Category: Hidden Texas

Keep Austin Buzzin’

By: Nick Castillo, Sara Eunice Martinez, Kaylee Nemec



Lance Wilson has been around honey bees his entire life.

Wilson, a master beekeeper who manages hives in Llano and Travis County, was introduced to beekeeping by his grandfather when he was a child.

“So many people you’ll notice have grandparents that are involved with beekeeping and are exposed to it that way,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how you would accrue the number of years that I was exposed to it with my grandfather, but I’ve been doing it myself as an adult for about seven or eight years.”

 Wilson, president of the Austin Area Beekeepers Association and area director of the Texas Beekeepers Association, said he’s noticed a decrease in his colonies’ population size – a trend that matches national statistics which show a huge decline in honey-producing bee colonies.

BEES (1)

“There’s been a precipitant decline in the number of managed colonies,” Wilson said. “There’s all sorts of reasons for this.” He added that harmful parasites, such as mites, loss of habitat and pesticides were among the top reasons for decline in bee population.

 According to the National Agriculture Statistics Services, there are 2.44 million honey-producing bee colonies in the United States, a sharp decline from the 5.9 million colonies in 1947.

 While honey bees might strike fear in some or be seen as a nuisance during a day at the park, they play an important role in agriculture. Honey bees pollinate flowers and without them, many crops wouldn’t be produced. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.

 Research has been conducted because of honey bees high-value in agriculture and society. Waldan Kwong, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, said research has been done to find the reasons behind the decline and how to reduce the loss of bee population.

bee-population-decline (1)

“At this stage, many scientists are trying to understand the causes and scale of the problem – very basic research – such that in the future, better policies can be implemented at the regulatory level,” Kwong said in an email. “For my own research, I am looking at the bacteria that live in association with [honey and bumble] bees.”

 Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are aiding in bee research. Integrative biology professor Nancy Moran leads a bee research lab in the department of biosciences. Moran and her team examine bacteria in bees and how it interacts with the them.

 “These bacteria are not pathogenic, but are rather commensals and mutualists that are part of the natural social environment of these insects,” said Kwong, who is also a postdoctoral fellow in Moran’s lab. He added that the bacteria work with the honey bees to help fight off harmful pathogens, and help with the bee’s digestive system.

Moran’s lab has 10 bee colonies on top of the J.T. Patterson Labs Building. These honey bees are used in her lab research. The hope is to see how these bacteria can protect them from negative exposure to pathogens, which would reduce the population decline.

 “There’s the hope that [the bacteria in bees] will be helpful with factors that affect the health [of bees],” Moran said. “It’s been shown that bacteria can protect bees.”

While there is a concern about honey bees rapid population decrease, Moran said the concerns should be lessened.

 “It’s not like honey bees are going to go extinct,” Moran said. “There are a lot of honey bees.”

Honey Bee Facts 

Despite his concerns about the bee population, Wilson said there is work being done to halt the decline.

 “The good thing is that there are various chemical treatments that are biopesticide or are organic in nature that means we’re finding better ways to treat honey bees and keep mites under control that doesn’t negatively impact the colonies,” Wilson said.




Honey Bee Terminology





Photos By: Kaylee Nemec





Videos filmed and produced by: Sara Eunice Martinez


Austin Community Revamps “Free Art Friday”

Story package by Taylor Villarreal, Trisha Zyrowski, and Samantha Grasso

Shot by Taylor Villarreal
Edited by Samantha Grasso

Austin Art Community Saves “Free Art Friday” From Extinction

Story by Trisha Zyrowski

When you walk into Nicole Clark’s living room, you’ll see a dozen pieces of art that she didn’t pay for. No, Clark isn’t a high-class art thief. However, she is an artist and active participant in Austin’s weekly event Free Art Friday.

During Free Art Friday, local artists make small pieces of art, like paintings and cross-stitching, and hide them in various spots around Austin on Fridays.

After taking a photo of their art and its hiding space, the artist uploads the photo to their Instagram account with the hashtag #ATXFreeArtFriday. Following the hashtag, Austinites can see what art is being hidden, and can follow clues as to where they can find it by looking at the Instagram photos. While many people may show up to the “drop” site to claim these art pieces, only one is the victor.

Free Art Friday hiding spots where artists commonly “drop” off art

Infographic by Trisha Zyrowski

While Free Art Friday allows Austinites to get in on some free artwork, the weekly event also gives artists the chance to share their original work with their Instagram followers and connect with other artists. Christine Muñoz, a Los Angeles expat, is an artist who moved to Austin in January.

Though only having lived in Austin for three months, Muñoz says people in the art community are much nicer than in Los Angeles, and that Free Art Friday has already allowed her to get connected within the local art scene.

“I feel like in LA people are super focused, very greedy, like, ‘It’s my success, I don’t want to share it,’” but Muñoz recalls with appreciation that Austin artists took her “under their wings,” immediately.

“I’m going to call Austin home for awhile,” Muñoz says.

Free Art Friday in Austin was started around two years ago by SprATX, a collective group of local street artists who “fill empty spaces with positive messages and beautiful art,” according to their website.

The concept of Free Art Friday is not unique to Austin—Atlanta, Georgia’s thriving scene began their Free Art Fridays in March 2013, according to their Facebook page.

While Austin’s branch of the weekly event quickly expanded under SprATX’s leadership, participation in Free Art Friday began to see a swift decline from both artists and art finders about a year ago.

Nicole Clark, who is also a manager for Austin’s Free Art Friday Instagram account, said the decline was most evident when SprATX became more busy and was no longer able to promote Free Art Friday on their own Instagram account.

Clark also says that before the weekly event’s decline, artists used to create larger pieces of art, eventually putting in large amounts of time, energy, and money (from art supplies) into a piece to just be given to someone for free. When that no longer became sustainable to full-time artists, they began hiding smaller art pieces and trinkets.

Unfortunately, the art finding community wasn’t interested in spending their time to find such small pieces, Clark says.

Together, these two variables created an unsustainable climate for Free Art Friday, further creating disconnect in the local art community.

Clark says she felt discouraged seeing so little participation in Free Art Friday, but she wouldn’t let this be the end of the new Austin tradition. Six weeks ago, Clark and two other local artists took it upon themselves to reboot the weekly event, the trio becoming the main organizers while still housing the project under SprATX.

Already, their new Instagram account to promote and encourage Free Art Friday between artists and art fans alike has amassed over 1,100 followers.

“People want to do it and they’re really into it, it’s just a matter of retraining expectations and retraining the culture,” Clark says.

“That kind of stuff makes us feel like this is why we’re doing it, this is why it’s so important to us, because those kids see that street art isn’t a bad thing.” – Nicole Clark

Instagram user and artist @THIS_BIRD_ has nearly 1,200 followers, his design of his trade being simple designs of birds. Clark refers to this artist as the “MVP” of their reboot: “So many people recognize his work.”

Many of his followers are families with kids who like to try and recreate his colorful, playful birds. His followers are always on the lookout for his canvases throughout the city, and take pictures with them once they’re found.

“That kind of stuff makes us feel like this is why we’re doing it, this is why it’s so important to us, because those kids see that street art isn’t a bad thing,” Clark says. “Their parents show them that it doesn’t mean you’re a thug or a gangster or whatever, just because you paint on an abandoned building.”

Many local artists believe Free Art Friday has given them a chance to share positivity, contribute to their community and connect with their supporters.

“All the time and dedication I’m putting into this, all the emotion, all the feeling, it’s gonna be in someone else’s hands. But being able to let it go, that’s awesome. That’s dedication,” Muñoz says. “Those are things I aspire to do, like being able to get to that point in life [where art is] just all growth. It’s not easy to come by that stuff.”

When local artists appear negative to the idea of giving away their art for free, Clark says she tries to persuade them by discussing the potential impact an artist could have in connecting with other local artists and art fans through Free Art Friday.

When an artist drops a popular piece of work, many people will rush to that location “in a matter of minutes,” Clark says. “The cool thing is bringing everyone together, not just the artists… Why would you wanna cut yourself off from those experiences?”

Looking toward the future, Austin’s Free Art Friday’s reboot team is inspired by Atlanta’s Thankful Thursday event. As a way to show appreciation for local artists, the Atlanta community hides art supplies for local artists on Thursdays—paints, brushes, pastels, and other tools that aren’t easy to come by as a full-time artist. Clark hopes to get the Austin program started soon.

“Only Austin can do it the way Austin does it,” Muñoz says.

The Austin Economic Impact of Artists

*Source: “The Economic Impact of the Creative Sector in Austin, Texas.” Austin Texas Government. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

The History of Street Art

*Source: Brown, Jordan. “Street Art.” Street Art. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
Infographics by Trisha Zyrowski


#ATXFreeArtFriday in Stills

Photos by Taylor Villarreal

Tiny Homes For A Tiny Budget

By: Vanessa Pulido, Alex Wilts, Michael Baez, and Jessica Stovall

Lisa Villanyi, 46, may need to go out for Thanksgiving dinner next year. The small dining space in the 399 square-foot home she’s thinking about buying may not be enough room to cook a full feast – and fit her entire family.


Villanyi is soon to be part of the one percent of homebuyers that have chosen to purchase a house of less than 1,000 square feet. As apartment rent costs rise and consumers become more environmentally conscious, the tiny house movement has grown in certain U.S. cities, including Austin.


“I think everyone still wants a piece of the American dream, and small houses are sustainable and affordable,” said Shay Reynolds, owner of Buy A Small House in Austin.


On Nov. 19, the Austin City Council even voted to ease the rules restricting the construction of backyard cottages, or additional add-on properties to larger homes, which often serve as housing for aging relatives.


“When someone comes in and they’ve decided they want to buy a small house, they choose between 15 to 18 different floor plans,” Reynolds said. He said customers are then able to also select the type of flooring and roof, as well as paint colors.


“Once it’s finished being built, we deliver it, lock it, level it, tie it down and hook it up to the utilities and it’s a fully functional house,” Reynolds said.


Reynolds said people tend to either purchase or lease land, or find an RV park to place their new $45,000 tiny home. He also said the 399 square-foot houses are not subject to sales or property taxes.


Villanyi, who currently resides in Denver, Colorado, said she is currently struggling to find property in Austin to put her house, as the area has recently become flooded with new housing and construction developments. She said she currently pays $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.


“You’re constantly paying rent every month and never getting ahead,” Villanyi said. “I figured if I could pay for this in cash, then I’d have it for my own.”


Reynolds said “business is booming,” but it is difficult to determine the actual impact the tiny house movement is having on Austin since other forms of housing remain popular.


Residential Strategies Inc., a Dallas-based market research company, reported in January 2015 the new home inventory – including model homes, homes under construction and finished vacant homes – was 7,279 at the end of 2014. This was a 46-unit increase from 2013. Several new apartment complexes are also under construction to keep up with the housing demand of the city’s booming population.


But Villanyi has other things to think about, especially if she will be able to host her family that lives in Colorado for Thanksgiving and Christmas.


“I haven’t even thought about holidays,” Villanyi said. “It’s small, but it’s plenty big for me.”











Austin’s First Cat Café

By: Julia Farrell, Taylor Wiseman, Mariana Muños, Michelle Sanchez

History of Cat Cafés

Blue Cat Café is on a mission to provide Austin with coffee and cats. Although this is the first of its kind to open in Texas, cat cafes are becoming more popular across the nation. California, New York, and Pennsylvania are just a few of the states that have picked up on the trend in the past year. The idea of a “cat café” established the concept in Japan nearly 17 years ago.

For a light fee, customers can enjoy a meal while playing with some feline friends. The café houses a maximum of 25 cats at a time, all of which are shipped directly from the Austin Humane Society. That means that for each 25 cats housed by the café, 25 cages are opened up at AHS. Since its opening in July, the café continues to provide food and shelter for stray kittens.

“Most of the cats we get have never had a real home,” says Rebecca Gray, co-founder of the Blue Cat Café. “This is their first real glimpse at home life until they are adopted by a family.”

Blue Cat Café

A typical day at the café begins at 7:00 a.m. The kittens are all lined up at the door, awaiting the arrival of humans. After being fed, the owners do a cat count every morning to ensure that none are sick, as a disease within the colony can spread quickly. By 9 a.m. customers are lined up at the door. Due to health policies, all of the food is prepared in a food truck outside of the café. The food is then brought inside, where customers can eat and drink coffee in the company of the cats.

Blue Cat Café is also an adoption agency. Not only can you play with the kittens, but you can also take one home. The adoption process is simple: just pick your kitty and pay a $50 fee, which covers the cost of food, toys, and a bed for your new pet. Adoption opens up space for new cats to be sheltered at the café, which in turn helps reduce the stray cat population in Austin.

“We’ve been averaging over an adoption a day,” says co-owner of Blue Cat Café Jacques Casimir.

“We’ve had four yesterday, so we’d be on pace at this point for more than 400 adoptions in a year.”

Austin’s feral cat population has spiked significantly in the past decade. Places like the Blue Cat Café help reduce the stray cat population by taking in kittens and caring for them until they are adopted. Casimir says that they receive cats from AHS on a daily basis, except for weekends.

AHS does not keep a census of the stray cat population in Austin due to the overwhelmingly large number. Mike Di Tullio, AHS’ feral cat program supervisor, says that the growing population is a large problem for the city. In 2007, the program began a free Tap-Neuter-Return program in an attempt to control the feral cat population. It involves volunteers locating stray cats and bringing them to the clinic so that they can be fixed. This way, when they are returned to the streets, they are not able to reproduce at such a quick rate. This is yet another way that the city is trying to curb the number of cats on the streets.

Cat Cafés Worldwide

Community stands by The Hole in the Wall

By: Will Bruner, Karen Martinez, and Nicole Rusli

James Forrest started frequenting the Hole in the Wall as a UT student 20 years ago.

He sat on a red diner barstool with a beer in hand. A giant hole in the red plastic peeked out from underneath him. Randy Echels has been going to the Hole in the Wall since it opened in 1974. It has proven to be a place of cheap beer and live music for 41 years. Hole in the Wall, or the Hole to its regulars, is now in danger of closing when its lease expires at the end of this year. Rising rent rates have threatened the future of yet another Austin music venue.

Austin’s booming real estate market has led to increased land values, and has increased rent for music venues. Encor Realty group, which manages the building of the Hole in the Wall on Guadalupe Street, implied in earlier reports that they had kept rent down as long as possible.

Dive bars such as the Hole have struggled to keep up with rising rents, yet owner Will Tanner is hopeful that an agreement can be reached. Advocacy group Austin Music People are involved in mediating the negotiations between Tanner and Scott Friedman, the representative from Encor. Negotiations have improved gradually, according to AMP Director, Jennifer Houlihan.

“We are still working with the Hole in the Wall and I spoke with the owner Will Tanner yesterday. The lines of communication are open. He is cautiously optimistic that they can come to an agreement and Hole in the Wall can stay where they are for a little bit longer,” said Houlihan.

UT Professor, Wanda Cash, complicated negotiations by starting a well-intentioned petition to designate the Hole as an historic venue. However, because the building was not 50 years old, this only complicated negotiations with the owner.

“We knew that wasn’t going to fly…not because it didn’t deserve it, we just know how that commission works and what Will was saying was that it was causing him difficulties when negotiating with the landlord, because it was putting the landlord into a corner,” said Houlihan.

Although the petition closed, it shows just how much the Hole in the Wall means to the community. Because of its proximity to UT, It has become a popular drinking spot for grad students and professors. Cash, who has been going to the Hole since she was a grad student in the late 70’s, is concerned that the drag is losing its character.

“My concern was that one day we’re going to walk on Guadalupe Street and it’s going to be a chain store – and the identity of the Drag won’t be there anyway and you might as well be anywhere in the United States,” said Cash.

Connection to the Journalism School

Wanda Cash, Associate Director

Tom Johnson, Professor

Rusty Todd, Professor



Hope is not lost for the Hole in the Wall. Houlihan believes that an agreement can be reached.

“The agreement would probably include some sort of investment from the club owners in the physical space; keeping it up, maybe repainting the bathroom…to keep the property value up. So when they do finish their lease it’s in good condition,” said Houlihan.

Tom Johnson, a Professor in the School of Journalism, has tried to reestablish the Hole as the journalism bar by inviting colleagues and students to go.

“It just feels to me like an Austin bar. It connects me to when Austin was starting to develop the idea of “being weird.” It still has that hippie vibe – that old Austin vibe. It’s important to keep those places alive because we’ve lost so many others, like the Armadillo …that are really music icons that just shut down,” said Johnson.

Successful artists like Townes Van Zandt, Spoon, Shakey Graves, and Bob Schneider have all jump-started their careers performing at the Hole. Austin Attorney and UT alum, James Forrest, remembers one of their very first live performances.

“Townes Van Zandt…was an Austin music legend. He was bringing his child to this bar and would sing. People would take care of him. Just being part of something original and something authentic that is Austin…. it is probably what’s most precious to me,” said Forrest.

Forrest has been going to the Hole in the Wall for over 20 years and even displays his own artwork next to the music wall of fame.

“For what Austin is, it is one of the last remaining places where original Austin art are welcomed and celebrated. Come by, have a beer, have a dance, have some memories – keep the tradition going,” said Forrest.

Increased rent on Guadalupe, and other Austin music venues, has put pressure on the local music scene as a whole, but Houlihan still believes that we can find a balance between landlords and local music businesses.

“There’s a sweet spot that I think we can find, where we are keeping Austin’s creative spirit, we’re keeping Austin weird, we’re keeping our city affordable enough for our creatives to stay here, but we’re also leaving room for that prosperity for everyone, and I think it’s absolutely possible,” said Houlihan.




Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better

By: Alex Wilts, Michael Baez, Jessica Stovall, Vanessa Pulido

Standing in front of a chalkboard listing more than 15 types of pie, Ignacio Pineda, an employee at the Texas Pie Company in Kyle, Texas, takes the orders of regular and new customers with ease.

Located less than a block from City Hall, the bakery is one of the last places in Kyle that bears any resemblance to the small town where he grew up, Pineda said.

The downtown area of Kyle is small and dominated by small businesses, city hall, and the train tracks that run through the town.

The downtown area of Kyle is small and dominated by small businesses, city hall, and the train tracks that run through the town.

“This entire street here was Kyle before they started adding the stores and shops and what-not,” Pineda said. “The great Kyle from the past is gone. What we have now is the industrial Kyle.”

Over the last 10 plus years the city of Kyle, Texas has grown over 730%.

Over the last 10 plus years the city of Kyle, Texas has grown over 375%. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

From 1998 to 2013, Kyle’s population grew 772 percent – from 3,641 to 31,760 –according to the U.S. Census Bureau, transforming the rural area 20 miles south of Austin into a city that is nowadays more akin to a suburb than a small Texas town.

“I remember when I came here before we moved here,” said Mayor Todd Webster, who moved to Kyle with his family in 1998. “I drove around looking at the town – there were chickens running around.”

Webster said one of the primary drivers of Kyle’s growth was the inflation of housing prices in nearby cities such as Austin. Once city rents began to soar during the late 1990s, Austinites and people from other places like California began making their way to Kyle looking for an affordable place to live.

“That’s why I moved here,” Webster said. “I had two kids, and I was delivering pizzas. This was before I went to law school. It provided an opportunity for me to have a nice home for me to raise my children.”

But according to Webster, growth is not without growing pains.

One of the first water towers built in Kyle,Texas. Due to its massive growth in recent years Kyle had some struggles with its water supply.

One of the first water towers built in Kyle,Texas. Due to its massive growth in recent years Kyle had some struggles with its water supply.

As Kyle’s population increased, Webster said infrastructure problems began to develop, first manifesting with the water system.

“We had a big water shortage here,” Webster said. “My personal experience literally was not having water come out of the faucet. Water would spit like there was air in the lines.”

While city government worked to diversify the water supply, which had primarily consisted of only groundwater, other issues began to be made apparent, including residents’ lack of access to a close hospital. The closest emergency care unit was located 20 miles away in Austin.

“I had an emergency with my oldest when she was five, and I had to rush her to the hospital, and it was the longest drive of my life,” Webster said. “I got her in the car and drove 100 mph to Austin to get her to the hospital.”

With the influx of people, demand for health services became more widespread, resulting in the construction of Seton Medical Center Hays on Kyle Parkway.

Along with a new hospital, a new HEB was also built after the town’s local grocery store – the Bon-Ton – burnt down in the early 2000s.

“I think that was the biggest change,” Pineda said. “The Bon-Ton had been the town grocery for forever. My uncles worked there. My sister worked there. I worked there for a summer. That was a family-owned establishment, and it served so many people for so many years. You didn’t need Wal-Mart.”

As the construction of chain restaurants in Kyle began to greatly outpace that of local enterprises, Gordon Wybo, president of Sustainacycle’s Sustainable Living Center, said he started Sustainaclycle to help residents with their nutrition and to support small businesses.

“We can get all of the chains – as you can see we’ve got enough restaurants for two or three cities – but the demographic is supporting them,” Wybo said. “On the flip side of the coin, with small businesses, especially niche businesses like mine, the demographic is also supporting that too.”

Even though Kyle’s population increase has been good for business, Pineda said he still misses the small town atmosphere.

“I’m old-fashioned, so I like the smaller things,” Pineda said. “But it’s nice seeing a whole bunch of people from out-of-state bringing what they can to this town.”

Racist Roots: An inside look at UT landmarks

By Kyle Cavazos, Estefanía de León, Danny Goodwin, & Danielle Vabner

In front of the main tower at the University of Texas, there is an empty space where a statue of Jefferson Davis once stood. Appearing indifferent toward its absence, students walk by on their way to class, cell phones in hand.

The university made the controversial decision to remove the statue after South Carolina took down its own Confederate flag. Some disagree with its relocation, arguing that the statue is simply part of the school’s history, and that to remove it from its original location is to deny its history and its ties to the Confederacy. Others, however, are relieved that the statue is no longer on display, and feel that the time has come to bid adieu to the prejudiced past it is associated with.

“I think that’s kind of what the university allows for in this space is for these kind of conversions and controversies,” said Dr. Simone Browne, an Associate Professor in African and African Diaspora Studies. “But in the end, at least for me, the right thing was done, and for other people they want that to remain so that we can understand these histories.”

The history of the university and its landmarks goes deeper than Jefferson Davis. There are still other figures on campus that remain at the center of this debate, figures who have had an influence on the university for years. One example is George Littlefield, who was a donor to the university and had ties to the Confederacy.

“He established a Littlefield Fund for Southern History, which would basically archive a history that was a celebration of the Confederacy,” Browne said. “[He] gifted not only this archive, but also gifted the money to create what we have as the six-pack…and so his name is still continually on the campus.”

Though Browne said that she agrees with the removal of the statue, she does not believe that awareness of the university’s history and keeping these landmarks up for all to see have to be mutually exclusive.

“[We need to understand] the university, its architecture, and its formation as a…memorialization to the Confederacy as an enterprise,” Browne said. “That’s what it was about. That’s why basically the, the university’s back is facing the north, why we’re facing the Capitol, why we have everything around that fountain.”

Dr. Leonard Moore is an example of a UT faculty member who feels that the statues and other landmarks originating from can serve as learning tools for students, and that they should not be taken down.

“I’m a historian, so other people may see a Confederate statue as problematic. I value them for their historical value, you know what I mean?” Moore said. “I like to use things like that as a teachable moment. I wish they had left them up, because I think it reminds people of the history of this place.”

Moore also said that he does not believe that the statues have a profound effect on minority students at UT. He said that in his experience, students are looking to get more support from the UT community.

“They would’ve probably said some more scholarships, some more outreach efforts, some more outreach programs out of the College of Business and the College of Engineering,” he said. “And so the fear was, when they put the statues down, now we can’t get anything else.”


What Goes Down Must Come Up

How the city of Martindale–which has been largely ignored by the media and offered little organized help after the Memorial Day floods– struggles to pick up the pieces alone, even two months later.

By Anna Ali, Alayna Alvarez and Jaclyn Guzman


Vivian Gonzalez still remembers the first day she opened her beauty shop in Martindale, Texas.

Having grown tired of traveling to work in San Marcos for three long years, she decided it was time to build a few extra rooms and, finally, bring her hair salon home.

That was nearly 44 years ago.

Today, due to the Memorial Day floods– said by Governor Abbott to be “the highest flood we’ve ever had recorded in the history of the state of Texas–” Vivian’s house and hair shop stand in ruin, hardly recognizable.

“I had all the customers from Martindale,” said Vivian with a soft, nostalgic smile. Now, she says, “my customers are without a beauty shop.”

And Vivian–who has lived at the same address for more than 50 years and watched all of her grandchildren grow up there– is now without a home.

The Aftermath

Approximately 50 houses within Martindale city limits were struck by the flood, many of which were more than 50 percent destroyed.

A map of Martindale and the surrounding areas.

Vivian had been through this before, back in 1998. Heavy rains caused the San Marcos River to rise ruthlessly, and her house and hair shop stood in its way.

She not only remembers the great expense it was to repair and rebuild, but also how she was able to fix it and make it “really nice.”

“This flood,” however, “was different,” she said.

Unlike in ‘98, when the river water caused most of the damage directly, the destruction of her home in the 2015 floods resulted almost entirely from her nephew’s camping trailer, which was parked in the backyard when the water rose. The strength of the current was so immense, that it swiftly swept up the trailer and smashed it through the wall of Vivian’s back room, knocking it out completely.

“I think if that trailer hadn’t hit it, the house would have been okay,” she said. “The rest of the house was fine.”

Vivian–now 80 years old–knows well the challenges that lie ahead, but she believes they may just be too much to take on this time around.

“This time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fix it again because it was too much of an expense,” she said. “And, now, since we have to raise the houses up, I can’t fix my shop.”

Tensions Rise

It had been just two weeks before the floods began when Mayor Randy Bunker was sworn into office.

Although a former floodplain administrator for the city, those close to the mayor said, still, “It wasn’t something he was prepared for.”

Mayor Randy Bunker stands out front of Martindale City Hall (Austin American-Statesman).

Mayor Randy Bunker stands out front of Martindale City Hall (Austin American-Statesman).

Mayor Bunker was likely also unprepared for the reaction he would receive from city council back in July, when he proposed the use of emergency funds to waive fees for affected families needing residential building permits, which are required to obtain before rebuilding.

In an interview with KXAN, Mayor Bunker said these permit fees are particularly expensive in Martindale and, in some cases, exceed three times what someone would pay for the same permit in San Marcos, a city that has stepped up to help its flood victims by waiving the permit fees.

“We have to raise the houses ourselves because we are in the flood zone,” said Vivian. “That costs money having to tear the house down and build it back up– and I’m sure it has to come out of our pocket.”

Unsure it could absorb the cost any better, Martindale City Council voted against the mayor’s proposition and, instead, is now depending on the help of FEMA. If the agency does not help out, however, council says it will review on a case-by-case basis.

Hope Across the River

Tanya Thornhill just wanted to help.

Not even a resident of Martindale (living across the San Marcos River in Guadalupe County), she went out early the morning following the flood–after being tired, worried and up all night–to see if everyone was okay, if there was anything she could do.

Flash forward two months later, and Tanya is still working tirelessly to help others in need– without much help of her own.

Almost single-handedly, she must lead the restoration efforts because there is no organized reception center, such as in Wimberley or San Marcos.

She also takes care of the areas outside Martindale city limits.

“They’re not getting a whole lot of representation, so they’re kind of out on their own,” she said.

“I’ve been going out there, going door to door, bringing sandwiches.” She says she also takes flyers with resources and information, such as where to access fresh water or find financial assistance.

“There’s so much to learn as far as working with the government, like the FEMA organization,” said Tanya.

“I’m still going door to door because some people haven’t even filed or applied yet with FEMA,” she said. They don’t understand that they should, that there’s help for them.”

Still, she says that even folks that do get money from FEMA don’t receive enough. Nevertheless, she encourages flood victims to file, as the agency can help the city record the data it needs to better prepare for natural disasters in the future.

Glimmers in the Water

Despite the turbulent two-month journey, Tanya says “things are looking up–” even outside of Martindale.

Take McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, for instance.

“We have been breaking records here in terms of the amount of people that have been visiting,” said Jenn Menge, a ranger for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “The water has been so much higher, so we’ve seen a lot more people here for swimming and for fishing.”

The park has even noted a few fish species unseen for some time that likely made their way down in higher flood waters.

“We’re really excited when we see people, especially families and young people, come out to enjoy their Texas state park,” she said. “That means a lot for the health and the future of Texas state parks.”

And the good news doesn’t stop there.

A pond of catfish swarm during feeding time at A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery.

A pond of catfish swarm during feeding time at A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery.

The heavy rains and flooding in May and June not only ended the drought and raised both lakes and reservoirs to extraordinary levels, but also provided TPWD freshwater fish hatcheries with a better-than-expected production year, allowing them to stock more lakes and the number of fish in them.

Because reservoir levels have remained low for several years, vegetation grew across the dry lake bottom. When levels rise, however, the flooded vegetation gives small fish a place to hide from predators and, as it decays, releases essential nutrients into the lake–ultimately jumpstarting the food chain.

With the rising water levels benefiting all species of fish, fishing– a $90 billion industry– is expected to see significant improvement in the coming years, as predator species like bass, striped bass and hybrid bass grow quickly with plenty to eat.

Picking Up the Pieces

With little to no media attention, Tanya says there are still countless people, including her own colleagues, who remain unaware Martindale was ever flooded. Combining this with a recent drop-off of volunteers can be, in one word: “disheartening.”

But only a little, she said.

Despite their infrequencies, she nevertheless receives donations that she believes come “from heaven above.” For instance, a group in Pleasanton, Texas recently held a fundraiser and unexpectedly called Tanya asking the square footage of one of her adopted family’s houses. A few days later, the family had all the materials they needed and could begin rebuilding.

Another example is Mattress Firm, which currently offers a $700 voucher to anyone affected by the flood. Residents can sign up for the program through Aug. 31, and vouchers will be redeemable through Dec. 31. 

“Everyone lost their mattress, everyone lost their water heater, everyone lost things that you need everyday,” Tanya said.

Because all contractors in the area are “booked to their eyeballs” and unable to offer any more help until late September, residents of Martindale are still in need of labor.

“We’re relying on family or friends or anybody who knows anything about painting or hanging a light bulb,” she said. “We desperately need materials and skilled labor.”

As for Vivian’s home and beauty shop, she says, “We might have to use it as a shed, or maybe a little summer house where the kids can come and stay a couple days.”

Vivian is sure about one thing, though:

“All my grandkids grew up here, so I want to be here,” she said strongly with a smile as resilient as the river.

Birders Flock to Paved Purple Paradise

By Anna Ali, Alayna Alvarez and Jaclyn Guzman

AUSTIN– Folks of all ages gathered at Capital Plaza Shopping Center last Friday with lifted gazes and audible excitement just as the sun started to set and swirls of purple began sweeping the sky. Some with an umbrella in hand and others wearing baseball caps, all nestled in their lawn chairs or huddled under their hatchbacks for what they were sure would be the best show in town.

A portion of the crowd settles in for the show.

A portion of the crowd settles in for the show Friday, July 24 at Capital Plaza Shopping Center in Austin, Texas.

Drawing in a flurry of nearly half a million purple martins, several live oaks in the plaza’s parking lot serve as a pre-migratory summer roosting spot before the songbirds set off on a six-week journey to the Amazon River Basin in Brazil, where they will spend the winter.

Purple Martin Parties, which are hosted by the Travis Audubon Society on Friday and Saturday nights in July, offer an up close and personal experience with this swallow, the largest in North America, and have been doing so for the past 30 years at Highland Mall.

Although martins are known to return to the same roosting site every year, this year is surprisingly unique.

“For some reason, God only knows why, they’ve moved to [Capital Plaza Shopping Center] this year,” says Denise Dailey, a member of Travis Audubon.

Fortunately for martin lovers, the shopping center and Travis Audubon worked out an agreement to temporarily close off parking spots near the live oaks in an effort to not only protect the massive colony of birds but also protect customers’ cars from bird droppings and potential damage from broken tree limbs.


A male purple martin flaunts his shiny purple feathers in the sun. (Wikipedia)

Shelia Hargis, another member of Travis Audubon, says this year is also special because it was “a very good spring for baby birds– lots of bugs to eat and not so hot.” Because of this, she says the number of martins roosting this year is higher than last year, although there is no hard data to support this.

“There used to be tons more of these birds, if you can imagine that,” says Dailey. “The populations are in decline because of a loss of habitat, because of pesticides killing bugs, and because of birds eating poisoned bugs and dying.”

Although the martins are not listed as an endangered species and are thriving in Texas and the South, their populations are declining in their northern breeding grounds like Ontario, New York and Pennsylvania, while songbird populations are decreasing worldwide.

To counter their decline and also to simply admire their beauty, countless individuals and neighborhood groups maintain purple martin colonies and provide boxes for nesting.

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Some people even take it upon themselves to be martin “landlords,” such as Dailey, who monitor the nests, watch out for invasive species, count eggs and hatchlings, care for injured birds and provide supplemental feedings when necessary.

In turn, these insectivorous birds, that migrate to follow the patterns of the bugs, eat insects people consider pesky, ultimately aiding the growth of agriculture.

Cliff Shackelford, a Texas Parks and Wildlife ornithologist, says this symbiotic relationship between martins and man has quite a history.

Native Americans would put up gourds to attract them, using them to not only scare crows from their crops but also using them as protection.

“When there was someone or something unusual approaching, the purple martin gives off a certain vocalization that humans can learn,” says Shackelford. “So, just like a guard dog or a guinea hen, people use them to alert the landowner.”

Yet, Shackelford remains skeptical of claims that say the birds have habituated to humans.

“I don’t know that it’s the two-legged human more than it’s just the things that we do that attract them,” Shackelford says. Providing free housing combined with the presence of so many lighted parking lots allow the birds to feel safe from predators. In other words, “We’ve created more of a purple martin haven than ever before.”

Currently scientists and volunteers are collaborating to track the migration of the songbird from Texas to the tropics and back. Texas is the second location in North America (Toronto being the first) where geolocators were put on purple martins to reveal their location everyday of the yearlong journey. And Texas is the first to meet the desired return rate of 50 percent of the marked birds.

The data showed that the tagged birds traveled between 250 and 300 miles per day on their way to Brazil, and flew back even quicker on their way back from Mexico in the spring. One bird returned from the Amazon River Basin in just over two weeks—an average of 360 miles per day, which is four times faster than other songbird species.

The data also led scientists to suspect that climate change could be playing a major role in the bird’s decline, as some martins arrive ‘late’ for the advanced spring and likely miss out on food they need to reproduce.

More studies are currently underway and will focus on whether the birds can adapt. However, scientists believe that if martin landlords can support the birds that arrive late as climate change brings an earlier spring, the purple parties can reign on and backyards can continue to be filled with the sounds of songbirds.

Literacy program helps toddlers to succeed in school

By: Carola Guerrero De León, Anderson Boyd, Taylor Turner

Maricela Orozco wants her son and daughter to have quality educations, regardless of her socioeconomic status.

“I came here because of my little boy and my little girl,” said Orozco, who does not speak English. “I want them to be ready for when they start school.”

Orozco is part of the Play and Learning Strategies, or PALS, program that the Literacy Coalition for Central Texas hosts and operates. PALS is a research-based parenting program that helps parents support their young children’s emotional, cognitive, and language development. The program targets low-income families with toddlers ranging from 18 months to three years who are at risk for entering school far behind their peers.

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PALS Coach Rob Juarez said the age group the program focuses on is important because this is when cognitive ability is most pliable.

“[The kids we work with] are at that point where the building blocks, social skills and cognitive abilities are forming, and we want to start on that early so that they will be successful in life,” Juarez said.

While Juarez said many PALS participants are minorities from low socioeconomic backgrounds, people of all ethnicities use the program. PALS primarily targets families that face financial or emotional risk, according to Juarez.

“[These] families are at risk of losing the child, or they do not have financial stability or any other social economic issue that is causing an effect on the family,” Juarez said. “We work with a lot of at-risk families so their children are ready to go [when they enter school].”

Juarez said the programs are weekly, and both the children and parents are actively engaged in the course.

“Children come with parents and there is a childcare room where the children are being taken care of while the parents learn,” Juarez said. “Then we bring the kids back in and the parents get to practice what they learned for the day. Each class we build on what we learned last time.”

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PALS coach Liliana Galvez said by working with the children’s parents and teaching them how to better interact and teach their children, the program is working to reduce these rates.

“We know [the parents] are the child’s first teacher, so we are not trying to tell them how to parent or to do it this way because it is the right way,” Galvez said. “We are just there to support them and show them different ways to interact with their children.”

Juarez said the program extends beyond what happens in the classroom.

“It is all about helping children, finding a routine and the time in your daily schedule to interact with them, whether it be playing with them, reading a book or giving them a bath,” Juarez said.

Besides PALS, a similar program aiming to better children literacy rates exists internationally and nationwide. Save The Children, a non-profit organization that provides literacy services to more than 143 million girls and boys in 120 countries, operates a program called Early Steps to School Success that works very much the same as the PALS program but on a much larger scale.

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Orozco said she is a part of the PALS program because she wants to give her children what she did not receive from her parents.

“My parents never read to me, but I read to my children,” Orozco said. “Maybe it is because they did not have money or time. I’m trying to change that with my son and daughter.”