Hood of Memories BY CHAR MILLER At dawn, rescuers found him clinging to a tree along south Flores Street, holding a five-year-old child on his shoulders high above the still dangerous and murky flood waters. The pair apparently had clambered up into this rough sanctuary sometime after midnight on September 10, 1921, when a thunderous surge had swept through San Antonio’s West Side. For more than five hours, the older youth, whom the press later identified simply as a “12-year-old Mexican boy,” had been “battered black and blue by floating wreckage.” Surviving this bruising ordeal, local newspapers averred, was a mark of his “outstanding heroism. TIT he need for such heroics would have been incon ceivable but a day earlier. The summer had been typical for South Central Texas: each day had been as dry and as hot as the day before. So when light rains swept across the region starting September 9, reviving pastures, lawns and gar ‘ dens, and dropping temperatures into the high 80s, there was a sigh of relief: not only had these “most timely showers” put an end to a “prolonged drouth,” the San Antonio Express reported, but they had done so without damaging crops or flooding low-lying neighborhoods. What a difference a day made. Over the next twenty-four hours, violent thunderstorms pounded South Texas, dropping more than twenty inches of rain in some areas, and triggering flash floods of immense power and destructive force. San Antonio was particularly hard hit: its rainfall measured but seven-and-a-half inches, yet most fell within a few hours, when a storm cell stalled just north of the city, a downburst that was concentrated over the watershed of the San Antonio River. Later that evening, two of its tributaries, the Alazan and Martinez Creeks, burst over their banks, becoming “swift torrents” of destruction. They ripped through the crowded barrios of the West and South Sidepulling so many houses from their foundations, then sweeping them awaythat no official tally was kept. Left behind were fifty-foot piles of debris. The floodwaters also killed more than fifty people, most of whom were sucked into the raging creeks during the early hours of the morning. Finding their bodies was no easy task: for the rest of the week, able-bodied civilians and soldiers stationed on downstream bridges spotted, then labored to retrieve, corpses entangled in the sodden detritus. A somewhat less ghastly job awaited those who would clean up from the flooding associated with Olmos Creek, which lay to the city’s north and east. It had powered over its banks around midnight, rushing into adjacent neighborhoods and urban parks, and flushing out residents and campers. When its crest smashed into the San Antonio River, it forced a fiveto ten-foot wall of water through the central business district, inundating the bottom floors of most office buildings, damaging a considerable portion of the commercial inventory, tearing up miles of street pavement, and washing away or weakening the structural integrity of the city’s many bridges. Located downtown, too, were the sources of San Antonio’s basic utilitieswater, electricity and telephonewhich were consequently lost for several days. Ruptured fuel storage tanks only added to the mess, spreading an oil slick several miles long and wide. Although early estimates of the overall damage were set at $3 million, by the time the clean-up was completed several months later, the costs had escalated to more than $4 million. Certainly San Antonians knew that by any form of measurement by the height of flood waters, the number of deaths and injuries or the financial coststhe 1921 flood was a disaster, the greatest in the city’s history. y et the flood’s impact went well beyond any specific tally of human loss or physical destructiveness. Indeed, of greater consequence was the community’s response to the critical question of how to control future floods. The initial response was swift and telling. The press rooms of the rival San Antonio Express and San Antonio Light hadn’t been pumped dry when each newspaper editorialized fervently in support of a city-wide network of canals, and the erection of a detention dam spanning the Olmos Valley to prevent damaging floods. That was the least the citizenry could do, for the “mass of wreckage” left in the flood’s wake was its own testimony that “the elements, when loosed from the gates of hell, are no respecters of persons, class or creed.” It was high time for San Antonians to recognize this fact of nature, the Express trumpeted. “The storm waters must be controlled,” for only then could the city be rehabilitated. But exactly which storm waters most needed to be controlled, and thus what portions of the community would undergo rehabilitation, was to be decided in the political arena. This politics of flood control proved integral to the city’s development through the first half of the twentieth century. When completed in 1927, for instance, the 1,900-foot Olmos Dam helped articulate land use patterns within and redefined the spatial design of San Antonio. Its mere presence intensified the central core’s already established economic functions by encouraging once-wary financiers to invest heavily in the city’s postflood skylinethe 1920s construction boom produced some of the city’s finest and largest buildings. The dam also made it possible to conceive, then develop, the much-ballyhooed River Walk. Without 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 27, 1996 414111.11111111111111111110,1111111111101411111111111111111!
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