CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — If anyone in this city knows the power of water, it’s Mayor Joe McComb. He wears it on his wrist.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2015, McComb’s daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson were killed when a 30-foot wall of water thundered down the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country, crashing through a vacation home they had rented with two other families.
McComb’s 38-year-old son was swept eight miles downstream during the flash flood near Wimberley, Texas, but he survived after managing to grab onto a tree branch and scurrying up a 100-foot cliff. In all, 12 people were killed during that flood, including eight people in the vacation house. Rescue workers never recovered the body of McComb’s 4-year-old granddaughter.
Now, as Corpus Christi and surrounding communities struggle to recover from Hurricane Harvey and worry even more flooding could hit the industrial city this week, McComb knows the safety of 330,000 people rests on his leadership. And when he needs a reminder of that responsibility, he just glances down at the yellow bracelet on his right wrist. It contains the names of the families killed in the Wimberley flood disaster.
“My whole motivation is keeping people safe, and it’s a huge responsibility,” said McComb, 70. “But I have an added commitment to do everything I could possibly do because I know how devastating it is to lose somebody in a flood.”
But just as in Houston, McComb has struggled with the decision of just how far he should go in getting residents out of the path of Harvey’s waters.
On Wednesday afternoon, McComb stunned many when, with the hurricane aiming directly at Corpus Christi, he ordered a voluntary instead of a mandatory evacuation. McComb, a lifelong Republican who was just elected mayor in May, said he didn’t think it was government’s responsibility to mandate that people leave their homes.
“I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes, and every one of those had a mandatory evacuation,” an angry Dale Nelson, a veteran meteorologist for Corpus Christi’s NBC affiliate, said Friday night as Hurricane Harvey strengthened into a Category 4 storm. “This storm has gotten away from us, and it’s the local residents who are paying a price now.”
McComb takes offense at such criticism, saying no local elected officials anywhere in the country would purposely put residents in danger. Some critics also questioned whether Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also erred by not ordering evacuations in that city before Sunday’s devastating flooding.
When storms approach, police and emergency workers shouldn’t have to be distracted trying to goad residents who don’t want to, or refuse to, heed common-sense advice that they should leave low-lying locations, McComb argues.
“Sitting around that table, it can be a real tug between your heart and your head,” McComb said, referring to emergency management meetings. “We all know we got one goal in mind — keeping people alive.”
At least in Corpus Christi, where the Gulf of Mexico pours into a large bay and numerous inlets, McComb’s decision didn’t turn out to be a fatal mistake. Appearing at a news conference Sunday afternoon, the relieved mayor announced Corpus Christi suffered no deaths or serious injuries during the storm.
Then McComb hopped into his Ford pickup truck to assess damage on the barrier islands, including Padre and Mustang . Though Padre Island suffered only scattered damage, the power of the hurricane was clearly visible on Mustang Island, a spit of land once known for its cattle but is now a state park and beach destination.
A three-foot storm surge from Corpus Christi Bay washed over much of the island and the wind blew much of the roof off the 210-condo Port Royal Resort, which is the city’s second-highest hotel revenue producer.
McComb then traveled to neighboring Port Aransas, a beach town that was devastated both by wind and storm surge flooding. Huge mounds of debris now clog city streets as the force of the water knocked houses off their foundations while the wind sucked off roofs. Boats — some blown to their resting place; others washed ashore — also litter the island.
So far, local officials have discovered 200 destroyed structures and 30 others that suffered major damage.
“I would say every house has some damage, whether 2 percent or 100 percent,” said David Parsons, the Port Aransas city manager.
As they rush to restore services such as electricity and water, and do additional sweeps to make sure there were no fatalities, more than 100 emergency workers are camped out in a damaged Port Aransas city building. They sleep under dangling weaves of insulation and use buckets of water to flush the toilets. For the second consecutive day, police barred property owners from returning to their island homes.
“It’s uninhabitable,” said Jim Kaelin, the sheriff for Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi. “The only guys who could survive are the ones who bring a fishing pole and a tent.”
Across Corpus Christi, another concern shifts back to the potential for flooding. With the remnants of the hurricane stalled just 100 miles north of here, local officials say it’s still possible the heavy rain could unleash torrents similar to those experienced in Houston on Sunday.
If a flooding disaster does develop here, once again McComb will be glancing down at his bracelet for emotional support, knowing this is a city that is highly susceptible to disastrous flooding.
In 1919, when Corpus Christi had just 5,000 residents, 284 people were killed when an unnamed hurricane came ashore here. Fifty years later, 4,000 houses were destroyed and more than 6,000 others were damaged by Hurricane Celia in 1970, according to Greg Smith, a city council member who represents many coastal sections of Corpus Christi.
Scores of properties also flooded in 2015 during several weeks of unrelenting rainfall.
“If we get two to three inches of rain in a day, at least you got a chance for it to drain off,” said McComb, noting the city’s drainage system is designed for water to flow into and then under streets. “If we get 10 inches in two hours, we got a problem.”
In the Wimberly flood that killed McComb’s family members, six to eight inches of rain fell on the evening of May 30. From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Blanco River at Wimberley rose from five feet to 41 feet.
McComb, a former Corpus Christi council member and county commissioner, was vacationing in Hawaii when one of his sons called to say his daughter-in-law and grandchildren were missing.
After returning home, McComb almost immediately started wearing his bracelet, which was given to him in support of the hundreds of volunteers who scoured the canyon for the missing. The child of a family friend also was never found.
Local officials, many of whom also believe the criticism of McComb’s evacuation decision is unfair, said the same emotional strength McComb exhibited during that tragedy now guides the city’s hurricane recovery — as well as the preparations for its potential second act.
Most of all, they say, McComb knows you should fear water.
On his tour of the barrier islands, several residents also credited McComb for being a voice of caution during the storm.
When police denied him access to Aransas Pass so he could check on his house, Paul Golibart waited at the checkpoint for six hours hoping to find an authorized ride into town.
When McComb passed, he motioned for Golibart to discreetly hop into his truck.
Driving into the ravaged town, Golibart, 54, clutched his fist as he passed row after row of homes missing walls, windows and roofs. Certainly, his three-story yellow house didn’t survive unscathed, Golibart said.
But when they turned the corner near the beachfront, McComb yelled: “Well, I see a yellow house.”
“I see a yellow house, too,” a relieved Golibart yelled back.
To get there, however, McComb would have to drive through 18 inches of water.
He inched the truck up to edge of the floodwaters, but then he abruptly stopped.
“I aint’ getting down in that,” McComb said before Golibart trudged through the water.