some water outside and it looks pretty high.’ I went to our front window to see a raging body of water about 3 feet high. I said ‘We need to wake up the kids we are in serious trouble.’ I woke up Ruby and she woke up Texie. I went back into our bedroom where the water had already begun to seep up into our floors, I heard my cat Pickup howling, yes cats howl, under the bed. I managed to grab him and while he clawed me to pieces ( and he has never ever hurt anyone ) I said to him, go right ahead pal, I’m not letting you go. Texie and I shoved him in a bag and zipped it up. …

We all had gathered in the living room wondering if anyone on earth knew what was happening and how we were going to get out. We saw someone trying to escape in their car, it flipped on its side and was washed away. I heard voices and saw a boat in the street and my immediate response was to open the front door to swim to the boat to get help for my family. Do not try this at home, it lets more water in. We began flicking our porch light on and off and were seen. A beautiful tall firefighter walked through the raging water and made it to our window and asked how many lives we had in our home including pets …

He said he would be back. We waited and watched the water continue to rise, our belongings beginning to float about the house. My daughter Ruby asked me if we were going to die. That was the hardest part. Of course not I said, wondering if I just lied to my child and if we were all going to perish. I said guys, I know this isn’t really your thing, but can we pray? Without hesitation we all grabbed hands in a circle and asked that we be spared, at this point the water was past our waists. … The firefighter came back, we heard our neighbors screaming and we said go back for them, they are elderly and need your help. Our neighbors (we know now) were screaming go get them, they have babies! On his last trip to our window they finally managed to get the boat near our living room window against the current and said they were ready to load us. These brave men loaded our family and our animals in the tiny craft and we were transported less than a half mile north up our street where it was completely dry.

As is so often the case in these disasters, city organizations and big nonprofits poured into the neighborhood to offer assistance and ask for cash donations in the immediate aftermath, but it didn’t last. The Red Cross turned up to serve thousands of hot dogs before halting meals a week after the floods. A city-operated shelter opened for a mere 2 weeks. And while the Austin city government offered buyouts to over a hundred of the worst damaged homes, residents are expected to wait months to receive that money:

According to HDR Engineering, the contractor that is handling the city buyouts, homeowners will not get any money for their homes until next spring at the earliest.

Vernon Ellison, neighborhood resident of 28 years, will meet with the City of Austin this Thursday and is unsure of where he will go if the buy out of his home takes months. ‘I can stay with my family for a week or so,’ Vernon says, ‘but four to five months is too long of a time to be without a home.’ Vernon says he may even consider moving back into his home, which is already gutted of sheet rock and carpet to prevent mold infestation, if the buyouts take that long.

Across the street from Vernon lived Gus Castro and his family. A car thrown around by the flood sits diagonally across his lawn and his trailer is still mired in the floodplain across from his home, tilted on its side, damaged, and abandoned. ‘We have found places to stay since the flood happened, but I have a family, I have children in school, we need to get this behind us. I have no idea what we will do if the buyouts take that long,’ Gus says. As with most residents of the area, neither Gus nor Vernon has insurance, making the situation that much more dire.

But where will they go until they get paid, and what about the people with damaged homes who won’t get buyout offers? Perhaps most frustrating of all, though hundreds have stepped up to volunteer, media coverage of this ongoing disaster is sparse at best. A survivor told me that when she gets supplies at her nearest supermarket mere miles from the flood zone, the checkout clerks often look at her blankly and ask, “What flood?”

Enter Austin Common Ground Relief 

Austin Common Ground Relief logo

Austin’s new community effort borrows the spirit and the logo of the New Orleans original.

I stayed up late on October 30th as flood reports arrived via Twitter. As the severity became clear, I posted on Occupy Austin’s Facebook wall: “be prepared to support your community.” The question was, how?

Much as Occupy Wall Street birthed Occupy Sandy, a network of allied Austin activists from many groups gathered together in the aftermath to start helping right away. With my health compromised by fibromyalgia, I couldn’t offer much in the way of physical labor — but I could be a dispatcher, linking needs and donations to needy people via telephone, email, and social media. Others entered the flood zone to try to meet with and gain the trust of residents. Among them was Lisa Fithian, one of the organizers of the original Common Ground collective that formed to provide community solidarity after Hurricane Katrina.

It was clear Austin’s flood victims would need similar aid on a smaller scale. Though the city quickly set up a shelter at a nearby recreation center, many residents remained unaware of its existence. It was days before anyone official went door to door with bilingual information, despite the prevalence of Spanish in the neighborhood. Horror stories poured in of land and waterways full of rotting, deceased livestock and pets.

Volunteers unloading food in the Austin flood zone.

Austin Common Ground Relief volunteers unloading food in the Austin flood zone.

By the weekend after the disaster, the newly formed Austin Common Ground Relief was sending out volunteer labor to three different households while we reached out to more. A mobile food team formed, serving hundreds of meals to residents. Those with political connections or experience called city council members to shake loose aid for emergency situations like the dead animals. During a record cold snap earlier this week, we gave out over a dozen space heaters along with bilingual safety instructions. Though there have been some financial gifts from groups like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520, almost all the efforts have been purely through donation — like the local businesses that give us fresh produce or a woman who offered up a massage chair and massage table for a pair of therapists who’d lost theirs in the flood. Burners Without Borders ATX, a Burning-Man community nonprofit, sent us skilled volunteers and a pile of cleaning supplies.

Ours is a technology-driven mission. Volunteers receive alerts through multiple channels like text message, Twitter, or Facebook. Behind the scenes, the group organizes using cloud tools like Google Drive to share lists of volunteers, cooking schedules, and food donors. An Internet-based translation team is starting to rewrite all our English alerts and documents in Spanish.

Monday, we held our first group meeting. We met at the house of Ruth Kaplan, a professional costumer and Katrina survivor whose Austin home took on inches of water on Halloween (“I got much less water than everyone else and, unfortunately, I still have all my things,” she says with good humor of her flood-gutted home). Residents continue to live in their homes or in condemned trailers on their land, despite cold temperatures and the possibility of more rain. Some continue to lack heat or electricity. We resolved to help the residents on the ground by sharing meals and donations from our food truck while simultaneously pressuring the city for more and more rapid assistance. The group agreed to continue meeting through the end of the year.

As attention passes on to the horror that is Typhoon Haiyan, the flood victims in Austin and the volunteers with Austin Common Ground Relief are acutely aware that climate change is real, and felt in our own back yards. We’re looking toward Thanksgiving meals, and for ways to not just aid the victims, but empower them to take control of the situation themselves.

Solidarity, not charity.

All photos from Austin Common Ground Relief, used with permission.