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