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A reporter’s memories of the 1991-1992 flooding and other stormy encounters in the county

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

In January 1992, a CNN reporter asked then-Brazoria County Judge James Phillips which flooding was worse, this one or the one in 1991.

Phillips replied: “It’s the same damned flood.”

It went on, much like this one, but this one may last longer. The Brazos River is doing a job on Brazoria County.

A lot of what’s happening now mirrors 1992. Hwy. 35 was closed for a while between Angleton and West Columbia; Holiday Lakes was under water; the area behind Columbia Lakes was flooded, as was Rosharon.

I was in a shallow-bottom boat, floating over flooded roads with a photographer. Most houses behind Columbia Lakes were on pillars, but access to them was by boat only. Almost everyone had left, but a few stayed, saying that they had been through this before, and they had a boat and plenty of supplies.

I saw that Brazoria County issued a mandatory evacuation orders this time. That was not issued back in those days. You cannot make people leave or physically remove them from their homes. You cannot even enter the homes without permission from the owner.

But I understand that such a statement, publicized by the area media, may have some benefits, perhaps making people think that they have no choice but to pick up and leave, or they will be removed.

Leaving is really the best thing most people can do. But there are those who stay – same during a hurricane threat. Nobody can go to Surfside and force those who want to stay to leave. They can order them, but that’s about it.

In 1983, I was getting ready to ride out Hurricane Alicia in the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton. After I made all the preparations I could – as Alicia was heading straight at us – I went up to the fourth floor, where Sheriff Joe King’s offices were at the time.

King was organizing a filing cabinet, and we got to talking about all those who planned to ride out the storm on the beach. King had a great idea.

He got together all the reporters who were there and told them that he needed those who decided to ride out the storm to call his department and leave their name and contact numbers for next-of-kin, whom deputies could call to identify the bodies after the storm passed.

The TV stations went with the story that night, and perhaps it did some good. But there were exceptions.

A bunch of fools threw a hurricane party in Surfside. It broke up early.

A few days later I talked to someone who was at that party and rode out the storm in his beach house. He said that it was the worst decision of his life, and he would never do that again. The houses next to his were destroyed by tornadoes. He got lucky.

As we floated along the streets behind Columbia Lakes in 1991 or 1992, whichever part of the flood I was covering, my photographer and I noticed that there was a house built on the ground, surrounded by an earthen dam.

It wasn’t just a bunch of sand thrown together, but a well-designed dam, with a pumping system that turned on automatically. We pulled up the boat to the barrier, where the owner and his wife greeted us. We went inside and had coffee. It was surreal.

It also made for a really good color story during a time when daily coverage of the flood required that we find something new. Flooding is not like a hurricane. It lasts a while. Meanwhile, the presses have to roll, and there needs to be something printed on those sheets other than how high the water level is.

Houston Chronicle editor orders were to find something human each day. That was my mission.

That was then, and this is now. I was checking on the Brazos River by clicking on a Facebook post of an aerial view. Up-to-minute updates are available to whoever has Internet access. Facebook friends posted and reposted loads of flood photos and videos. Technology has its benefits.

Most of us in 1992 didn’t even have cell phones. They had just become available, and the Chronicle saw fit to pluck down a few thousand dollars per phone for their area reporters.

It came in handy on the day we toured Holiday Lakes in a military vehicle after some big-shot official flew in from Washington to “inspect” the flooding. By that time, we could have walked through Holiday Lakes because the water had receded. All he could see were the puddles.

As soon as the TV reporters saw that I was calling in on the Motorola phone, they all wanted to use it to call their producers, so I let them. It was a nice diversion while we rolled through the town. I had seen Holiday Lakes before. It didn’t look all that different.

Something good did come out of that useless publicity gimmick, though. As we made our way through town, I saw a house built like the Alamo. A few weeks later I went back and did a story on the owner of the house and why he built it.

The outside was a really good replica. The inside was modern. It made for a good story, better than the one I wrote about the federal guy being trucked through Holiday Lakes.