This past week marked the anniversary of the 2018 Sonora Flood.

A year ago, Mother Nature unleashed an unexpected deluge of rain causing an unexpected surge of water that swept through Sonora Friday morning, September 21, leaving behind a remarkable path of destruction.

Inside Sutton County as well as the outskirts, in all directions, the water rose leaving no way in and no way out.

“It was scary,” Belia Castaneda said, “Everyone was scared.”

Castaneda, a local resident and owner of Busy Bee Daycare, was going about her day as usual that morning. She said when she saw the water collecting outside of the building, she began contacting parents.

Castaneda remembers a similar event that occurred shortly after she opened her childcare business in the late 1980s.

Located on Railroad Street, next to the Dry Devil’s River draw that snakes through the south west part of town, Castaneda said she knows firsthand of the potential for flooding in that area.

“Luckily it happened during the day, she said. “ If it had happened at night we probably would have lost a lot of lives. You can’t underestimate rain...Every time it rains, I always tell everyone to be alert.”

Heavy rain fall to the north earlier in the month and recent local rainfall contributed to the flood.

Almost four inches of rain was recorded by the Sutton County Underground Water Conservation District in Sonora Friday morning. Significantly more rain blanketed areas in the county. By noon, the Dry Devil’s River had emerged and unleashed a torrent of water that filled the draws, streets, bridges and homes.

County Commissioner Fred Perez and his wife Mary were sitting at their kitchen table when they noticed water a few inches deep covering their back yard. They quickly retreated to higher ground a few blocks away until it was safe to return to their home. By then, everything was lost.

Just a few blocks in the other direction, St. Ann Catholic Church stood in several feet of water.

In the county, ranch properties became lake properties. Less than a mile out of town along Bond Road several feet of water rearranged the landscape as it covered fences and asphalt roads.

In and around the county, water sheds filled to capacity forcing water into the spillways. If not for the dams, Sonora may have been swept away completely.

Despite there not being an official emergency warning siren, word traveled fast. First responders were overwhelmed with calls for help.

City and county work crews were deployed to barricade flooded roadways and hospital personnel were ready to take patients.

Students were kept safe inside school buildings until they could be safely reunited with family.

Castaneda said there was about four feet of water outside, “waist deep”, and two to three inches inside of the day care facility. A team of volunteer firefighters, EMS and law enforcement officers came to the rescue safely removing nine children, Castaneda and her employees.

Boats and emergency vehicles were used to free individuals trapped in homes and vehicles.

It was an intense few hours of ‘all hands on deck.’

Then, almost as quickly as it flooded, the water regressed, leaving behind visible reminders everywhere. Water lines, mud and displaced dumpsters were clues that the recovery would take months. Everywhere faces were wrought with disbelief and emotion.

As the cleanup began, the county park became a temporary landfill for storm trash. Tons of garbage, collected for weeks, was eventually hauled away at a cost.

In all, it is estimated that more than 200 homes were damaged. Initially, the count was less at 75 homes.

Some of the homes were beyond repair and as many as 20 were demolished over the past year.

Overlooking his storm ravaged property; Henry Mata pushed back tears as he tried to explain what he saw.

His house, workshop and the nearby homes of his family and neighbors were severely damaged.

Mata said he was working in his shop when he noticed water coming up in the draw. Within 5 minutes, he was knee deep in water, he said.

“I worked fast to try to save whatever I could,” Mata told The Devil’s River News at the time. “The water just came up too fast.”

In response to the devastation, volunteers opened the Civic Center providing food, shelter and personal items to help make them comfortable until they could determine what to do next.

The following morning, County Judge Steve Smith assembled a meeting of community leaders, officials and others to discuss a plan of action.

As cleanup took place within the days, weeks and months that followed, donations poured in, major enterprises stepped up to help and disaster relief groups set up in town to help the community get back on its feet.

As monetary donations came in, some of the money was distributed immediately while other funds were deposited into accounts managed by the San Angelo Area Foundation, local banks and other treasuries.

Businesses gave out gift cards to help buy groceries and building materials. Appliances were donated and distributed as needed as well as other items to help people get back on their feet.

A resource center was set up at the former ALCO location and stocked with items such as furniture, lumber, tools, cleaning supplies and clothes to help meet the needs of everyday living.

The ALCO flood recovery supply location closed earlier this month.

Official disaster recovery organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Texas Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief went door to door helping assess damages and needs as well as providing variety of other assistances.

Holloman Corporation provided heavy equipment and manpower to help clear debris. City and county crews as well as local law enforcement worked overtime to help residents however they could.

Community volunteers took in donated items to be distributed via a temporary supply center.

News of the devastation spread throughout the state. State government officials including State Senator Charles Perry and Congressman Will Hurd made a special visit to the area.

Perry arrived bearing more donations. After surveying the damages and seeing the response from within the community, he said, “This community and the citizens of Sutton County are showing we are all united when it matters. At the end of the day, Texas and Texans will rebuild better than before. “

On September 28, Governor Greg Abbott declared Sutton County an official disaster area.

Although it was catastrophic locally, the damage did not qualify for federal disaster assistance after all.

A long term recovery organization, the Sutton County Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG) was founded last October. Committees were appointed to manage specific areas such as financial assistance and construction.

Recently, the LTRG held a community meeting to update the public on the organizations progress to date.

Spokespersons for the group, Casey Burkhouse and Jerry Jimenez lead the information assembly.

“It [LTRG] was formed as a community lead and community manned committee in an attempt to provide assistance for local residents affected by the flood,” Berkhouse said.

“The committee is made up of individuals in the community from all walks of life some that were also affected by the flood. The primary source of funds for LTRG is a fund established at the San Angelo Area Foundation, whereby donations could be made by individuals, businesses and private organizations. Management and transaction fees were waived by the Area Foundation. Every penny was used for flood assistance.”

A total of over $780,000 was donated into the Area Foundation fund, according to Berkhouse.

A print out of the totals, provided by Berkhouse, reflected an exact amount of $783,380.

Of that amount $632,659 was disbursed through 605 grants, leaving a balance of $150,721.

There were 483 separate donations, ranging from $5 to $250,000, according to Berkhouse.

Berkhouse quoted a total of 188 families benefitted from grants. Some of the grants are still in process; therefore the fund will be depleted by year end Berkhouse added.
“The objective was to get families back into homes and on their feet to go forward,” Berkhouse said.

Three hundred and sixty five days after the Sonora flood, life is becoming somewhat more ordinary.

This past Saturday, County Judge Smith commented on the strength of the people who make up the community of Sonora as being more remarkable than the flood itself.

“The initial days and weeks at the Civic Center brought a different flood than what happened on September 21,” Smith said. “It was a flood of humanity. People from all over just showed up to help. Bringing needed supplies and donating time and money to folks they had never met. Teams of the goodhearted started cooking and delivering meals to those without the ability to provide for themselves. The gratitude of those who lost so much was overwhelming. Tears, hugs and laughter in the same moment of time just happened over and over. What I have watched the last year is a community grow closer together as neighbor taking care of neighbor regardless of the cost. I cannot say Thank You enough for everyone’s effort.”
Going forward, community leaders have implemented tools to enable residents both present and future to be better prepared in the event of another flood.

An updated flood plain map shows areas in the county most prone to flooding. New guidelines for building in areas outlined in flood plain help homeowners stay above water.

And, NIXEL, a technologically advanced emergency alert system to notify residents via cell phone, is now available to the public at no cost to sign up.