Learning about Humanity in Wimberly, Texas

Wimberly, Texas
Memorial Day 2015

When we first arrived at the disaster site, what struck me first wasn’t the wreckage or the devastation, but the beauty. The landscape was lush green, the river flowed quietly below us, and what was left of the trees gave us shade from the warm sun.

A woman greeted us in the yard, and told us the house belonged to her mother, Mamie. She thanked us profusely for being there, and asked if we could help find her mother’s jewelry box. I looked around us at the pile of debris. The search would be endless – there were lamps, clothes, kitchenware, bed frames - and everything was coated in a heavy layer of mud and rotting vegetation. 

The debris started from what was left of the house and extended to the edge of the river bank, stretching so far out that it was impossible to tell where one house’s yard ended and the next began. Trees were snapped, uprooted, and collected into the piles of debris that stood taller than me. 

It was the worst flood in Texas since the 1980s, I heard someone say as we put on our gloves. By Memorial Day, torrential rains, flash flooding, and a river that rose 40 feet high resulted in 350 homes underwater, 2 people reported missing, and 12 reported dead. 

The house on the riverbank had been Mamie’s home for years and she had experienced many a flood, but none as bad as this. The river swelled, and a surge of mud and water flooded up into the second flood, reaching into every crevice of the house, dragging out of her belongings leaving a mud-caked mess scattered all along the riverbank. 

 As grace or divine power would have it, Mamie evacuated before her home was destroyed. Her granddaughters were in town staying with her for Memorial Day weekend, and convinced her to find safety the night the flood hit. 

She told her daughter later that she remembered looking down at her house as she was leaving, and seeing the silhouette of the couch floating near the ceiling.

As her daughter recounted the story for us, I wanted to ask why she didn’t seem sad, why it seemed like she hadn’t lost hope. Her mother had lost almost everything that night. But before I could ask the question, she answered it for me. 

She pointed down the street, where the road ended and the river began. She told us there used to be a house at the end of the road, but the river completely washed it away and the people in the home died. It puts things into perspective, she said. 

I began writing this story because I wanted to tell Mamie’s story. We never met her, but as we dug through photographs, books, records even – the outline of a person began to form.

But now as I think back, I’m reminded of the hundreds of people affected by the floods, family and friends lost, all not even an hour away from Austin. They released some of the 911 calls made by the people in Wimberly, and just hearing their cries makes my stomach turn. 

I’ve been thinking about what times of crises teach us about humanity lately. People say that how one reacts in a life or death situation reveals more about human nature than how one behaves in ordinary situations – that seeing a person in disaster tells us more about who we really are than a conversation over coffee would. That ‘normal’ life in society is but a veneer that is easily stripped away by adversity. 

So what is beneath that veneer? I think back on this exact day fourteen years ago, when people were going through a different type of crisis. The flooding that destroyed the houses this Memorial Day was very different from the towers that fell on September 11th.

But what’s remarkable is how times of disaster or crisis brings people together – how people can press pause and step away from the rat race to help out, sit with, and listen to another human being. 

 The look on Mamie’s daughter’s face as we sat listening to her was thankful. She told us that even though the flood destroyed everything in the house – the crosses she hung on the wall stayed in place. Her nativity scene she had up since Christmas was untouched – every figure was still in its place. 
Before we left Wimberly, we walked to the end of the road where the house had stood. There was caution tape hung on the fence, and leaning against it was a makeshift cross made of two pieces of plywood. 

I don’t know the stories of the people that lived beyond that fence, but I’m writing this here because I know I am inclined to forget, and some things should never be forgotten.