Flood of '78: The other storm that dropped at least 4 feet of rain

Remnants of Tropical Storm Amelia caused catastrophic flooding in Hill Country

CENTER POINT, Texas – The images from Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath are striking: from the damage along the Texas Coastal Bend to the historic flooding and rescues in Southeast Texas. 

Millions of people have been affected and damage will easily exceed tens of billions of dollars. 

The storm has also made a place in history -- Harvey produced the most rain ever recorded in the continental U.S. 

A rain gauge in Cedar Bayou measured 51.88 inches of rain over a four-day period. That eclipsed a record that stood for more than 39 years after the remnants of Tropical Storm Amelia unleashed a torrent of heavy rain in the Texas Hill Country. 

Two survivors of that storm, which still holds the flood record in the town of Bandera, share their stories and the parallels and fears they see between the flooding from Harvey and Amelia. Those who survived worry that more recent floods overshadow the destruction that followed Amelia. 

Frances Lovett, 78, has spent decades calling the Texas Hill Country home. She, her husband, Bill, and two kids moved to Center Point just a few years before the flood of 1978.

Bandera County Judge Richard Evans grew up in Bandera and owned a car dealership with his father-in-law in the “Cowboy Capital of the World.”

Both recall how it had been a dry year. “We had been through a drought,” Lovett said. “Oh, it was bad. The river itself was down to a bare trickle.”

As is the case with most dry times, Medina Lake showed the effects, with a cracked ground and exposed limestone, highlighting the fact that lake was well below full pool. 

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So when the forecast called for rain, many in the area got excited. 

“When it is started to rain, it was such a relief,” Lovett said. “We were so glad to see it. Then, of course, we got the deluge.”

The remnants of Amelia soon made itself at home in the Texas Hill County, atop the headwaters of the Medina and Guadalupe rivers. 

On Aug. 1, the rain began. According to the National Weather Service, John Derry, a cooperative observer and the postmaster at Medina, measured 32 inches of rain 24 hours. Amelia did what weakening tropical systems are notorious for doing. The rain weakens and becomes more scattered during the day, but at night, the storm's energy “cores” around the center and produces massive amounts of rain. 

A similar flood occurred across South Texas during the summer of 2002. 

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By the second night, another band of heavy rain fell and dumped another foot and a half of rain. After two days of rain, Medina, Texas, measured 48 inches of rain. But as the NWS noted, the man taking the rain measurements in a vegetable can tried to stay awake both days but “dozed off” and “let the can overflow -- so the 48 inches is to be considered a lower limit.”

As the walls of water made its way down creeks and streams Evans remembers much of what happened next. 

“Communication was bad,” he said. “We had virtually no warning.”

It is a sentiment shared by Lovett. She and her family escaped the flooding and rode it out on Highway 27, but her in-laws and their neighbors along the Verde Creek weren’t as fortunate. 

When Emmett and Ethel Lovett called Frances and Bill in the predawn hours, they said they could hear the butane tank that had been secured in their backyard hitting their home. Frances Lovett said she called the neighbor across the street to see if he could get on his tractor and rescue them, but the water was already too high. One of the last things Ethel said to her daughter-in-law was, “You know, I don’t think we are going to make it.”

A family next door was spared death when their mobile home, which was sealed tightly, “exploded from the pressure.” Lovett said and they were thrown into the Cypress trees above the water.

Six people near Verde Creek died that night.

IMAGES: The historic flood of 1978

Along the Medina River, a family of four returned after the waters receded and turned around when they realized they forgot their dog. That is when another wave of water swept them away, according to a NWS report. It is believed the dog watched all four from a bluff above the water. 

Across Kendall, Kerr and Bandera counties, the floodwaters would claim 27 lives and hundreds of homes and businesses were either damaged or destroyed. Residents were trapped after the water destroyed roads in and out of their communities. 

In Bandera, the river flooded Main Street for the first -- and only -- time ever. There, Evans said, like in Houston, neighbors came to the rescue of their fellow man. The river would crest at 46.62 feet, still the record by more than 10 feet. 

“We had people riding rooftops on houses (floating down the river) and people got on boats and saved them,” he said. “It was total devastation. It was like a bad dream that wouldn’t end.”

The waters flooded every car in his dealership and nearly all the homes along the river in Bandera. 

Lovett said she can still remember the sounds of the massive cypress trees -- typically the lone survivors along the waterways -- snapping under the pressure of the fast-moving waters. She also worries about the folks in Southeast Texas who lost everything. “How in the world are these people going to start over?” she wonders. 

Evans said he knows the pressure his fellow elected leaders are facing, having survived it himself. “Until you’ve been through one of those, you can’t appreciate what those people are going through,” he said. “You can actually empathize with them.”

The many floods in the Hill Country have brought about changes. There are now gauges along the Medina River, and the judge said residents have, at most, eight hours to evacuate if the water begins to rise along the headwaters. 

Neither survivor said any flood since has reached the levels of 1978, and they hope it never will. Both rebuilt in their respective communities, and both tell newcomers building near the water to be careful and let them know how quickly the quiet trickle can become a deadly roar.​