SAN ANTONIO – The 500-year flood — that’s what we saw back on Saturday, Oct. 17, 1998.
Simply put, a “500-year flood” describes the odds of a massive flood happening. A 1-in-500 chance… or a 0.2% chance. A lot better than hitting the lottery, but still not a good bet.
When it was all over, we hit the “rainfall jackpot.”
It started raining overnight and by Saturday morning, major flooding was already covering much of the area. View archived aerial footage from Sky 12 in the video player above.
But that was just the beginning.
The torrential downpours continued all day… it wasn’t letting up.
Watch: Flood ‘98: KSAT’s complete video documentary of the South Texas flood of 1998
‘Get to the station’ — easier said than done
Back then we didn’t have GMSA on weekends and I was scheduled to do weather that night.
The phone rang early for all of us, saying “get to the station.”
The problem: that was easier said than done.
At the time, we lived just north of downtown so the quickest way to work was a straight shot down Broadway.
Right past Alamo Heights City Hall and the fire station there was a VIA bus straddling the road, blocking all southbound traffic. Just beyond that point, where the terrain drops, feet of water were covering Broadway.
A quick fast forward... When it was all over, the restaurant “5050 Broadway” had a flood gauge sign. You know, the ones next to the road, look like a giant yardstick and are mounted right inside the front door to show how high the water reached.
Back to my journey trying to get to work. I tried some of the neighborhood streets, but many of those were like fast, flowing streams. Strike 2.
Ah, the highway! 281 is elevated — a straight shot into downtown. I set my course for the entrance ramp at Basse Road.
Getting there was a challenge in itself. I don’t think it could rain any harder. The windshield wipers on high were fighting a losing battle.
Think of those summer storms where the sky opens up… for maybe 10 minutes. This had been going on all morning and would continue well into the afternoon. Every street had inches of water rushing across.
Highway 281 turned into a causeway
I finally made it to Basse and 281, but while I was expecting to see a road under a highway with connecting ramps… there was a lake! An unimaginable site. The water was touching the bottom of 281. That seems impossible… but it was.
Have you ever noticed the flood gauge where the exit ramp from 281 north meets Basse? It’s about 15 to 20 feet. It’s there for a reason.
Turned around and got to higher ground and eventually got on 281 headed south toward downtown… and another unbelievable sight. The highway usually sits above fields, trees, and other roads.
Now, it was a causeway traversing a lake. More specifically Olmos Basin. Water was near the top of the dam, and rising. It would eventually cover part of 281!
Trying to cover the flood from a news standpoint was, needless to say, overwhelming.
There was just too much going on. Plus, trying to get somewhere was next to impossible because the torrential rain hadn’t let up.
Dale Keller, the photographer I was with, and I eventually went to get video of the new flood control tunnel inlet along Josephine Street. Boy was that thing built just in the nick of time!
We got out of the news vehicle, sloshing through ankle-deep water, and made our way to the tunnel inlet.
Officials were there checking it out because debris — as in large limbs and trees — was starting to clog the inlet.
The roar of the water and the amount of water pouring down the inlet was like a small chunk of Niagara Falls. That was scary enough, but what really scared me was when the official on scene asked us, “How many are you?”
We said just the two of us. He said, “You let us know when two people leave!” This was a life and death situation and they were making sure everyone was accounted for.
We were there for 10 minutes at most and in that time the water on the street around our truck went from ankle-deep to knee-deep.
We were heading for KSAT as quickly as possible but the water rose faster.
Our truck was swamped, so we bailed out into waist-deep water. Dale held the camera well over his head.
We eventually made it back to KSAT, soaking wet, but there was still more news of the flood to cover.
The devastation left behind was as unbelievable as the flood itself, not to mention the loss of life.
San Antonio officially got 11.26″ of rain that day.
To add insult to injury, we got another 3.16″ the next day and 1.19″ Monday for a grand total of 15.61″. Some areas received close to 2 feet.
It was definitely a “500-year flood.” Little did anyone imagine that history would repeat itself. “500 years” came just about three and a half years later.
KSAT employees recount stories from historic 1998 flood
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