Comal County Flood of 2002: 20 Years Later | Community Alert

Twenty years ago, Comal County began experiencing its second major flood in less than four years.

It started with a storm system that lingered over Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana for over a week. A local meteorologist called it a “good weather factor,” but just to the west, Kerrville and Comfort were swamped by heavy rains that swelled the Guadalupe River to burst as its waters flowed downstream.

“We really haven’t had much rain in Comal County,” recalled county engineer Tom Hornseth. “We had a lot of rain upriver where they got over 30 inches in less than a week. That water made its way into Canyon Lake.

On Tuesday, July 2, 2002, the US Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake, began calculating numbers indicating that the rising waters would indeed cause problems. On Wednesday, July 3, Canyon Lake Superintendent Jerry Brite predicted that waters could overflow the Canyon Dam spillway, up to 2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs), at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 6.

On the Texas 46 side of Common Street, onlookers gather to watch the destruction along Fair Lane and the Guadalupe River. Although many spectators came from the neighborhood, many from other areas came to visit again one of the places most damaged in the city by the floods of 1998. K.JESSIE SLATEN | Archive photo Herald-Zeitung

This prediction was met with disbelief. It would be the first time in its 38-year history that floodwaters breached the Canyon Reservoir emergency relief valve located next to the dam. But Brite’s bold prediction came with a caveat – any additional rain upstream could feed uncontrollable raging waters further downstream.

And that’s exactly what happened.

The first trickle of water passed through the 1,260-foot-long spillway deck at 4:29 p.m. Thursday, July 4, kicking off a three-day event that would see a peak flow on the spillway that reached 69,300 cfs at 10 a.m. h. July 6. The rush of water ransacked the residential and undeveloped natural areas below, and carved out a miniature Grand Canyon that stretched nearly two miles.

No one predicted the force of the water that opened the spillway, and it took just three days to dig what is now Canyon Lake Gorge. Amazingly, no one died locally in this event, which caused nearly $1 billion in actual damage to public and private property, and resulted in immediate local, state, and federal expenditures of $5.648 million.

The 2002 flood again affected areas in and beyond New Braunfels since the record flood of 1998, and reignited flood mitigation efforts and plans that this time turned into reality.

It was then, as Doug Toney, then editor of the Herald-Zeitung, put it, that Comal County and the City of New Braunfels “finally got serious about flood control.”

The story

2002 flood

New Braunfels police and fire personnel watch from the Interstate 35 bridge in July 2002 as the swift water rescue team search the area for a body believed to be in the water. The call was later determined to be a false alarm and the team was called out of the area. K.JESSIE SLATEN | Archive photo Herald-Zeitung

The Guadalupe Blanco River Authority owns the water rights to the Canyon Dam and Reservoir, which was completed in 1964 and dedicated after the reservoir was filled in 1966. Today, the lake’s normal pool is at 903.9 feet above mean sea level. On July 6, 2002, it reached 950.32 msl, a record that will hopefully never be broken.

“Once the lake reaches 943 feet (mean sea level), it begins to flow through the emergency spillway,” Hornseth said. “(The dam) was built to do that. Since then, we haven’t had anything close. »

“Amidst the devastation, the fact that no one drowned in Comal County is not just a blessing, but a testament to exceptional planning, preparation, perseverance and once everything was done. been supported, then, and only then, the power of prayer,” Toney wrote of the Flood.

The Krueger Canyon structure was built 11 years later, and Hornseth said building a similar structure in the same watershed narrowly missed federal funding years later. Although the city and county have updated floodplain maps since then, both need another update to deal with the rapid and explosive development the area has seen since 2002.

The county received awards and recognition for its response to the 2002 flood, and a federal official praised Comal County for being better organized to handle such a disaster.

“The 1998 flood really prepared us for this,” Hornseth said a year after the event. “In this case, a lot of people who had been involved in 1998 were still there. We had been through all of this before and we knew what had to be done.

The event

“We all prayed for rain, but maybe we prayed too much,” Potters Creek Park gate attendant Mary Roberts said as the waters began to rise on Wednesday, July 3. woke city and county officials, warning them to begin evacuating River Road and low-lying areas of New Braunfels.

Two hours later, County Judge Danny Scheel woke David Ferguson, then news director at KGNB-AM radio.

“It was about 3 a.m. and he was saying we had to tell people to get out,” Ferguson, now communications manager for the city of New Braunfels, said of the upcoming evacuation orders.

Potters Creek Park was only recently expanded to add 10 new RV sites with electricity and seven screenhouses. This and five other parks operated by the Corps of Engineers were closed after some had already seen rising floodwaters — and the water kept rising.

Hornseth said at that time the county emergency operations center was operational and would remain so for several days. There was a rumor that the Corps would evacuate Sattler. Another rumor circulated in New Braunfels that the spillway would see a flow of 80,000 cfs later in the week. Brite, calling both broadcasts “absolutely untrue”, expressed outrage at “rumourmongers”.

Brite said that by the time the floodwaters hit Canyon Lake, the water would spill out into deep canyons. He used a bathtub analogy to explain how the weir would work.

“Put a cup of water in a full bathtub and a cup of water will come out. If you put a gallon in it, a gallon will spill out,” he said, describing the spillway as a backup item for the barrage.

“The capacity of the Guadalupe River channel below the dam is 12,000 cfs. There would have to be a lot of water feet for it to pass (over the spillway).

The force of the water reached more than five times that. Horseshoe Falls, about a mile below Canyon Dam and the site of 19 deaths in the decades leading up to 2002, was wiped out.

“The water covered the entire subdivision,” Hornseth said.

Although no lives were lost here, people up and down stream were not so lucky during the week-long event, which left nine dead, damaged 50,000 structures and left 5,000 without. -shelter.

It took until August 10 for the Corps to reopen the gates of Canyon Dam, and more than a year before South Access Road and its bridge were rebuilt.

The flooding would drive the buyout of hundreds of homes in New Braunfels and surrounding communities that quickly exceeded the 100- and 500-year floodplain boundaries used to insure them.


Coming next week: Learn about the 2002 flood and what has happened in New Braunfels and Comal County since.

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