AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tommy Whitehead picked up his iPhone and frantically called his mom for what felt like the twentieth time. No answer. He called again. No answer. He called again. No answer. Hours passed. Tommy felt sick, anxious and completely helpless. He knew something was terribly wrong and kept thinking back to the last time he saw his mother the night before.
“We went to bed that night,” Whitehead said. “She had to work so she got up, took a shower, she left here by five o’clock.”
When Whitehead’s girlfriend called the Llano Police Department to tell them Biddy was missing on that October 2018 day, officers and first responders were running on fumes. The city of Llano was dealing with the worst flooding it had seen in more than 80 years. The small Hill Country town sits on the Llano River, where nearly a foot of rain fell over three days.
Like many other locals, Whitehead’s friend Patrick Bennett was out surveying the damage. Not knowing Biddy was missing, he spotted a car partially submerged in Flag Creek and alerted police. His heart sank when he found out later it belonged to Biddy.
“It hurt pretty bad knowing that it was one of my good friend’s moms,” Bennett said. “She was a very kind, sweet lady.”
Whitehead believes his mother had no clue roads were impassable when she pulled out of her driveway in the dark on Oct. 16. The short drive to her job as a nursing assistant at the Llano Nursing and Rehabilitation Center required the 58-year-old to cross the flooded low water crossing near downtown Llano.
Floodwaters swept away the barricades blocking the road
Llano Police Chief Mike Scoggins says the city streets department blocked off both sides of the low water crossing on West Sandstone Street the day before the flooding. He said it’s one of the most common places drivers will encounter water over the road during heavy rain.
The city told Scoggins six, tall orange cones were placed across the road in the same spot they always put them, and a city employee strung yellow caution tape from one cone to the next.
The next morning the cones were gone. When KXAN Investigator Erin Cargile asked Chief Scoggins if the barricades were still up when Biddy drove through the low water crossing, he replied, “I have no idea … they definitely got washed away, we just don’t know when.”
The spot where the cones once stood was covered with water and had reached doorsteps far beyond the roadblock location. Glenn Pittman, who lives next to Flag Creek, said the water grew from a trickle to a 20-foot deep pond in a matter of hours.
“When the lady drove in, there was probably no barricades there at that time,” Pittman said.
Pittman says he woke up early that morning and noticed the creek was covering his backyard. As the water moved closer to his house, he worked to get his wife out safely. Pittman also managed to save his three horses but lost more than 40 sheep that drowned in the floodwaters.
On one of the steel poles that holds up his elevated mobile home, Pittman marked the water levels from the last three historical floods: 1935, 1997 and 2018.
Pittman said he’s watched many people take their chances over the years and drive through high water at the low water crossing. When it’s dark, the situation is even more dangerous because water covering a road looks like asphalt.
Llano Police Department was only half-staffed
The height of the flooding hit on the police chief’s first day on the job.
“It’s one of the most hectic days I’ve ever had to work,” Chief Scoggins said.
After 40 years in law enforcement, which includes 33 years with the Dallas Police Department where he worked homicide cases, Chief Scoggins was up against flooding more severe than most in Llano had ever seen. In addition, backlogged communications and manpower issues played a big role in the response.
The Llano Police Department was only half-staffed at the time. It normally has eight officers, but were down to four due to abuse of power issues that occurred under the previous police chief.
Chief Scoggins said his officers never went by and checked the barricades put out by the city because they were too busy responding to emergency calls.
“They could’ve put a fire truck there or a police car or something, you know, maybe that would’ve saved her,” Whitehead said.
The city has about five to six low water crossings that have the potential to flood. Even if the department was fully staffed, the chief said putting a physical person at the crossing with flashing lights isn’t feasible.
“We just don’t have the manpower to fully block off the intersections,” Scoggins said. “This isn’t Austin, this isn’t Dallas, this is Llano of 3,500 people. We were very fortunate, to be honest with you, that we only lost one person.”
Llano rethinking barricades during severe weather
Chief Scoggins told KXAN the police department is rethinking its approach to blocking off roads during flooding.
“We can only hope that we’re ready for the next one,” Chief Scoggins said. “We’ll be better prepared for the next one.”
The city is considering the following changes:
- Placing barricades at the closest intersection to re-route drivers, preventing them from having to turn around in the middle of the road in front of a roadblock
- Looking for funding to purchase larger, more visible barricades with blinking lights; something a driver can see in the dark in the middle of a storm
The city and county are also meeting to facilitate better communication and coordination during severe weather.
Lessons learned through tragedy
Chief Scoggins is interested in learning more about how other departments like the Travis County Sheriff’s Office approaches safety at low water crossings.
The agency just released dash cam video from December that shows Deputy Jami Speights in a dangerous flooding situation. While she was on her way to help someone stranded in a flooded low water crossing in the dark, Deputy Speights got stuck herself.
TCSO Captain Willie Taylor said her patrol car hit the water covering the road and her engine shut off. As the water started rising toward the bumper of her SUV, Deputy Speights radioed for help and then climbed on the hood of her vehicle.
STAR Flight eventually lifted her to safety, and first responders rescued the man she was there to help.
“It hurts me to my core to hear that on the radio or to get a phone call saying that one of our guys is stuck out there in the water,” said TCSO Captain Willie Taylor. “It really brings me back to Jessica Hollis when she passed away.”
Travis County lost one of its own deputies in 2014 when Hollis was swept away in floodwaters. The tragedy led to changes with the office’s severe weather response.
When possible, the county adds two layers of protection to stop drivers at all dangerous low water crossings. Deputies barricade the road a few hundred feet from the crossing and then block it again at the closest intersection so drivers can easily turn on to a new route instead of getting stuck at the barricade and making a U-turn.
Click on the video to see how it works:
Deputies also try to check the barricades every hour.
“I would say the number of water rescues have definitely gone down,” Captain Taylor said.
Travis County deputies are also required to keep a water rescue kit in their passenger seat during severe weather which includes items like a life jacket, a rope and lights to help themselves or save someone else.
Grief and hope for a better future
Back in Llano, Whitehead is standing on the front porch of the home he shared with his mom. He is one of four siblings who are all still grieving the loss of their mother. Whitehead lays out several photos of her taken over the years showing her bright smile and shoulder length dark brown hair.
“She’s always been a good mother to me and I’ve always been there to help her out, you know, no matter what,” said Whitehead looking at the photos.
He wishes the lessons Llano says it learned were learned long before he lost his mom, and hopes there is a better plan in place when the next flood hits.