A night to remember: When the Blanco became a wall of water

It’s been nearly five years now since the night many in Hays County will never forget.

After a rainy beginning to May 2015, an estimated 13 inches or so fell near the headwaters of the Blanco River on May 23, pushing it to levels no one had ever seen before – and when the wall of water some 40 feet high hit
Wimberley early on May 24, it swept a whole house and the three families who had rented it for the Memorial Day weekend into the raging stream.

Over the course of the ensuing days and weeks, 10 bodies were recovered in or near the Blanco from as far as 30 miles away. One, that of a six-year-old girl, Leighton McComb, was never found.

“Never was and never will be,” Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones recalled. Jones was among the searchers who poked through the muck and debris piles looking for victims. Of the eight people in the vacation home, only Leighton’s father, Joe McComb, survived. He was found badly injure a dozen or so miles below Wimberley. The family’s Labrador was miraculously found safe in a tree.

The bodies of three other people who had been separately swept away in low-water crossings added to the death toll.

Jones and his family were attending a graduation party in a home on the river in Wimberley on Saturday, May 23. “We started hearing the calls that the Blanco River was on the rise,” he remembered. Jones, his wife and daughter left, but not before warning their hosts.

However, the warnings were disregarded. “They almost lost their lives,” he said of the family in whose home the party had occurred. “They had to cut through fences. Water got into the second floor of the house.”

Though areas in northern Hays County escaped the devastation wrought on Wimberley, San Marcos and points downstream, Jones recalled the willingness with which people from Kyle and Buda volunteered to be part of the search and recovery effort. Despite the stinking mud, swarms of fire ants, displaced snakes and sinkholes, volunteers probed every brush pile and drainage culvert — many operating on little or no sleep.

Jones specifically remembers advising Kyle Fire Chief Kyle Taylor to “go home and rest,” as he had been at it for
more than 24 hours without a break. “People were looking for days to try and help those victims,” he said.

It was a wake-up call for many, even longtime residents.

“The water had never gotten that high. People thought it wouldn’t happen,” Jones said, adding, “I don’t think anybody who lived through that will ever feel like that again.”

In addition to flooding homes and businesses along the Blanco, the force of the water took out the Fischer Store Road bridge as well as a low-water bridge on Post Road in San Marcos. The former, a priority for the interconnectivity of western parts of the county, was reopened in only nine months.

Additionally, the bridge was one of several sites where newer, better flood gauges were installed to better alert residents of future incidents. Some of the gauges, like the one at that bridge, are even equipped with video so that people can see rather that just imagine what conditions look like.

“We’ve come a long way,” Jones said, referring to warning systems that have since been upgraded.” He cautioned, though, that those systems will only be effective if people pay attention.

“The warning systems are all checked regularly to make sure they are operational. But we still have people going around barricades — people think it’s for everybody but them. It doesn’t take much water to sweep a car or even a truck off the road. You’re not only putting yourself at risk, which is your choice, but you are also putting the first
responders at risk.

“We’re considered Flash Flood Alley in Hays County. I have not found a county that has more low-water crossings in the state, maybe the nation.”

Because of the new gauges and other measures, Jones believes the county is more resilient to flooding than it was five years ago, but also more wary.

Six months after the May 2015 flood, the Blanco raged again in late October and two years prior, another Halloween flood had occurred.

“The two holidays I worry about are Memorial Day and Halloween,” which is when three once-in-a-lifetime
floods occurred in two years time. “I take my phone to bed and I don’t sleep well,” Jones said.

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