Recovery a faraway thought for East Texas flood evacuees as more rain is expected

An airboat returns with rescued pets in tow as a group of people launch kayaks into floodwaters following significant rainstorms in Coldspring on May 4. (Callaghan O'Hare For The Texas Tribune, Callaghan O'Hare For The Texas Tribune)

Subscribe to The Y’all — a weekly dispatch about the people, places and policies defining Texas, produced by Texas Tribune journalists living in communities across the state.

Recommended Videos

COLDSPRING – Willie Rawls woke up to water at the steps of his home Thursday in the river bottoms of Coldspring – one of the first towns hit by the several hundred thousand gallons of water released from the Lake Livingston Dam.

The dam was releasing water in an effort to maintain its levels as merciless rain storms drenched East Texas this week.

Rawls, 73 and in hospice care, was evacuated by the San Jacinto Sheriff’s Office, who arrived in an airboat and lifted him to safety.

He arrived at Browder’s Marina & Campgrounds, a high point on a hill to the west of the Camilla Twin Harbors neighborhood — otherwise known as the river bottoms. The campgrounds served as a refuge for residents fleeing the rushing water. He was eventually moved by a friend to a different shelter in hopes he'd have better access to medical care.

The days have since blurred, Rawls said Saturday.

Rawls is among hundreds of Texans across a large region stretching from rural East Texas to the Houston suburbs grappling with a new reality this weekend. Their homes, businesses and other property have been swamped. Despite a break in the storms Saturday, more rain and storms are headed their way.

[How the flooding in Southeast Texas got so dire]

Piecing their lives back together is a faraway thought.

For those staying at the marina, checking on their homes was top of mind. A police barricade deterred many early Saturday. But by midafternoon cars streamed in and out of the neighborhood as residents sought information about their homes.

Evacuees became excited as a truck pulled in towing an airboat. East Texas Hoof and Paw, a nonprofit animal rescue, called on the drivers for help rescuing pets from the area. The airboat spent hours in the water retrieving more than a dozen dogs left by their owners in a hurry to flee the oncoming flood.

A school bus driven by teens and young adults backed into the water along Richard Street to visit the neighborhood.

Willie Rawls poses for a portrait outside of a shelter where people who have evacuated from their homes are staying following significant rainstorms and flooding in Coldspring on May 4, 2024.

Willie Rawls outside of a shelter where people who have evacuated from their homes are staying following significant rainstorms and flooding in Coldspring. Credit: Callaghan O'Hare for The Texas Tribune

People aboard the bus waved as they drove off into the river bottoms neighborhood. A small orange and white cat peeked out from a window. The driver dropped a number of people off on kayaks and canoes and returned to the main road. The bus made several more trips into the water to help the smaller watercraft launch, but at one point became stuck.

A monster truck at least 6 feet tall with red and yellow struts drove into the water and towed the school bus. Emergency responders came out shortly thereafter.

The barricade was reinforced by 5 p.m. and those leaving Camilla Twin Harbors were told not to return.

This area was not supposed to flood again, said Rachael Darsey, 50. She and her husband Kelly, chose to move into Camilla Twin Harbors because of the belief the Lake Livingston Hydroelectric Plant would prevent future flooding.

This week the first fled to their longtime friend John “Pop” Pruitt’s home which sat a little higher than their property.

“After the release, the water started to increase and then it receded because they shut that damn dam down,” Racheal Darsey said.

But as the dam began to release more than 120,000 cubic feet per second of water and more, the water reached Pruitt’s home too.

Both families fled to the marina in their RVs and were able to get up to the landing point with some ease. They established a form of encampment with wooden rocking chairs, adirondack chairs and folding tables set together conversationally.

The road leading up to their spot was walled in on both sides by vehicles and trailers seeking to escape the high waters. Dogs wandered aimlessly or were tied to fences. One dog sat panting in her owner’s van with a fan blowing on her.

John Pruitt, whose home flooded, poses for a portrait at Browder’s Marina following significant rainstorms in an unincorporated area south of Lake Livingston in San Jacinto County on May 4, 2024.

John Pruitt, whose home flooded, at Browder’s Marina following significant rainstorms in an unincorporated area south of Lake Livingston in San Jacinto County on May 4. Credit: Callaghan O'Hare for The Texas Tribune

Pruitt, who is a 77-year-old Vietnam veteran, was frustrated. He said he had done his due diligence before purchasing his new home in the community just nine months ago. He left Cleveland, another East Texas town, after the September 2023 floods in hopes of remaining dry.

His brick home was solid on its concrete slab, and sat higher than most others in the community. That didn’t stop the water from coming in.

“Right now I’ve got about four feet of water in my yard,” Pruitt said.

Kelly Darsey is not optimistic they won’t see more water drained into their community before the storms break away for good.

The dam, which is run by the Trinity River Authority, was not designed for flood control. Instead, its main purpose is drinking water conservation. Dam officials here and across the region have had to release water during the last few days to maintain the dam’s integrity.

“I think there’s more to come and it’s going to be bigger,” Kelly Darsey said.

We’ve got big things in store for you at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 5–7 in downtown Austin. Join us for three days of big, bold conversations about politics, public policy and the day’s news.

Recommended Videos