Anatomy of a Flood

Gartman Pecos River Photos 1Prologue

A year ago today, we had the misfortune of being on the remote lower Pecos River in southwest Texas when on the fourth day of a 5-day paddle, we were hit by a flash flood, caused by 11 inches of rain in eight hours. We lost our three kayaks and a canoe to the flood, as well as several thousands of dollars’ worth of camera and camping equipment, but we walked away from it (actually, we were helicoptered out), so despite the loss, we consider ourselves lucky.

To say that flood’s been on our minds for the last twelve months would be an understatement, and the ensuing love/hate relationship with the river has led us to some interesting discoveries about the flood and the events leading up to it. If you’re a regular reader of Lone Star Chronicles then you know I’ve written extensively about the trip itself, including the flood, and the search for our gear afterward (if you’ve not read those accounts and would like to, click here: Pecos Stories Index); but we wanted to present a new perspective on the flood, a chronicle of what is known by aircraft mishap investigators as causal factors leading up to our “mishap.” In our case, things like a dying hurricane a thousand miles away; a harsh and barren landscape, incapable of holding moisture; and a historic downpour which could have occurred anywhere, to anyone, except that it just happened to occur on the Pecos, on a day we were on it.

Despite months of preparation for the Pecos River, these causal factors came together like individual links in a chain and collaborated with the river to catch us off guard, take our things and change our lives. If its possible for a flood to have a structure or form like a living thing, then this is the anatomy of that flood…

Monday, June 9, 2014 – A storm develops off the southwestern coast of Mexico, and the National Hurricane Center labels it Tropical Depression 3E. Six hours later it is upgraded to a tropical storm, the third one of the season for the eastern Pacific, and the National Hurricane Center names it Cristina.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 – TS Cristina begins to strengthen quickly and by late Wednesday into early Thursday morning, she has reached the point of being reclassified into a Category 4 hurricane. At this point, Christina is southwest of Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Anatomy of a flood 6

Hurricane Cristina at the height of her strength.

Thursday, June 12, 2014 – According to National Hurricane Center advisories, Cristina’s maximum sustained winds reaches an estimated 150 mph although at this point, the hurricane is still 300 miles off the coast of Cabo San Lucas.

Saturday, June 14, 2015 – Cristina drifts into cooler waters and “an environment of hostile wind shear” according to the National Hurricane Center, but it is now starting to weaken.

Sunday, June 15, 2015 – Cristina is downgraded to a tropical depression and by the next day, the National Hurricane Center declares it a “remnant low,”  but not before setting some “earliest” Eastern Pacific basin records (dating back to 1971). Despite its new classification, the system is still producing large amounts of moisture.

Monday, June 16, 2015 – My son, Dan and I, along with our friend, Ryan Dennehy depart Fort Worth bound for the lower Pecos River in southwest Texas. The plan is a five day paddle from Pandale down to the Highway 90 near the Mexican border. We will be met in Comstock by a fourth paddler, Scott Gartman, who will accompany us on the trip, which the four of us have been preparing for since February. The weather forecast shows some rain at Pandale the next day (Tuesday), but otherwise clear for the remainder of the week. We’ve been preparing for this trip for a long time and we feel as prepared as any group can be.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 – NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite passes over a quickly dissipating Cristina and its precipitation radar indicates rain falling at a rate of almost 4 inches an hour in what is left of the Cristina’s eye wall. National Hurricane Center forecasters noted that the circulation would continue to spin down over the next couple of days.

On the same day, the four of us launch from Pandale for our trip down the lower Pecos. Although it’s raining lightly, the rain isn’t expected to last more than a few hours. The Val Verde County forecast, however, has changed slightly and now calls for the possibility of pop up storms later in the week. We’re not too worried about that though, since pop up storms are pretty common this time of year and don’t generally lead to high rises in the river.

Opt IMG_4652

(L to R) Ryan, Scott and Dan shortly after putting in on the lower Pecos River.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 – We continue our journey down the Pecos under sunny skies, and despite the paddling difficulties we encountered the previous day (due to higher than normal flows), Wednesday turns out to be a much easier day for the four of us. Although Cristina is now quickly dissipating, the system is still producing lots of moisture that is now being pushed northward into central Mexico.

Thursday, June 19, 2015 – The last remnants of Cristina finally dissipate, however, by now it’s pushing a large cluster of slow moving thunderstorms north along the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental and into southwest Texas.  At midday, the National Weather Service in San Antonio issues a Flood Watch for Kinney and Val Verde Counties. By now we’ve gotten into a routine of checking the satellite phone for weather updates each evening, and so we won’t know about the flood watch until later that afternoon.

In Lewis Canyon, Dwight Childress, along with his son and some friends arrive at their fishing lease for a few days of camping and fishing on the river. They initially set up their camp on the bluff overlooking the river, where the family has an aluminum lean-to, but it’s a beautiful day and the river is running crystal clear, and Dwight’s son manages to convince him to spend the night down on the river. The group loads their camping equipment and kayaks into four pickup trucks and drive 300 feet down a steep jeep trail to a limestone ledge just above the river. As they’re setting up their camp for the night, Dwight notices clouds forming to the south but he’s been coming to the fishing lease all his life and knows pop up storms are not uncommon, so he isn’t too worried about it.

Anatomy of a flood 7

The view from above Lewis Canyon, where the Childress group normally camped when on the river. On this particular day, they elected to camp down on the river bed.

For us it’s been a beautiful day on the river, but it’s getting late now and we need to find a campsite. Our goal had been to paddle all the way to Lewis Canyon, but the sun is starting to dip below the high canyon walls, and we don’t want to set up camp in the dark. As we’re looking for a campsite, we start noticing rain clouds forming to our south.

Unbeknownst to us, the cluster of thunderstorms is now moving up into our area. According to a Texas Storm Chasers post for that day, the thunderstorms are now “back-building and dumping unusually heavy rain over portions of Val Verde, Maverick, and Kinney counties in South Texas.” The post goes on to report that over a foot of rain has already fallen in Brackettville and Spofford, about 60 miles southeast of our position.

Later that evening, after arriving at our campsite, Ryan uses the satellite phone to make a call back home and receives our first bit of bad news: our area is now under a flash flood watch. We talk about our options and make the decision to stay put vice trying to paddle in the dark to Lewis Canyon. Key in that decision is the fact that we have a good escape route there at the campsite should the river rise on us. We prepare bug-out bags, just in case, and move the kayaks to higher ground on the limestone ledge. Then we mark the river level with rocks, which we’ll check on throughout the night. It’s been a long day, and having done all that we can to prepare, we finally retire to our tents for the night.

Just before 11:00 PM, the National Weather Service changes the flash flood watch to a flash flood warning, which is issued when a flash flood is imminent or occurring, but we won’t know this until early the next morning. Around midnight, the rain starts to fall on us.

Friday, June 20, 2014 – Texas State University anthropologist, Charles Koenig is woken by the sound of rain. Although an anthropologist by trade, Koenig is one of the project leads for a team of field archaeologist that make up part of the Ancient Southwest Texas (ASWT) project, a long-term archaeological program aimed at studying the lower Pecos canyon lands which is known for its dry rock shelters and caves that prehistoric peoples lived in for thousands of years. The field team has been deployed for several weeks now and they typically spent their days digging and mapping the various rock shelters near Eagle Nest Canyon, not far from the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande.

While in the field, the team spends its nights at an archaeological research and education center in Comstock called the Shumla School, 20 miles from Eagle Nest. It was there that Koenig was awoken by the pounding rain. Having spent many years working the Pecos canyon lands, Koenig was keenly aware of the effects of rain in the area, and his first thought was that there would be no digging that day. This was confirmed by a call to the project’s principal investigator, Dr. Stephen Black, who spent his nights at the guest house on the Skiles family ranch (Eagle Nest is part of the Skiles Ranch and the family acts as hosts for the field team). Dr. Black confirmed that the creek leading to Eagle Cave was now impassable due to flooding.

With nothing else to do but wait out the rain, Koenig and some of his field team members drive to the Eagle Nest crossing at Highway 90 near Langtry and proceed to capture the flood through an amazing series of photos. Combined with photos taken by Dr. Black and the Skiles family, the collection provides an amazing photographic chronicle of the flood in Eagle Nest Canyon the morning of June 20th.

Dr. Stephen Black overlooks Eagle Nest Canyon at 9:00 AM. At around the same time, we’re still on the flooding Pecos River several miles away looking for a way out. (Photo courtesy of ASWT Project)

At 10:00 AM, the river is still rising and threatening to reach Eagle Cave, on the left, where the Texas State University archaeologists have been digging for several weeks. (Photo courtesy of ASWT Project)

 

Around the time Koenig and his fellow archaeologists are driving to the Eagles Nest to witness and photograph the historic flood, enough rain has fallen to start pouring into the creeks and draws carved into the desert basin, which is uniquely unsuited to absorb that much moisture falling that quickly. Weather.com senior meteorologist Nick Wiltgen describes the effects of heavy rain upon an arid desert topography by pointing to a terrain that is “hard and rocky because rainfall isn’t frequent or abundant enough to weather rocks into sand or support the kind of ecosystem that would help turn rocks and minerals into soil. Without soil and plant cover to help absorb rainfall, it just runs off instantly as torrents of water.”

Shortly thereafter, we discover that our escape route has been blocked by a muddy waterfall coming from a draw above us. We are forced to abandon our boats and equipment and climb out of the steep river canyon. Dwight Childress and his family soon learn they’re also trapped and are forced to abandon their trucks to the river and climb up the canyon to safety. We were all experienced river runners, but in the end, the river beat us all, and though we didn’t know it then, we never had a chance.

A before and after photo of the Pecos from above the area where we spent the last night on the river.

A before and after photo of the Pecos from above the area where we spent the last night on the river. The bottom photo was taken around 1:00 PM while awaiting a DPS helicopter that coming to pick us up.

When we put in at Pandale, the river was flowing at 160 cfs; at the height of the flood, around noon, the NOAA flow stream gage on the Pecos River near Langtry shows a 31-foot rise in the river, or the equivalent of over 140,000 cfs of water sweeping through the river, taking with it our boats, which we’d tied to a tree, and all our equipment which we’d stashed for safe keeping into a deep crevice in the limestone, twelve feet above the river. Both groups eventually make it off the flooding river, but we pay an enormous price in terms of material possessions. Despite this, to a man, I think we all know we are damn lucky.

river flood levels

Epilogue

In my initial writings about the flood, based on conversations I had with several locals, I described it as a 30-year flood, and later, after more research, I revised that and started calling it a 50-year flood. It appears now that I wasn’t even close. A hydrologist working with ASWT project has already done a preliminary water-shed and discharge analysis on the 2014 Langtry flood (as it’s now called), and determined that ours was a 500-year flood.

Ironically, in terms of damage to property, and certainly in terms of injuries or loss of life, the Langtry flood was an innocuous one, especially in light of what occurred at Wimberley only a few week ago. Every time I catch myself commiserating about the Pecos flood, as I’m prone to do, I remind myself that it might have been worse.

Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish

 

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  2 comments for “Anatomy of a Flood

  1. mhasenak@yahoo.com
    June 20, 2015 at 9:47 AM

    Great write up.

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