A Survivor and Her Family, After the Wimberley Flood

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The street is lined with vacant port-a-potties and debris piles, reminders of the volunteers who have mostly moved on and left town. The air smells like river muck, damp cedar trees, rotting food, and burning brush. When you pull into Caroline Rolling’s property on Flite Acres Road in Wimberley, it appears as if her family has been camping or staged a garage sale in the rain. Things aren’t where they are supposed to be (see photo gallery above).

Household items litter the yard, left hanging out to dry. A kitchen counter stands on her front porch. A tarp protects plywood from the rain. Life jackets hang on a clothesline. A covered casserole dish filled with rain water and algae is nestled, forgotten, among overgrown ground cover. Fine dust from the dry wall blankets the inside of the house. Muddy foot paths mark well-trodden routes outside.  When you step closer, you notice the evidence of the flood that swept through this property five weeks ago.

On Memorial Day Weekend, the Blanco River crested at about 40 feet – 27 feet above flood stage.  The water destroyed Caroline’s home and her place of work, yet she’s still living and working, as a photographer, in her home.

A make-shift monument from a flood gauge marks the entry to Caroline's home.  It warns: "Avoid making irrevocable decisions while tired or hungry." Photo by Rachel Chaney.

A make-shift monument from a flood gauge marks the entry to Caroline’s home. It warns: “Avoid making irrevocable decisions while tired or hungry.” Photo by Rachel Chaney.

She owns a bed-and-breakfast next door, which also was flooded. Floodwaters carried away many of her belongings. The effluent from neighbors’ broken septic systems soiled most of her remaining belongings. Many of the items she found will have to be discarded because of mold or sewage. Windows are busted. The bottom four feet of drywall has been removed to expose the framing in between the walls. The floor has been torn out, exposing the concrete slab or the bare ground beneath the joists.  There is hardly any furniture. A few coolers are pushed to the perimeter of what used to be her pantry. A family portrait hanging on the wall reminds you that this was once a somebody’s home.

Flanked by her two teenage boys, Jonathan and Tristan, you see light in Caroline’s eyes. Her smile is vibrant, and her hug is warm. You can tell that these three have been through a lot together – even before the flood.

They met this latest challenge with hard work and a touch of humor.

Although worn by sleepless nights and muddled days, Caroline remains resourceful, calm, and grateful. She has had a lot of practice – as a single mom of teenage boys, former construction manager, current owner of a photography business, B&B owner, and certified first responder.

On the day I visited, friends and helpers were trying to make her small 400 sq. ft. “carriage house” into a livable, efficiency-style apartment for her and her two boys.  She plans to live in this carriage house while she works to repair the house and bed and breakfast.

The helpers ask her a barrage of polite questions:

“Caroline, do you own a Shop Vac? ”

“Where do you have power?  May we borrow an extension cord?”

“Where are the circuit breakers?”

“Where do you want us to put these photos we found?”

“Is this trash or are you going to try to save this?”

She does her best to graciously remember, answer, and problem solve. Finding a common tool becomes a laborious task: Did we own the tool before the flood? If so, did we find the tool after the flood? Who last saw it? Where did we put it? Can we find it? Is it safe to use? Does it work? If it doesn’t work, is it an electrical problem or a mechanical problem due to the mud? Is it worth replacing if it is broken?

In between answers, she shares bits and pieces about the night of the flood:

  • The heavy rain blowing sideways on the way home.
  • The seven teenage boys spending the night at her house.
  • The fringes of the river that would roll in like a beach wave, then go flat, then surge again.
  • The speed with which the water rose that night.
  • The call from her friend at the Fire Department checking in on her.
  • The warning she gave to her neighbor, Keith, who had just moved in that day.
  • How she awakened her bed-and-breakfast guests and urged them to prepare to evacuate.
  • The instructions she gave her sons and their friends to line their cars up in a single-file line facing uphill just in case.
  • Losing power at 11:30 p.m.
  • Tracking the 911 phone calls on her mobile phone and mapping out the progress of the flood in her head. (Caroline received these texts because she is a first responder.)

Just before midnight, she got a call from the Wimberley Fire Department’s assistant chief,  warning her that the bridge over the Blanco River had been breached. She knew if that bridge ever went under water, her home would flood. She had just five minutes to grab her things, her boys, and her dogs. She gave instructions to her boys and the other kids at her house.

“Put as much as you can up high. Grab the photos. Grab the laptop. Grab the hard drive and the monitor.”

They piled into in the lined-up cars and drove uphill like kids “filing out of church pews.”

They were only able to drive up to the end of her driveway. They couldn’t go any further because the street was flooded. The river sounded like a freight train. Caroline could hear ancient trees breaking. The only light was from the occasional flicker of lightning. She felt helpless to protect her boys.

Eventually, she saw a flashlight from a neighbor who woke up to investigate a curious sound. He was stunned to discover the source of the sound and the unfolding destruction of the raging river. The neighbor, Mr. Kyle, opened his doors to Caroline and the rest of the people stranded on the road. They stayed until early morning.

At about 6 a.m. as dawn arrived, Caroline returned to her home. She couldn’t mentally put together what she saw. She saw the mud. She smelled the sewage. She saw a huge, misplaced wooden beam threaded like a needle between her house and garage. All she wanted to know was if the trees had made it.  She took two steps in her front door. She looked through her house and saw that the water had claimed every single beautiful tree.

“There (was) no root ball to even show that the trees existed. The ground and the dirt went with the flood,” she said. That discovery was all she could take. She didn’t even turn around. She took two steps backward out of her house.

She headed to her mom’s house to deliver the news: “Mom, I’m homeless. It flooded.  The trees are gone.”

The force of the water peeled the bark off this cypress tree near the Blanco River crossing at Little Arkansas Road. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

The force of the water peeled the bark off this cypress tree near the Blanco River crossing at Little Arkansas Road. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

When I asked Caroline to tell me what the trees meant to her, she said, “I have pictures in my mind of when (my boys) were little. We would play every day under those trees after school.”

She gave her boys wetsuits so that they could enjoy the river year-round.

“We would sit in chairs in the river in the shade in the summer time. I would have rather lost the house than the trees. (Without the trees), I don’t have my compass.”

I ask Caroline explicitly what she needs and she answers, “Nothing . . . everything . . . and nothing.”  She is so grateful that she has her boys, even though she lost so much. As you listen carefully, you realize that she does have real needs.

She needs to figure out how to get her new oven to work so she can make dinner. She needs an overworked and very busy contractor to return her phone calls and install subflooring so she can get started on repairing her home. She needs a washing machine that spins, and a dryer that isn’t clogged with mud. She needs comfort when nightmares wake her up in the middle of the night. She needs a good night’s sleep. She needs the police department to respond quickly when trespassers and looters enter her property.

And if she lets herself leave the urgent present and look a bit further in the future, she will admit she wants to get her house in order enough to be able to visit a few colleges with her son, Jonathan, who will be a senior this coming year. She thinks about the future just for a fleeting moment. Then she wisely turns her attention back to the next task at hand – feeding the two almost-grown men in her 400 sq. ft. space that they now share.

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