Deja Deluge: Forty Years On, the Flood of 1989

It was.

And it wasn’t.

The flood of 1989, occurring on May 17, forty years to the day after the flood” of 1949, was the worst since the Army Corps of Engineers had taken its flood-control measures in the 1950s and 1960s on the Trinity River and since Village Creek had been dammed in 1957 to create Lake Arlington.

On the other hand, the flood of 1989 wasn’t as deadly and destructive as the 1949 flood, although comparisons inevitably were made, if only because of the coincidence of date.

flood st 17 new“No storm can compare” with the flood of 1949, “oldtimers” said in 1989. Other floods were “mere puddles.” Clip is from the May 17 Star-Telegram.

flood of 1989 t taftDuring the flood of 1989 Channel 5 meteorologist Harold Taft reported “only” three to five inches of rain in Fort Worth but twelve to thirteen inches in Arlington and Mansfield during a twenty-four-hour period. The National Weather Service says six inches of rain fell on Fort Worth during a twenty-four-hour period in the 1949 flood. Rainfall elsewhere in the upper Trinity River basin was even greater in 1949.

In 1949 the Clear Fork of the Trinity had been the main source of floodwater for Fort Worth, especially the West Side. In 1989 the main source of floodwater was Village Creek in southeast Tarrant County, flowing north through Kennedale and Arlington to the river.

Here is Channel 5 and NBC news video of the flood of May 17, 1989 (with archival film of the flood of May 17, 1949):

flood st 17 boat photoA rescue in south Arlington in May 1989.

flood mobile home st 17 4This mobile home at Village Creek Mobile Home Park in Kennedale was a metaphor for the 1989 flood’s destruction—and for insurance claims. When captured in this photo, the home was both on fire and floating away in Village Creek floodwater. Adding insult to injury, the renegade mobile home later smashed into a bridge.

The mobile home park was evacuated.

“The fire department told us to move out at about 2 a.m.,” said park resident Don Reiter, who was taken to a shelter. “You could hear the roar of the creek right behind our trailers,” Reiter said. “We didn’t take anything because it came so fast. Our cars are gone, our boats are gone What we have on our back is just what we have.”

Most of the more than 125 people who were evacuated in Kennedale lived in Village Creek Mobile Home Park. “I’ve been standing in water up to my elbows for the last couple hours trying to get a couple gals out of a tree,” said Kennedale Police Chief David Geeslin. (Geeslin attended D. McRae Elementary School in Poly.)

East of Cleburne, Dick Siegel, traffic reporter for WBAP radio, rescued Sue Laird and daughters, Kelly, nine, and Brady, seven, after their car stalled on a bridge. Maneuvering his helicopter with one hand while reaching out with his other hand, Siegel pulled Mrs. Laird and her two daughters off the roof of their car seconds before it was swept into a flooded creek. WBAP news director Joe Halstead said Siegel got his helicopter over the car close enough to reach the youngest girl. Siegel said he “grabbed the little girl and pulled her in. I told her to help the little sister. She reached out and helped get her sister.”

flood st 16 p1Front page of the Star-Telegram May 16. The flood had not yet turned fatal.

flood st 17 piFront page of the Star-Telegram May 17. The death toll in Tarrant County stood at one.

flood st 18 p1Front page of the Star-Telegram May 18. Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine tried in vain to save his son’s pony from the floodwater (top story).

The flood of May 17, 1989 killed three people in the Metroplex and at least one other person in adjacent counties. Severe weather plagued much of Texas. In Jarrell near Austin, one person was killed by a tornado—eight years before another tornado in Jarrell would kill twenty-seven.

Every flood has its high-water mark, its “the water got so high that . . .” factoid by which that flood is recalled, ranked, immortalized. In Fort Worth’s flood of 1889 the rising river put the city waterworks, located beside the river, “on an island,” and a nail on a wall of that facility marked the highest level of the floodwater. In the flood of 1908 the river rose to 38 feet and crested just nineteen inches below that nail at the waterworks. In the flood of 1922 the river rose to 39.1 feet.

flood ward photo st 17 3Of course, in the flood of 1949 the high-water mark was the second floor of the Montgomery Ward building on West 7th Street.

flood ready to overflow st 17 4And in the flood of 1989 the high-water mark was the emergency spillway of Lake Arlington. For the first time in the lake’s history, water flowed over that spillway in the northeast corner of the lake, flooding the golf course and Interlochen and closing stretches of Highway 303 and Green Oaks Boulevard. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated the flow over the spillway at nine thousand cubic feet a second. That volume is equivalent to a room thirty feet wide, thirty feet long, and ten feet tall. Per second.

Yes, in the flood of 1989 the spillway got all the press, but the Montgomery Ward building, left relatively high and dry, could cling to a forty-year-old memory, content to know that compared with the flood of 1949, the flood of 1989 was, and it wasn’t.

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2 Responses to Deja Deluge: Forty Years On, the Flood of 1989

  1. Ike Renfield & Sally Campbell says:

    We moved to our current house in the late 80’s and were charmed that a little creek ran across the land (we live in FW, but just north of Lake Arlington.) It was pretty permanent that spring and most of that summer. Alas, it’s been a dry bed for years until this spring.

    • hometown says:

      It is my experience that most creeks in Texas are seasonal. If you buy land with a running creek on it in springtime, that creek will be dry by August. But even knowing that, I always bought land that had a creek on it. Or at least a pond. Water–while it’s there–gives life to a property.

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