By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
May 11, 1972. It was a normal Thursday in May. The New Braunfels Herald was filled with promise for the future – announcing top graduating scholars and graduation parties; preparations for the next day’s Lions Carnival at Wursthalle; and numerous choices for that special Mothers’ Day gift. Spring rains over the past week brought much needed relief to the area farmers. It was a great day and it was going to be a wonderful weekend. Until it wasn’t.
That same Thursday evening the rains came again, falling mostly below Canyon Dam and above New Braunfels. Rainfall totals reported were anywhere from 10 to 12 inches between 8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. That is roughly 3.5 to 4 inches per hour or for clarity, 1 inch every 15 minutes! The torrential downpour fell on already soaked ground, running swiftly toward the lowest points – the creek beds. A massive amount of water plunged through the Comal and Guadalupe River channels in two separate waves.
The runoff collecting in Blieders Creek rose quickly, becoming a huge wall of water hurtling toward New Braunfels. The torrent washed over the Loop 337 bridge and blasted through the city road works yard at the base of Lakeview Blvd. It took out large utility trucks and ruptured tanks of liquid asphalt, all of which swept through Landa Estates toward the park and Comal River.
Residents of the Estates began noticing water lapping at their doors shortly before 11 p.m. prompting them to scramble to safety. Within minutes, the wall of water hit, blasting the cabins of Heidelberg Lodge off the foundations before making its way through the Estates. Further downstream, Camp Warnecke cabins were lifted off of their foundations washed over the Garden Street bridge. Power, phone and gas services were knocked out. Many people were left stranded on rooftops or clinging to trees, some lost their grip in the swift current. Screams for help and gunshots fired into the air could be heard for hours, adding to the horror of the dark night.
Similar events took place on the Guadalupe. By 1 a.m. on May 12th, a raging wall of water hit the Guadalupe, taking out multiple homes in Rivercrest and on Rio Drive below the I-35 bridge. People climbed to the rooftops, only to have the houses broken apart by the force of the water and anything carried from upstream, including trees, trucks, pieces of buildings. Several did not survive the night.
The Herald-Zeitung and KGNB radio were in the same building downtown. KGNB, required by FCC rules to sign off at sundown, signed on that night with Herb Skoog broadcasting emergency information. When Alan King, Herald Zeitung photographer learned what was going on, he called his dad, assistant manager of HEB, to open the store at 2 a.m. The morning of the 12th, food from HEB helped feed 600 people at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church.
The next morning, people who lived on the hill or anywhere NOT near the river were blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had unfolded in their town. The sun rose on a disaster the likes no one ever hoped to see again. Bare slabs were left where brick cabins and homes once stood. Landa Estates was covered with mud and debris. There was a layer of sticky oil and asphalt on everything. There were cars lodged against trees and underwater in the Estates and Landa Park pool.
Helicopters plucked people from rooftops and trees. Rescuers from San Antonio came with boats. Some searched for the missing through muddy debris, stranded fish, snakes and household goods. New Braunfels firemen, utilities workers, Texas National Guard, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Mennonites and tons of good neighbors came to help those in need. Donations came for those who had nothing left.
Wet, dazed, in shock, some covered in asphalt tar, the survivors filled the shelters. Some had lost children, wives, husbands and parents. There were many who shared harrowing stories of how they survived the night. More importantly, there are tragic stories of those who were lost: Hobart Gillmore, 65; Mrs. James Moos, 24 and her 1 year old son, Brian Moos; Clarence Knetsch, 51; Mrs. Joseph (Jean) Faust, 49; Leslie Engler, 42; Mrs. Leslie (Elaine) Engler; Carl Biesele, 49; Joseph Fowler, 34; Sarah Teague, 4; James Medford Hendry, 34; Lt. Col. (Ret) Charles Koons, 52; Mr. Melvin Nolte, 57 and Mrs. Nolte, 58; Carl Richter, 65; Julie Downs, 13; Mrs. Henry (Juanita) Parker, 63.
This flood event by the numbers? Sure. In 1972, the population of New Braunfels was approximately 19,000 people. Damages capped out at $15 million, which is $103.7 million in today’s dollars. 3000 people were affected/evacuated to shelters. At least 250 families lost their homes and 17 people lost their lives.
What’s different? Well, there are still big storms, rain events and floods, which we cannot control. But there are improvements. Shortly after the flood of ’72, Blieders Creek flood control dam was built. We now have warning systems along both Guadalupe and Comal rivers (listen on Tuesdays at noon!) and reverse emergency calling. We also have better weather services on every device known to man. Plus, the government has been a little more attentive to the FEMA flood maps. The flood of ’72 impacted New Braunfels residents and the economy for some time as they tried to recover. Those who lived through that night fifty years ago may have recovered but will never forget.
For more information, look for copies of the May 18, 1972 HZ on our website soon.
Source: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Alan King.