City has dealt with fair share of floods

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 2, 2000

Floods have been common in Austin through the years; it’s just the names of the flooded businesses that change.

Friday, June 02, 2000

Floods have been common in Austin through the years; it’s just the names of the flooded businesses that change.

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There were five major floods – and plenty of high water – during the last century: one in 1908, one in 1965, two in less than a fortnight in 1978, and another in 1993. Old-timers are pretty used to seeing boats in the parks and sandbags piled high around town.

At least two U.S. presidents – Carter and Clinton – have declared Austin and the entire county a disaster area because of flooding.

In four days of storms in 1908, the county suffered a million dollars worth of damage because of hail, lightning and rain.

Then the floods came.

"On Monday the rivers began to rise," a Tuesday, June 23, 1908, front page Austin Daily Herald read. "Faster and faster came the waters from the north. Over the banks it came, turning fields into lakes. It rose at the rate of a foot an hour.

"By 10 a.m. that Monday morning, waters had filled the pumping station at the city plant. Clear over the tops of the machinery the water came. Nothing could be done. The pumps ceased."

That left Austin without water. No drinking water, no water in case of fire, but lots of water where it shouldn’t be.

Nor was there power, because the downtown electric plant also was flooded.

The paper that day was printed off a job press by foot power. That’s also because the Herald press room, located on Main Street then, had 40 inches of water inside by 11:30 a.m.

Thanks to then-Deputy Sheriff Carmichael, no one died when the Bridge Street bridge went down. Carmichael ordered everyone back from the approaches on the bridge at 10 a.m. At 10:15 a.m., the abutment on the west side tore lose and at 11:15 a.m. the structure fell over and went into the surging rapids.

Hormel Packing Co. had $100,000 worth of food under water during that flood, thankfully, much of it already in waterproof containers.

While the flood of 1908 wrought much destruction in the area, it was nothing compared to the twin floods of 1978.

On July 6, 1978, after 3.25 inches had fallen in the Austin area – with more added to the Cedar River north of Austin – the Cedar River, Turtle Creek, Dobbins Creek and all the streams in the area began their rise to what experts termed a 100-year flood.

The Cedar crested at 19.3 feet, then a record for Austin. Families, particularly in the Queen of Angels area, were forced to evacuate. A disaster aid center was set up for flood victims.

The recovery process had only just begun really, when a second 100-year flood washed into town on July 17. It covered the same areas – Marcusen Park, Ramsey Golf Course, Dreisner Park, and homes all along the Cedar, the Turtle and Dobbins – but it covered them with more water. The Cedar River crested this time at 21.5 feet.

Wind, lightning and hail added to the discomfort of the second flood, with the wind knocking out power in parts of town. The flood waters again forced hundreds of people from their homes. More than 650 homes were damaged by the flooding.

Flora Jane Bromley has lived near Skinner’s Hill since 1921, so she’s had the bird’s-eye view of the high waters every time the Cedar decides to flow across the road into Community Park. She recalled a great "to-do" about a bass that had swum onto the park side of the road and became trapped there when the waters receded. She also remembers the motor boats cruising through the park area.

It was after the 1978 flood that the Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority started buying up the worst homes in the flood plain and clearing them out. That process continued after the 1993 flood, and is only now finishing up, with 175 homes removed as a result.

"Spasmodic," was how Bromley referred to the custom of flooding in Austin. "That’s why they moved the houses on Main Street and over by Queen’s."