It’s been exactly one year since Caroline Rolling, a resident of Wimberley, lost her home in the historic flood during Memorial Day weekend in 2015. The Blanco River crested at about 43.08 feet, about 27 feet above flood stage, and cost 11 lives.
Over the past year, Caroline and her teenage sons, Tristan and Jonathan – along with the help of many paid workers and volunteers – have made some notable progress in reclaiming their home.
Several weeks after the flood, this family of three started living in a tiny storage building of about 400 square feet called the carriage house. On Dec. 15th, they were able to move back into their home.
The yard is no longer littered with small machinery, pots and pans, and sporting goods. A proper front door delineates outside and inside where there used to be no distinction. The busted windows have been replaced. Inside, there is new flooring instead of exposed dirt, cooled air instead of humidity, a new kitchen instead of coolers and donated sandwiches, and even a few photos and pieces of art hanging on the walls. A new deck off the back holds mismatched outdoor furniture. Caroline’s own glider is next to several other pieces that were washed downstream by the flood. A small wooden stall at the corner of the deck forms the beginning of an outdoor shower. Caroline herself did the plumbing work. The felled cypress trees across the river that were stripped of bark and leaves have been mostly removed.
Not only has the property’s physical appearance changed, the family looks a bit different too. Caroline’s hair is considerably longer since she has not had time to get it cut during the past year. Her younger son Tristan looks taller as he finishes up his junior year of high school. And her older son Jonathan looks a bit more mature too, his hair freshly trimmed by his mom in preparation for his senior year prom.
More subtle, unseen changes accompany the physical: Jonathan is more vocal and outspoken and Tristan is beginning to acknowledge the stress he has felt.
“It was pretty stressful — especially living in the small space. It was pretty cramped. We didn’t have much privacy.” He has also begun to work through his belief. “I did not become more religious after this. If God is there, then why did he cause this flood? Where is God now? It is people who are actually doing (or helping), not God.”
Caroline’s characteristic resourcefulness is now paired with expressions of disappointment and pain. Caroline claims that her “give-a-shitter is broken.” She’s less concerned with pleasing people and being held hostage by what they think of her. In a few cases, people feigning friendship and offering help have been exposed over the year as imposters. She’s watched a handful of people use the tragedy for personal or political gain — eagerly pinning the badge of “survivor,” “helper,” or “hero” on themselves when they personally weren’t affected by the flood or weren’t actively involved in rebuilding. All three agree that the flood clarified who their true friends really are.
They've had plenty of challenges over the last year. This home wasn’t a second home or a rental property. It was Caroline’s only residence. She has limited financial means and no emotional support from a spouse or partner. She’s had to navigate through this year largely alone. Some volunteers have done shoddy or incomplete work. Her property has been greatly devalued as the flood plain has been redefined — effectively canceling out the improvements she’s made on the property and the natural increase in property value over the last two decades. Her annual flood insurance bills went up. On top of the flood, she has been preparing for the bittersweet exit of her graduating senior. In one more year, both of her boys will be out of the house as they move toward adulthood, and she will be alone.
The curtains in her room stay closed most of the time. The river view still represents a lot of pain. She is still living day to day, moment to moment.
Small moments of light and goodness have punctuated these dark months. Caroline praises the tireless work of Courtney Goss and Traci Maxwell who organized the volunteers as they put in 70 hour work weeks.
She remembers the Schneider family who drove all the way from Missouri to help. After their brief visit, this family essentially wrote the volunteer coordinators a blank check, allowing them to deliver more needed household items to Caroline without her even knowing. A group of photographers heard about Caroline’s story and gave her money, gift cards, and notes of encouragement. Wash Day Laundry, a local laundry mat, washed dozens and dozens of loads of soiled linens and clothes for flood victims. With money from the Barnabas Connection, she was able to buy essential building materials when she was financially strapped. One of the greatest, unexpected gifts, according to Caroline, was the time she spent bonding with her sons as they lived together in the cramped carriage house.
“There’s been a sadness that has only been broken up by the wonderful people who have come into my life. But when everyone’s gone, there’s this sadness,” she said.
Caroline, Tristan, and Jonathan marked the challenges and blessings of the year by attending Wimberley Strong, a community-wide event held on Saturday. The event was meant to remember the people and property lost in the flood, thank the first responders and volunteers who came to people’s aid, and to recognize the progress Wimberley has made in post-flood recovery as a community. Local, state, and national politicians spoke. A choir of children joined Robyn Ludwick in singing her original song “Wimberley Strong.” Afterward, reporters grabbed Caroline and her sons for an impromptu interview.
After the politicians go back to Austin or D.C., after all the corporate sponsors finish handing out checks and sandwiches, after the news crews leave, and after the people stop singing, Caroline still needs to will herself to get out of bed tomorrow. She will likely keep the curtains closed on windows that overlook the river. She will decide whether to prime the cabinets or stain the deck or weed the yard or finish the shower. She will eat her meals standing and pacing. She will still feel displaced. And she will hang onto the fleeting moments she shares with her boys.
“What people don’t get is ... I haven’t found normal yet. I have a hard time relating to people who haven’t gone through this," she said. "I’m still disembodied. I’m not grounded.”
Top image: Caroline explains some of the set backs she has experienced this past year. Photo by Rachel Chaney.