State launches flood site, makes millions available to protect Texas communities

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Among the experts and the officials, one father made sure the state would hear his plea, as Texas leaders considered how to spend $6.8 million in emergency funding.

“They didn’t get any warnings,” Steve Schultz explained in a board meeting in December. “They weren’t getting warnings. No TV, so they didn’t see anything on TV or anything.”

Schultz’ daughter, Laura McComb and her two children were among those who died during the heavy flooding near Wimberley last May. The vacation home where they were staying sat along the Blanco River, which had no flood gauges to monitor rising waters along a 40-mile stretch upstream.

Schultz’ words helped Chairman Bech Bruun and other members of the Texas Water Development Board make the decision to develop TexasFlood.org.

“It’s easy to get to, easy to see,” Bruun explained to KXAN before launching the site Wednesday. “And it’s accessible not just on a computer but, as well, on a smart phone.”

The site will gather updates from the hundreds of existing river gauges across the state, and the board is installing at least 30 more in the coming months. Many – like those recently constructed upriver from Wimberley – will have cameras for viewers to watch the rising waters. Some will even be faster than the hourly updates from many of the current gauges.

“Every 15 minutes,” said Bruun. “We think that’s a good barometer and a place to be. Someone that lives in Wimberley can go to TexasFlood.org and be able to click on the specific gauge and see what the conditions are.”

The board is also collaborating with the National Weather Service to install weather systems at streams across the state with features like rain collection and soil moisture calculation for better forecasts. Five of the devices just went in near Wimberley.

“Really the emergency appropriation has given us an opportunity to step up and be more engaged on the infrastructure side.”

Along with that infrastructure, communities can apply for grants from the board to build early-warning devices. That application period is open through June 17.

All of this work almost went off the rails at one point. A KXAN Investigation last fall revealed a financial snag that could have kept the $6.8 million for disaster planning out of Texans’ hands.

As that deadly flooding hit in May, state lawmakers were wrapping up the legislative session, challenged in making budget changes so late in the game. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, worked with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on a last-minute tweak to a bill for this emergency funding.

KXAN later discovered that money mistakenly went to the wrong account – and not flood preparedness. The coverage drew Abbott’s attention, in addition to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Comptroller Glenn Hegar – who all got involved to find a way to fix the problem.

Abbott soon ordered “immediate” funding, eventually tapping a disaster contingency account to be administered by the water development board.

This week, the governor told KXAN: “It is crucial that the State of Texas has the most sophisticated tools at its disposal to provide Texans with the resources they need to safely respond to rising floodwaters.”

Patrick also expressed his commitment: “Texas will continue a proactive approach to better protect and inform residents affected by severe weather.”

Watson said he plans to build on last session’s work by introducing more funding legislation next session – something he believes will have full support.

“I’ve not seen in any aspect of this be any sort of partisan activity,” he said. “There’s no way you can characterize saving people’s lives that are facing natural disasters as a partisan issue. We need to just to it.”

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