The great Texas flood of 1921

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Texas History

The Houston Chronicle reported on Sept. 12, 1921 that the number of confirmed fatalities in the worst flood in the history of the Lone Star State had risen to 45 in San Antonio and 90 overall with many more missing and presumed dead.

Five days earlier, a hurricane packing 95-mile per hour winds roared out of the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall south of Tampico. During the night, the unnamed storm took a sharp turn to the northeast, crossed the Rio Grande near Laredo and headed straight for San Antonio — Texas’ largest city with a population of 161,000.

The showers that preceded the tropical tempest were a cause for celebration in Central Texas. The 1 1/3 inches of precious precipitation that fell on Austin on the morning of Friday, Sept. 9 were the first raindrops the citizens of the capital city had seen in two months. Elsewhere in that parched part of the state, light showers were welcomed as badly needed drought-breakers.

All that changed late Friday afternoon with the storm’s arrival in the Alamo City. In his book [ITAL]River Walk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River[ITAL], Lewis F. Fisher wrote: “Severe thunderstorms broke out at six p.m. After three hours the thunderstorms ended and the rain’s intensity began to ebb. The river was four feet from the top of the plank retaining wall near Pecan Street, but residents went to bed think all was well.”

But it wasn’t. The heavy runoff north of town transformed shallow creeks into raging torrents that converged at the San Antonio River. The poorest inhabitants, who lived in low-lying barrios, awoke to floodwaters that threatened their modest shelters and their very lives. According to the San Antonio Express, “Rescue workers began helping dwellers of the flooded districts to safety as early as 11 o’clock.”

“Entire families were washed away,” a shaken policeman revealed the following day. “The cries of the helpless and the barking of hundreds of dogs made the night one of terror. We saw people within 25 feet of us, yet (were) unable to reach them.”

Soldiers from nearby army camps quickly responded to the emergency.“They saved hundreds who were marooned in perilous positions” and subsequently patrolled the commercial district to discourage looters.

At half past one in the morning, a 12-foot wave swept through downtown, sending those at street level racing up the stairs of multi-story structures. Water stood 15 feet deep in the lobby of the new Gunter Hotel and reached historic Military Plaza but stopped short of the Alamo.

Damage to the local infrastructure was extensive and in many cases irreparable. Fourteen of the 27 bridges over the San Antonio River were destroyed, and several buildings in the heart of the city had to be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up due to weakened limestone foundations.

Hardest hit, however, was Williamson County north of Austin, where nearly twice as many lives were lost than in and around San Antonio. In fact, the 93 confirmed victims in that single county accounted for close to half of the total deaths.

The rain that inundated Williamson County set records that still stand a century later. The unbelievable 38.2 inches that fell on tiny Thrall in only 24 hours was the most ever in one day anywhere in the United States.

The Kvetons were a family of European immigrants from what nowadays is the Czech Republic, who lived on a farm 6 miles southeast of Granger in Williamson County. Their home sat perched on the side of a hill 500 yards from the San Gabriel River and supposedly safe from the highest overflow in memory.

Without radio, television or even a telephone, the rural Texans had no access to weather forecasts other than the local newspaper and word-of-mouth warnings. From what the Kvetons could see with their own eyes on Sept. 7 — a shower that that made their farm too wet for outdoor chores — there was no reason not to spend the day visiting friends just down the road.

Twenty-year-old Millie Kveton asked to stay home, and her obliging parents granted her request. They planned on returning before dark, but a sudden downpour made that impossible and forced them to spend the night with their hosts.

At 10 a.m. the next day, Young Anton Machu watched the rain-swollen San Gabriel climb the hill toward the Kvetons’ place. Accompanied by three male relatives, he waded through the knee-deep water to the front door.

Millie Kveton was shocked to learn the river was coming for her. Without a moment to lose, Anton carried Millie in his arms through swirling water up his waist to a waiting horse. The pair rode to higher ground, where they watched in astonishment as the Kvetons’ frame house floated downstream before crashing into a tree and exploding.

Forty-eight days later, Millie Kveton married her hero. It was their son Darwin Machu, who preserved their close call for posterity and in so doing immortalized one of the few happy endings of The great Texas flood of 1921.