By Kim Hilsenbeck
Hays County Chief Deputy Sheriff Jamie Page was playing Yatzee with his wife in their RV while vacationing in Comal County last Saturday evening when he started getting alerts on his phone.
Flood warning. The later flood watch. And then what he called this ominous one: flood emergency.
Page was also watching the news and hearing about countywide issues because of the heavy rains.
But it was a text from the county’s Director of Emergency Communications Erica Carpenter that got him moving.
“Chief, I’m on my way in,” it said.
He left his vacation spot and headed to the office as well.
Page was the acting sheriff at the time, as his boss, Gary Cutler, was out of the country. Cutler left around 3 p.m. that day for a planned trip to Italy with his wife.
Rising water in the Blanco River, which runs behind the property where the Hays County Jail and other sheriff’s complex buildings are located, reminded Page of the 2013 Halloween weekend flood.
“We got a little flooded,” he said of that event.
Page spoke with the Hays Free Press Friday afternoon about the catastrophic flood over Memorial Day weekend and how it affected the Hays County Jail and 911 call center.
He and his staff listened to the weather reports, watched the radar predictions and knew the Blanco could arrive at the jail’s doors within hours.
As if rising flood waters knocking on the jail’s door wasn’t enough, Page said they had to evacuate the Hays County dispatch center.
“The T1 line went down so there was no internet,” he said. “And the electricity went out. We were communicating with only radios at that point.”
Carpenter told Page, “We’ve got to evacuate dispatch.”
So Page and his staff evacuated dispatch personnel over to the San Marcos 911 dispatch center.
Page was in contact by Cutler by this time, given the time difference between Texas and Italy. Once Cutler was up to speed on the situation, he asked if he should come back.
“I said no,” Page said.
Cutler’s wife has cancer and Page said the couple has a few things on their “bucket list” – one of them was Italy. The trip was planned and paid for in advance, long before any flood waters started rising. So Page told Cutler to enjoy his vacation.
Page said the sheriff will be back in Hays County Saturday (May 30) and will receive a full debrief on Sunday. He will then go to Wimberley to see the situation in person.
After his call with Cutler, Page then addressed the compounding issues facing him and his crew. He said the jail could handle an outage. The facility has a backup generator that can run the lights and fans, but it wouldn’t have AC.
“By law I have to keep between 65 and 85 degrees in there,” he said.
At about 2 a.m., with the water rising fast, Page said he had to make a critical decision.
“We have under two hours to evacuate the jail,” he said of his conversation with his acting Chief Deputy Michael Davenport, captains Brad Robinson and Mark Cumberland and Lt. Jeri Skrocki. “Once it hits it’s going to be a sloppy mess.”
A call to Travis County Sheriff’s Office produced two buses. Page said the male inmates, about 200 of them, were loaded onto the buses.
The female inmates, about 55 of them that night, were not evacuated, in part because their portion of the jail is closer to the front of the building – and further away from the rising water – and in part because Page said they would have needed two more buses which they didn’t have and may not have time to secure.
He said, “For obvious reasons we couldn’t co-mingle the males and females on the buses.”
The Hays County Jail staff practices a variety of drills, but on this night, it was the real deal. Page said he spoke directly with the male inmates and told them this wasn’t a drill.
Promises of pizza – a rare treat in jail – helped grease the wheels.
From about 3 a.m.-5 a.m. Page said his deputies and command staff completed the evacuation. The inmates were sitting on the buses in the parking lot of the jail building. Page said the pavement was wet but not flooded.
In the end, Page said the evacuation was well done but not needed.
“The water came within 40 feet of our doors,” he said.
Once they saw the waters receding, Page said his command staff and deputies unloaded the inmates and got everyone back inside safely.
However, the complex didn’t completely escape damage. Page said the water came up to the HCSO academy, which consists of two portable buildings in the back of the property. Those were damaged in the flood.
Page said he estimates those portables account for $140,000 in damages.
Is that covered by insurance?
"I believe it is,” he said.
As the county plans for the future and a possible new jail facility – maybe on the same property – how will HCSO and Hays County Commissioners address the potenial for flooding in the future?
"That's a good question," Page said. "But I'm not an engineer. I'm just a cop."
As for the promised pizza, Page said the inmates will get it, but he explained to them the night of the evacuation that it would take about 7-10 days for things to settle down.
He also commended not just his staff but the inmates as well.
“We had three knuckle heads who wanted to cause trouble,” Page said. “But in the end, all inmates were safely evacuated.”
After the event, Page thanked the inmates for their decorum during the flood evacuation. He also praised the HCSO employees who did what he called a remarkable job.
And he said that Cutler’s absence did not prevent anyone from doing what needed to be done. Page said with his 36 years in law enforcement, combined with more than 100 years of experience among his command staff, they knew what had to be done and did it professionally.
He said he’s confident those same commanders would have done well even if Page hadn’t been there.
“All in all, if I hadn’t been here, it still would have got done because Robinson, Cumberland and Skrocki are doing their jobs – we’ve got succession planning,” he said.