River People

Folks around Lake Livingston are what they are

Ann Austin thinks it's rude when people come up to Lake Livingston and ask why they built there if they knew it would flood.

"Of course we didn't know it would flood," the wife of Pastor Warren Austin of Riverside Methodist Church says with more than a little exasperation. She was right in the midst of a waterlogged day at the Thomas Lake Volunteer Fire Department headquarters, where her husband doubles as captain.

The highlight of the day, she says, was the request by one media outlet that "called and asked if we could ‘stage a rescue.'"

Malsie Mackay, four, watches the high waters come in over Lake Livingston dam. To view more shots by Daniel Kramer, click here.
Daniel Kramer
Malsie Mackay, four, watches the high waters come in over Lake Livingston dam. To view more shots by Daniel Kramer, click here.

The Trinity River basin has always been susceptible to flooding. The river begins from a confluence of several streams near Dallas, where the flooding is not as severe. While the upper part of the Trinity often flash floods, the waters eventually make their way down to the Lake Livingston area, near the towns of Riverside and Trinity. By the time the water makes it to the lower Trinity River, the slow-moving floods can last for days or weeks.

Last week was one of those weeks, played out in the usual manner.

County and state officials were warning residents of the Trinity River area of the worst flooding in 17 years. The Houston Chronicleprinted a story predicting flooding of "biblical proportions." The Walker County Office of Emergency Management issued a voluntary evacuation for the subdivisions of Deep River and Greenrich Shores. The Red Cross sent in 300 meals and prepared a shelter at a church in Huntsville. The Salvation Army sent hundreds of buckets of cleaning supplies.

And people along the river shrugged. They didn't show up. They shook off all the advice about rising waters and health hazards such as hepatitis from flooded septic tanks and proceeded to go about their business.

Roger Varieur was determined to drive his truck through submerged streets to reach his recently purchased property in the Deep River Plantation subdivision. Halfway down the first street, the truck's muffler began burbling under a foot of brackish water and Varieur had to stop.

He got out in rubber waders. Except for the water, which was as high as four feet in some places, it looked like the morning after a frat party. Empty beer cans floated around the houses, while a stale smell of putrefaction and an eerie silence hung in the air.

"I'm moving back because of the water," he says. "I love it."

Actually, he might want to think about that. While the area is known for its recreational amenities and great fishing, it is also chronically polluted. According to the Handbook of Texas, the worst area is the 250-mile stretch that starts in Dallas and ends at the headwaters of Lake Livingston. "By the early 1960s," the Handbook states, "the river below Dallas for 100 miles was so polluted that the United States Public Health Service described it as ‘septic.' Since that time efforts have been made to clean up the river. A water quality management plan was adopted in the 1970s, but in the early 1990s pollution problems continued."

The problems continued at least until 2002, when the Texas Department of Health advised against eating fish from the Trinity because of high levels of chemicals such as PCBs, chlordane and DDE.

Charles Sturrock, deputy emergency management coordinator for Walker County, painted an equally grim picture. After a boat tour of the damage, Sturrock carefully shook water out of his fishing waders. "I don't intend to touch this water. The floodwaters have mixed with septic systems. There's a risk of hepatitis here. I wouldn't eat or drink anything that's been in contact with this water."

None of this bothered a group of teenage boys armed with nets. They said they were going to catch minnows in the flooded area and use them as bait for fishing in a nearby pond.

"It's not like we haven't seen this before," said Jim Bonney, a resident who came to visit relatives still living in flooded homes in Greenrich Shores. "Shit happens."

In fact, as John Lowe, another volunteer fireman, noted: "We've been praying for rain, but you've got to be very specific about what you pray for. The Lord will respond. Last summer, we were out chasing fires."

Andrea Barrett and Thomas Gentry drove a golf cart over three inches of water and headed up to the Thomas Lake Fire Department.

Like many of the residents in Greenrich Shores, they arrived here in the early 1990s to retire and take it easy. For them, flooding was a part of life which was outweighed by living in what Barrett called "the world's best neighborhood."

"If I was a teenager, I'd get a float and tie it up here and go for a ride," she says, pointing to the golf cart.

The flood had crept into Barrett's garage and was nearing her front door on Thursday, but she was more concerned about getting her lawn mowed than the rising waters.

Back at Deep River Plantation, Varieur stopped on a one-lane wooden bridge leading into the subdivision. After the bridge, the only way into the town was a lone boat tied to a signpost.

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