Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Well, Hello, Dolly!

My parents live in the historic small town of Goliad, about 120 miles (200 km) almost due south of Austin; after leaving Netroots Nation on Sunday, I went down to visit for a few days. As I write this, Hurricane Dolly is pushing inland, a bit farther south. A couple of minutes ago, I was surprised by a sudden gust of wind that blew open my bedroom door. The last couple of hours, we've had brief bursts of high winds and torrential rains — nothing like what they're getting in Corpus Christi and farther south, but impressive all the same, especially when the rain falls almost horizontally. We're about 50 miles (80 km) from the coast, in the flood plain along the San Antonio River. Twice in the last ten years, we've had "hundred-year" floods, which can easily leave the center of town completely cut off from the rest of the world, with bridges flooded in all four directions. On the other hand, the locals, most especially the farmers, have been suffering from an unusually dry summer, so some rain is more than welcome.

Three years ago, Hurricane Rita (Katrina's little sister) prompted the evacuation of the entire county, although in the end it did remarkably little damage here. Long-time residents, though, remember 1967's Hurricane Beulah, an enormous, slow-moving Category 5 storm that brought about 20 inches (500 mm) of rain and caused major flooding. Beulah made landfall in just about the same spot as Dolly today, but Dolly only barely rose to Category 2. (Having weathered 1999's Hurricane José, also a Category 2, I can tell you it's nothing to scoff at, but it's still a pale shadow of a Cat-5.) Hurricane Claudette in 2003, a "mere" Category 1, was almost a direct hit, and did substantial damage, uprooting trees and breaking off large limbs. In 1980, Hurricane Allen — another Category 5 — brought a dramatic end to a severe summer drought here, although it also spawned a tornado in Austin, causing over $100 million in damage. We're not expecting any serious flooding here this time around, although there may be problems farther south.

In a curious coincidence, FEMA was in town this morning, presenting information about digital flood risk maps they're planning to make available. (The current FEMA map of Goliad only covers the city limits of the county seat, besides which it's over 20 years old.) The San Antonio River itself is south of most of the town, but various creeks wind through on their way into the big river. The land is remarkably flat, so if there is any flooding at all, it's likely to cut a wide swath. Since I now live in a city famous for its hills, I feel almost disoriented by the near total lack of high ground here. (Of course, it's also a bit of a shift to be in a place where "only" doubling San Francisco's annual rainfall qualifies as a drought.) The likely route of the proposed Interstate 69 "NAFTA Superhighway" passes through Goliad, which would offer much more reliable access to the city during a flood, but the existing highways (US 59 and US 183 / 77-A) are vulnerable.

For tonight, though, it looks like Dolly will bring us a bit of much-needed rain and some gusty winds, but no serious flooding this far north. Of course, it's a lousy day to be on the beach at South Padre Island, and the folks trying to surf near Corpus Christi are just plain crazy. Brownsville has lots of uprooted trees and substantial flooding. My flight out of Austin tomorrow should be fine, though, and then I'll be back to sunny California. Good-bye, Dolly!

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