My memories of the floods in Friendswood, Texas caused by Tropical Storm Claudette in July, 1979

Tropical Storm Claudette:
Tropical Storm Claudette – July 16-31, 1979

The tropical wave that spawned Claudette was the strongest of the season in the mid-levels of the troposphere, with 85 knot winds being reported at the 550 hPa level at Dakar, Senegal on the morning of July 12. On the 16th, a surface circulation developed about 450 miles east of the Leeward Islands. When reconnaisance aircraft flew into the system around noon that day, the system was already a tropical storm. Strong upper level westerly wind shear weakened the storm to a tropical depression over Puerto Rico, then into a tropical wave over Hispaniola. Rainfall of 7-8 inches caused some flooding on Guadeloupe. Amounts exceeding 9 inches fell in Puerto Rico, which led to flooding and one fatality. Below are maps showing the rainfall amounts across Puerto Rico and St. Croix, prepared from data retrieved from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

As the tropical wave emerged into the Gulf of Mexico upper level conditions improved, and a tropical depression formed on the morning of the 21st. Claudette re-achieved tropical storm status by the 23rd, but its center remained poorly defined. As at least two surface centers struggled for dominance, Claudette dropped back to tropical depression status late on the 23rd. A northern center emerged victorious by the morning of the 24th, and the system became a tropical storm once more. That afternoon, the cyclone moved inland near the Texas/Louisiana border.

Initially it was thought the system would remain progressive, however, a blocking ridge formed to its north preventing recurvature for an additional day, which led to extremely heavy rains between Alvin, Freeport, and Sergent in Texas. The 42 inches that were measured at Alvin within a 24 hour period set a new 24 hour rainfall record for the United States. One died in Texas during the ensuing flood. At the time, Claudette became the tenth costliest tropical cyclone in United States history, and the first not to reach hurricane strength.

Brief Bilodeau family history prior to July, 1979:

Mom & Dad moved to Texas (Dallas) in 1951 from Minneapolis, Minnesota where they had met & married in 1948 (September). My brother Paul was born in 1953 in Dallas. They moved to Arlington, Texas (A Dallas suburb) in the mid-50s and I was born in Dallas/Methodist hospital in October 1956 but we lived in Arlington at the time, on Donna Street.
We moved to Friendswood when my father was hired by NASA in 1962. We lived in a rent house in Houston until our home at 308 North Shadowbend, in Imperial Estates II subdivision, was completed in 1963, a custom-built home that my father always said “Buy more home than you can afford because the investment will never lose value…” That is, until the last 2-3 years in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century!
Both my brother and I graduated from Friendswood High School. He, in 1971 and myself, in 1975. I went off to the University of Houston, bound and determined to be a piano performance major. 3 weeks into that first semester in the fall of 1975 I realized I had made a terrible mistake, so I finished out that semester as a music major, hating every minute of it; then I fought with the University counselors toward the end of that semester to change my major, which I did in the spring semester to biology, and the following year transferred as a BA/Science candidate to UT-Austin where I thought my chances of getting into medical school would be better.

Background of membership in the Friendswood VFD:

I had been a member of the Friendswood Volunteer Fire Department since the spring semester of my senior year in high school, January 1975. Terry Matheny, my closest life-long friend since first grade in Friendswood, suggested I join up because, as he told me, he thought it was worthwhile, and it was fun (!). I joined, we trained together as firefighters along with a few other senior classmates, and later that school year we both decided to take ECA (Emergency Care Attendant) 24 training hours certification program to become ambulance attendants. Seems that 4 ladies – Letha Camp, Robbie Williams and two others were covering the 5 weekday daytime shifts, 7 AM to 7 PM and our addition to the small daytime volunteer ambulance crew would give them some much-needed and welcome relief, as there were so few to cover so much of the 24-hour period and they were getting very tired.

As soon as we were trained they put us on Tuesday/Thursday daytime duty. One day I would drive Unit 88, as it was called, and Terry would attend to any patients. The other day, reversed – I’d attend and he would drive. There were numerous days we left school for an emergency call, either fire or ambulance, and no one seemed to mind. It was a few years later that younger students who followed us caused the VFD and the High School to decide “no more high school student volunteers in the Fire Department” when some of the student members faked emergency calls by making their fire department pagers beep (in a test mode, and the teachers didn’t know the difference) to have an excuse to leave and thus skip class. That put an end to it when they got caught and to my knowledge, to this day no high school student volunteers are accepted in the Friendswood Volunteer Fire Department, spoiled forever some wonderful community service due to the antics of a couple of knuckleheads….they were underclassmen to us and we were appalled and astounded when we heard about this a couple years after we graduated.

In this context, we continued emergency medical & fire training that senior high school year, later becoming EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians), which required 120+ hours of training and practical experience including much time spent observing surgery, riding with an existing ambulance service not our own (I rode with the Houston FD and saw…amazing, horrific things), and spending countless hours practicing all the necessary care-giving skills on each other under the supervision of the sponsoring physician for our EMT Certification – Dr. David Hearn. You may recognize his name because he later became a member of the FISD School Board…

By the time Tropical Storm Claudette threatened the Gulf Coast, I had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biological Sciences from The University of Texas at Austin, spending the summers at home doing my volunteer work, working a summer job, and just being a college kid. Having been unsuccessful gaining admittance to medical school prior to July 1979, I was studying options throughout the summer of what I might do instead if I didn’t get called off the alternates list of any of the 3 med schools – all in Texas- where I had been placed as an alternate, and so I was working a paid summer job, volunteering in the Fire Department whenever I could, and also being paid to do some technical repair work for the Friendswood ISD – fixing the school clock & bell, plus PA and intercom systems – on all the campuses. Seems I had my mother’s father’s knack for figuring out mechanical, electrical and electronic things. It was in this regard, that of making such repairs, that the story of those fateful days of Tropical Storm Claudette came to pass and unfolded before me. Here, I relate my memories of each day as it occurred, from what I still vividly remember and, where my memory is fuzzy or non-existent, I fill in what details I am sure of or comment if I am not clear.

Wednesday, July 25, 1979.

It was early that morning, daytime and it was already raining heavily, but I had work to do up at the High School fixing the bell system master clock so I was up and out of the house in the 8 o’clock hour as I knew I had a full day of work, especially if the parts that I’d ordered came in. Some weeks before I had figured out the problem with the mechanical bell timer that was causing the bells not to ring on schedule and I had placed the repair parts order with the supplier using a school purchase order…..felt like real power to be able to do that. Little did I know, nature’s fury and power were about to be unleashed on my entire hometown that very day.

That morning, around 10 AM as I recall, HS assistant principal Fred Nelson said he needed to run to the post office, and invited me to go with him because he was aware the parts I needed had come in and were there for pickup as he had seen the delivery notice for the package come in the mail the previous day. We left the school and drove to the Friendswood post office, located at that time adjacent to the Friendswood First Baptist Church just off 518 on my own street, Shadowbend – East Shadowbend as it is called. I lived at 308 North Shadowbend in Imperial Estates II subdivision.
I remember that when we got to the post office, we both jumped out of the car and bolted the 10 feet to the front glass doors and got inside, but due to the heavy downpour we were soaked to the bone in an instant.

When we got back in the car, parts in hand, dripping wet, to head back to the High School I turned to Fred and said “I have a bad feeling about this one…I think we’re going to have a major flood.” I don’t recall his response to my thought, but later that night I would learn just how true it would be as the worst flooding in history up to that point occurred right there, less than a mile from where we sat there dripping, earlier the same day.
I do not remember much the rest of that day until I left the school that afternoon and still seeing the heavy downpour in progress late that day, I recall being gravely concerned so I had made a plan to monitor police & fire communications on my scanner. Seems all of us who were volunteers got scanners so we could listen even when we were not on duty. It’s just what we did.

When I got home I fixed myself some dinner because I was home alone.
My brother was married, living in Galveston, and was still in medical school. My parents were on vacation at the time in northern Minnesota, visiting my father’s sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Brainerd, a small lake community about 125 miles northwest of Minneapolis where they had all grown up.

As it got darker, I finally turned on my scanner and started listening to radio traffic from both departments. It was hard to coordinate anything between the two organizations because they used different radio frequencies and so you’d hear one call on the fire channel and then it would jump to the police channel where something else was going on, and by the time you got back to the fire channel again after the police became silent, often you had missed the other side of the first radio chat.

I recall there was an unusually heavy amount of radio traffic on both frequencies that night, and what caught my attention were the transmissions from on-duty members of the fire & police and even city departments who were going around town calling out creek water elevations back to the central dispatcher at city hall. When they called out the creek elevation of Mary’s Creek, which was the one at the back of our lot, as “less than 3 feet below the 2351 bridge” I sprang into action because I knew at that point that any water already that high, with heavy rain forecast for hours more, was going to keep coming as runoff upstream finally made its way into Friendswood. At least we knew that much about the surrounding terrain…but it was not enough to know that, at that point. Nothing could have prepared us for what would happen over the next couple of days.

I called my parents that evening and informed them that I was certain our home was going to flood. I recall my father being skeptical of my claims of an impending flood and him asking me whether I was just getting nervous over some heavy rain because I was there alone and feeling isolated. I assured him that my Fire Department friends and police I could hear calling out creek levels were on top of things, and based on the rate of rise I could just tell we were going to take a direct hit. During the conversation I sought instructions from my parents about things that would be logical for me to save. I remember making a list and adding things to it myself, that I was there to see.
Once I finished that phone call I started to come up with an action plan. This would be to take everything I could save into our attic, because for some reason I had concluded that we would not get water as deep as others might in town.

So, the first thing I did was to go through the house, opening all the doors and cabinets in every room, and turning on every single light in the house. I remember thinking it would just make more sense to turn everything on and open everything up and then, as I progressed room to room, I would turn things off and close the doors behind me, signifying that I had completed the sweep of that room.

While it was still relatively early in the evening when I started, by the time I finished moving things into the attic, it was somewhere after 11 PM. I had spent the evening periodically calling down to the fire station direct line and asking for them to send someone to my house for just a few minutes to help me move our 3 cars, but the help never came. Every time I called, I was told that they were already too busy pulling panicked residents out of lower-lying areas where the floods were either already happening, or the roads were about to become impassible making it impossible to pull people out by vehicle.
As I went about my work, I put my whole stereo system up in the attic first – not an insignificant feat even for a college kid, because the amplifier was very heavy and the two giant speakers, way heavier. I grabbed big boxes of family photos, slides, paperwork, and such and put all of that on the floored part of the attic. Then, for things I could not get up through the attic opening, I took doors off the hinges and used them as platforms between night stands in my parents’ and my brother’s and my bedrooms, to stack things on that I wanted to save if I could.

By this time in our family’s life, my mother’s mother – Grandmother Hitchcock – had become a resident in the Friendswood nursing home which was just a few hundred feet up the block from our house at the intersection of North Shadowbend and Quaker Drive.

I mention that because we had built a small apartment on the back of our house for her to come live after my grandfather died, back in 1968, and she lived with us until Mom could no longer care for her as she became infirm as she got older, so they found a nice room in the nursing home and she lived out the duration of her life there, finally succumbing to old age in 1986. The apartment was furnished at the time of the flood but I didn’t take anything of value out of it, as all which was there was the furniture, and I tended to sleep back there when I was home from school because I could leave out the side door to our back porch on fire or ambulance runs in the middle of the night without disturbing my parents, who at those hours would be asleep.

Anyway, I do not recall going by the nursing home before the flood to check on Grandma H, but afterwards I did as I was trying to get back to the house. That part of the story comes later.

Once I finished up moving everything I could think of, and in the context of heavy rain still coming down and no one showing up to help me move the cars, I decided it was about time to leave the house and head to the only place I could think to go – the fire station, which by that year had moved from City Hall near the house, to 1000 South Friendswood Drive, where it, and city hall, stand today next to the city park.

Before I left I went next door to the Copelands – Gerald and Martha* – to ask them what preparations they were making. To my surprise, when she answered the back door, they had been sitting on the couch watching The Tonight Show (Johnny Carson). I could hear the show coming from their TV, and Gerald was still sitting on the couch.

Mrs. Copeland said they were just watching TV, and I told her “You have to make preparations; our houses are going to flood.” I remember Gerald looking up from the TV and asking me from across the room, “What makes you think that?” and I reminded them I was in the Fire Department and had been listening all evening to weather forecasts and our members plus police going around town calling out creek elevations.

When I went next door, I had my FD flashlight and I was for some reason wearing my pull-up fire boots. Those are the kind which have a long rubber sleeve that you pull up under your bunker gear to keep water out, and it makes them look like fishing waders.
Anyway, when Gerald basically blew me off, I looked at his wife and said “Mrs. Copeland, you have to believe me, it’s GOING to flood, and soon” and I then pointed the flashlight at our back yard, at an angle toward the back from their back door, as I showed her that the water she saw more than halfway up our back yard was not runoff, it was THE CREEK – Mary’s Creek – heading toward our homes. I even recall running back there and standing at the edge of the creek in the water, shining the flashlight way across to the other side of the neighborhood over on Royal Court, where you could see lights on even that late at night, reflecting all the way across and on the raging surface of the creek.

Martha, as I recall, screamed at her husband something to the effect of “Gerald, he’s right – the creek is already nearly up to the back corner of our garage, we have to get moving!”

So, as they sprang into action, I went back to our house to try and figure out what to do about our 3 cars. As I hadn’t been able to get any help, I decided I would take the ‘good’ car – my Mom’s Buick – and leave my Dad’s car and mine, some kind of old Dodge Dad had bought after I wrecked my ’65 Plymouth Fury a couple years before, and the 1967 Ford Falcon he had driven that he gave me when he bought the used Dodge.

To this day I don’t know why I didn’t drive both cars up to the nursing home parking lot (empty that time of night) and leave them there, but what I did instead was to put Mom’s car in the street and park Dad’s car at the end of our rather long driveway, just before the street, and my car behind it. I had figured, I recalled later, that maybe the water would not come that far out into our front yard so maybe, I had reasoned, the cars would be ok.
I was wrong. It turned out that the water went across Shadowbend and was lapping at the doorstep of our neighbors directly across the street, Dr. Wilson (Veterinarian) and Tom & Pat Anderson. I think Dr. Wilson’s house got a little water, and the Anderson’s didn’t. Both cars were submerged enough to destroy them.

As I left the house, I turned off all the lights and shut all the doors, and I recall thinking that if things floated around they wouldn’t do as much damage if they were confined to a single room. I also, for reasons I suppose were based on something I had learned in fire emergency training, turned off all the circuit breakers in the garage, killing power to the entire house, for safety.

What I did not do, and for which later I heard stories of my neighbors asking somewhat in anguish why, was to go to the OTHER side of my house to neighbors the other direction, that late at night, and warn them of the impending flood. When I heard these stores some weeks or months later, I remember how terribly I regretted not thinking to do that before I left for the fire station, but I also remember wondering how in the world anyone could have sat through 18 hours of the heaviest rains I’m sure any of us had, and have, seen and done nothing. I found out later that our neighbors two doors down – the Chappees – went to bed and awoke in the wee hours of that Thursday to ‘strange gurgling sounds’ and that their first inkling of a flood was when Mrs. Chappee got out of bed and stepped down to the floor…suddenly ankle deep in creek water. The neighbors to their other side – Bob & Aileen (sp) Anderson – had gone to bed upstairs, heard funny noises downstairs, and turned on the lights to see their living room flooding. He was a metallurgist and had thousands of structural and metal failure photographs he used in court cases, all stored in cabinets downstairs. All of the photos were saturated with dirty creek water, but later as I recall he sent some to NASA to their photo labs to try and see if they could salvage any. I vaguely recall that effort was only partly successful.

Thursday, July 26, 1979

It was close to or just after midnight when I left the house. By that time rain water was covering Shadowbend up to the curbs, and so I had to drive the black Buick slowly to avoid washing water all over everything in my path. I proceeded up to Quaker by the nursing home, over to East Shadowbend and past the Post Office to 518, as I started to make my way through town to the other end and the safety of the fire station.

In those days, 518 had become a four-lane divided road with a median, having previously been a more elevated 2-lane undivided road. It has been decided to lower the elevation of the road partly for possible flood and storm water control, with the thinking that channeling the water to the road at a lower elevation through town would work to help prevent homes along either side from flooding, if the water could not get to the storm sewers if the center of town was elevated like it had been.

Little did anyone think that this design would cause 518 all the way from 2351 down to just a few feet from the new fire station to become a river, where the road at the time narrowed to 2 undivided lanes again at the original, higher elevation but that is exactly what happened.
As I turned onto 518 to head toward 528, water was already covering the road, much deeper than the curbs, I could tell. It was pouring rain and visibility was very low, and for some reason I deduced that if I wanted to make it through town I would have to put the car’s transmission into low gear and sort of ‘race’ the engine to blow water away, using the fan in front of the radiator as I gunned the engine.

What I did, thus, was to rev up the engine with my foot on the brake and I would let off, to propel myself forward. The car would push through massive amounts of water that covered the headlights and roll up over the hood. I did this from that intersection where I had turned, all the way down to the part of 518 near the Salem Square Apartments and Friendswood Bank. By the time I got there, the water had gotten deeper and I was afraid, like so many other cars I passed on both sides of the road, I would stall out right there and have to abandon the vehicle. There were dozens – probably hundreds, for all I remember – of cars which the drivers had had to leave and escape to safety as they tried to make it through town.

I remember seeing headlights of a lone vehicle behind me, and as it got somewhat closer I noted that it was a pickup truck, and it was sort of following me and lurching forward like I was. At some point toward that end of town, I decided that I needed to get to higher ground so I drove up on what at the time was a newly-planted median. Seems the City of Friendswood had just planted a bunch of new trees in the entire median from one end of town to another, but that night, or rather early that next morning, when I put that car up onto that median and the pickup truck following me did the same, we were the last two vehicles to safely make it through town and we mowed down every single tree from there to the end of the divided road….when I went back by a few days later, I recall seeing all the broken trees and thinking “Gee, I hope the City doesn’t find out it was ME who led the way for those two vehicles to take ‘em all out”, thinking they’d probably want to send me the bill or something!

I finally made it to the fire station and I remember thinking how relieved I was to have made it through town to the relative safety of that higher elevation, in that parking lot. I remember that the truck flashed its lights and honked its horns as it continued on down the road in that direction, as a way of maybe saying thanks for having given that driver the idea to drive through town on the medians, elevated just enough to make it through the worst part of the flooded main road to higher ground.

When I opened the car door to get out, I recall looking into the back seat and seeing a bit of water in the floor boards, seepage from the closed doors (It was a 4-door car). Later, when I measured the height of the hood and remembered the water rolling up over it, I concluded that I probably drove through water that was in some places 3 to 4 feet deep. My father was amazed that I managed to salvage that one car, but I think he was the one who asked me why I didn’t think to park the other two cars up at the nursing home. It was one of those moments when you just had to look at your family member and say “Who knows? I’m just glad I got out when I did.”

Rescue Assignment, Imperial Estates I:

I do not remember much after I got to the Fire Station, until I was on station out in the neighborhood where I was assigned, but I remember that the reason I was assigned to go out to Imperial Estates I and help pull people out of their houses as the calls came in was because everyone in the FD knew I lived just across the creek, and so many of the families on that side of the creek were those my parents socialized with and that Dad worked at NASA with – Bill Tindall, Warren North, Christopher Kraft, Deke Slayton, and so on.
So, equipped with a Fire Department handheld Motorola walkie-talkie secured inside a plastic bag (I think it was a ZipLoc, if they existed back then), and a bright flashlight, both with fresh batteries, I somehow was conveyed back through town, down 2351 and finally by boat, to that part of the neighborhood, there on Imperial Drive.

Having had so much trouble getting through town to get to the fire station in the first place, I really cannot remember how I got back to Imperial I, because the water was still deep. Maybe it was on a fire truck, and somehow either the FD had arranged for a resident on that street to let us coordinate recues with their boat, or we took some kind of boat with us and they dropped us off to get people out while they arranged for other boats to ferry people from one creek’s edge to another, to get people to an emergency shelter that was going to open up at Westwood Elementary, on 2351 the other side of 518 away from Imperial Estates.

What I do recall is that I was dressed in my full FD bunker gear – heavy coat, helmet, the boots and some gloves – and I was walking house to house down what I could only surmise was the middle of the street, to then lead the boat as close as I could to any house where, once I banged on the door and hollered “Fire Department, here to get you into a boat”, people would acknowledge. Or, in some cases the Dispatchers had radioed an address and they were organizing the calls in order on the map, one house after another.
I remember as I left one unoccupied house and headed toward the next, in the back part of that subdivision, there was a vacant lot between the two houses and I, in all my gear, boat still behind me taking other people out before it came back for my next “find” or assignment, started to float away in the current. I found myself being dragged toward the back of the lot, off the street, into ever deeper water but fortunately, as I was just beginning to swim back the other direction with my radio elevated in one hand and the flashlight elevated in the other so neither would get submerged, I was able to grab onto the angled guy wire of a telephone pole and hang on for a moment until I could regain control of myself, my feet finally coming to rest on muddy ground beneath me.

I then pushed my way across the yard toward the front door of the house, where I could see light inside, and when I got to the door it got nearly neck deep at the front of the porch, so I remember stepping sideways and over a railing I could still see sticking out, to a front window where I started banging on the window and yelling loudly “Fire Department”.
As I recall, suddenly a man appeared at the window and I asked “How many people do you have, and where are you?” He said they had several families, including a couple elderly folks and an infant, up in the attic, a total of 13 people.

Come to think of it, I think maybe the rescue boat captain also had an FD radio because I remember radioing back, either to the boat or maybe to the fire station, that I was going to pick up 13 people and get them out of this one house.

I had the man open the window so I could get inside and assess the escape situation, and as I went into what apparently was their living room a refrigerator from the kitchen sort of floated by and I had to push it out of the way to keep it from running over me.
I looked down a hallway and saw the attic door extended into the swirling, filthy water and I remember climbing partway up the ladder in all that soaked, heavy gear to shine the light around. There indeed were a lot of people and so I just started pointing, telling the adults to grab the kids and to follow me.

One lady, as I recall, was petrified of getting into the water inside the house and I had to stop and show her that I was standing safely in it, and that the boat was coming back and we could get them out right then, but that would be the only chance of escape they had. I assured her she would be safe once she was in the boat because there were people lined up all along the way to get them from the back of that flooded neighborhood to the shelter at the elementary school. I remember sort of taking her by the hands and leading her to that open window on the porch, and as she stepped on the window sill to get out, I cautioned her that the water was deeper outside but as the boat was right there, everyone would be able to just grab her and hoist her up into the craft to get her out.

As I recall it took 2 or 3 trips back up to 2351 to get those families out, and I can still remember the adult – I would assume the father – of the baby carrying it above his head, laying flat, to insure the little one didn’t touch any of the water, and they handed it off several times to get that baby, bone dry until they all had to get out in the rain, into the boat and to safety.

That one house for some reason has stuck in my mind and I don’t remember much else, until I got around to the other side of the neighborhood right beside Mary’s Crossing, which of course led to my side, and Imperial Estates II.

It was across from the Beatty house where I remember being in the boat and somehow figuring out or being told that there were those at that address wanting to get out, so we made our way behind the house and managed to avoid the power lines which ran from the pole to the house, to park the boat alongside the roof that comprised the lowest level of the second floor of the two-story house, next to a window. I remember Mrs. Beatty crawling out onto the roof to be helped down into the boat, and if memory serves I even think I identified myself by saying “Mrs. Beatty, it’s David Bilodeau” and because she knew me and saw me in my FD gear, that maybe seemed to calm her down a bit and she and the rest of the family all were able to get into the boat and be taken back to 2351 to be ferried to the shelter.

Not real sure of that sequence, but it does seem to come back to me like that, and this was another rescue from back there which has stuck in my head, probably because I remember helping the driver of the boat steer clear of all the overhead lines which, by that time – the wee hours of Thursday – were just barely above the water at the level of the top of the first story of many of those two-story homes, so if we had accidentally crossed them we’d have wound up ripping them loose from the house and setting off who knows what sort of chaos, danger, death due to electrocution when the ends of the live wires touched the metal boat or a person.

All of this, we in the Fire Department were absolutely making up on the fly because I do not believe any of us had ever really trained for that kind of massive rescue operation, but because we did train for emergencies, it does seem to me now, that what to do just sort of came naturally and we all were very quickly united to a common task, that of pulling out as many people as called for help or that we could find and convince that they needed to come with us while we were there, because “we would not be coming back once the water receded”.

We did miss, back in the back of Imperial I, an elderly gentleman who, we found out the next day, lived there either alone, or who – like me – was home alone at the time, and so while I was off working other things, some other members of the FD went to that house, located the man in the attic and, because the water was 10 to 13 feet deep, they took a big circular gas-powered saw and cut a hole in the guy’s roof to bring him out to safety. Seems that I recall the homeowner wasn’t real happy with the big hole in the roof, but by then the house was a total wreck so I would guess that the insurance company didn’t really care too much.

Friday, July 27, 1979:

The daytime hours on Thursday, I have absolutely no recollection of. What I remember is that I stayed down there in Imperial Estates until the morning of Friday the 27th, because there wasn’t any place else to go nor anything to do except keep working as ordered, getting people out. I really don’t remember working much in the daylight hours that Thursday. I don’t remember eating or drinking anything, but I do know one thing: No one slept. No one in the Fire Department stopped to sleep. We started Wednesday night and we worked straight through without rest. How we did that, I do not remember.

What I recall, when my memory picks up next, is that sometime early Friday morning I realized, or was told or had it confirmed, that we had canvassed all of the homes in Imperial I and that it was time to move to another neighborhood or to try and get back to the station. I don’t exactly recall making that decision myself, though I recall at some point realizing that the battery in my FD radio was dead and so I was no longer able to communicate with the station.

Also, what I recall is that I, myself, was ferried in my bunker gear from one creek’s edge to another in boats that sort of ‘sprang up’ along the way, on 2351, to the point that I finally made it to dry land right there at the corner of Pecan and 2351, near the intersection of 518 and 2351. What’s even stranger to me now, thinking back on it, is that some sort of shop – a flower shop, I think, on that Friday was open and had a working telephone, so I asked if I could borrow it to call my parents in Minnesota. As I recall, I had to place a “3rd-party billing” call to have the long distance call billed to my parents’ home phone.
I called, got through, and remember just as I was seeing an image of “Friendswood, Texas” on the morning national news broadcast, live, that Mom and Dad had awakened that Friday to flip on the TV on that same network (NBC, I think – the Today Show) – just in time to see the same image of Friendswood that I was seeing.

We chatted a bit and then, as I hung up the phone, I promised them I was being careful (I didn’t tell them anything at that point about what I had been doing for 2 days, but they hadn’t heard from me after Wednesday night until that Friday and were a bit panicked), and that I would go by and check on Grandmother H on my way back to the house to see what the damage was.

So I left that shop and the relative safety of that intersection and headed back up 2351 a short block, turning down Pecan Drive and then left at the next block on East Heritage, passing the Baptist Church and getting down to the 90-degree right turn that became Quaker Drive, right there where the nursing home was and in front of the only home at the time, anyway, which was built with a basement…one which, I learned later, was submerged. It was the Woodwards’ house – parents of Fred Camp’s wife (Fred ran H&H Music for the Hackneys*) who built and lived in that home and I recall having watched it under construction, basement and all, in wonderment that it had such a thing that one hardly ever found near the gulf coast.

It was at that point that I realized, as I looked at the elevated, angled parking spaces in front of the front door of the nursing home, which faced Quaker Drive, that the spaces there were high and dry and that there had been no flood damage to any car parked along that side of the facility. So, I went in and quickly checked on my grandmother and, finding her in good spirits and having had a meal and with the power still on for them to watch TV and all, I headed up the street on Shadowbend, wading into deeper and deeper water as I approached our home, on the left side of the street toward Mary’s Creek, and I could see the other two cars partly submerged there at the end of the driveway.

I remember unlocking the driveway door where we always came in, and having trouble pushing the door open because the water was 3 to 4 feet deep at that point, and the door seemed like it weighed a ton.

I didn’t touch the power to the house, and while I still had my flashlight with me, by that time – probably 9 AM that Friday morning if I recall – it was light enough without the flashlight or lights in the house, that I could see anyway. I remember looking at the submerged mess of laundry appliances right there in the utility room, and as I pushed deeper into the house I saw more and more destruction. I remember at one point leaning against a wall and just starting to cry out loud, and then I suddenly realized that no one was around to hear that anyway, and now I had lots more to do, so why not shut up and just get on with it.

I went through the house with my fire boots pulled up so my feet, legs and clothing wouldn’t get contaminated any further with creek water, but at the time I didn’t realize also that raw sewage was backing up through the pipes into the houses, making the contamination dangerous. At one point I got back into the apartment on the back of the house and, having forgotten to close the door from that small hallway into our den, I found that a heavy glass decorative jar with lid, filled with matches (probably Waterford crystal), had floated from the living room at the front of the house, through the den, past the fireplace, through that small door, down that narrow, short hallway and to the very back of the apartment, settling there in the water in the kitchenette, all the way at the back of the room, intact. The matches were high and dry.

In my parents’ room I had put a door I took off the hinges across their two night stands to make a sort of platform for two antique chairs that had been in the family for a long time, and the whole assembly – two chairs standing upright on the horizontal door, and the night stands – were just sort of hovering there in the middle of the room next to the saturated mattress.

I had to do something when I lifted the first chair off that “table” to put it on top of the dresser in the corner, to keep the thing from tipping over and dumping the other chair into the water. I do not remember what I did to prevent that, but to this day those two chairs are a proud part of my own personal family collection and, as space permits, they always have a place of honor in our home although we discourage anyone from sitting in them (except me – one is a rocking chair and I do sometimes sit in it, but the other, much older chair that’s actually an heirloom, nobody sits in both because it is not very comfortable, and because the crocheted cover on it was done by my great great Aunt Gusta in the 1920s, so we want to keep it intact and prevent any undue wear and tear….except the front fringe that my own family’s first puppy dog we got our daughter when she was little, chewed it apart.

All that to save a chair which later, I learned dates from about the 1860s or 1870s, from that flood and then a decade later a dog chews off the front fringe and damages its pristine look. Go figure.

So, after I completed the assessment of the house, I picked up the telephone on the counter between the den and the kitchen and, getting a dial tone, I again called my parents in Brainerd, MN. This time, I described the house as detailed as I could and at that point I recall asking them when they were coming home. My father said their return flight was scheduled for the following Wednesday, and I said “no good – come home immediately on the next flight you can get”, and when he balked at changing the tickets, I got my mother on the phone and basically demanded that they be home by Sunday at the latest.
“But where will we stay?” I recall her asking, and I said “I don’t care if we have to stay with Paul and Jan in Galveston…they don’t have [didn’t have at the time] any kids, so that’s what we’ll do until we figure it out. Just GET HERE.”

As an aside, the story will pick up on Sunday, July 29, with their arrival back home in our still-functioning Buick, from the airport…Mother prevailed over Dad and home they came, having to wait one extra day for flood waters to recede and flights to resume.
I left the house and started walking back up the road toward 518. I remember walking along – lumbering along in all the heavy, still somewhat wet, fire gear, and wondering how I was going to get the several miles through town to the fire station.

Somehow, when I got up to 518, either I saw an FD vehicle and flagged them down, or I hitched a ride with someone – maybe even a policeman in a patrol car – who saw me in my FD gear and asked if I needed a ride.

I did, and by about 10 AM that Friday I got back to the fire station, where I was greeted with a very large group of people, most of them grouped around the dispatch office and radio, where the fire station had become a second command post for the city, coordinating all rescue operations from there and, in an unusual move, answering all the emergency calls to the fire/ambulance # in town (482-7211 – predates 911 service). Usually the police dispatchers at city hall answered our fire phone even though we could hear it over a phone company-provided (and expensive) loudspeaker with a buzzer that buzzed and opened up so we could hear the incoming calls, if we happened to be down there when a call came in.
At some point, either Letha Camp or Robbie Williams, or both, went into their “motherly” mode and, knowing that I was just getting back to the station from Wednesday night, they asked me if I wanted to sleep. I don’t think I had still eaten anything, but we must have had water to drink or we’d have been so terribly thirsty and I don’t remember being thirsty, but I was absolutely dead on my feet.

Someone decided I should immediately lay down and rest, and they all knew my home had flooded, and also that I was one of the few FD members who also was a victim of the flood, so they pulled a mattress out of the bunks just behind the dispatch room, around the corner and down the hall in the fire station library – yes, there are a lot of books at a fire station for study of emergency procedures, laws & regulations, and such – and there I laid down my head on that mattress on that floor in that darkened room, at which point, after which seemed like just an instant, I awoke with a start….

I stumbled up and onto my feet, turned on the light, got my bearings (for a few moments I recall not knowing where I was nor what day it was) and went back down the now-quieter hall to the dispatch room, only to encounter a completely different group of people than I thought I had just left.

Problem was, it was 8 hours later, 6 PM at night, and I had fallen asleep instantly and had not stirred for 8 solid hours of complete rest. I was told later they kept peeking in on me throughout the day to be sure I was ok, and once I finally woke up and got back to the dispatch room, someone at some point mercifully decided for me that I was hungry and made me a plate of food that some company had brought down to the station in gratitude for all our efforts over the last couple of days. I vaguely recall sitting there mostly quiet, not talking, just eating, staring out the window and thinking about what had just happened to my beloved home town and my boyhood home, now devastated by the worst flood, a 100 year flood, in its young history (founded in 1895, there just had not been a flood that bad even including the terrible 1900 storm that hit Galveston and killed 6000 people). That was a different issue back then and it was a different time now, with subsidence from excessive use of sub-surface water taking its toll and causing the land to slowly sink to the point it was more flood prone as time passed, to the point today that the homes which once existed back there in Imperial I and also along the lower elevations of Imperial II, right up to my own home, it being the last one standing along nearly that whole side of the street, are all gone now, rebuilding prohibited by the U.S. Government. They won’t issue flood insurance in that flood plain anymore.

I don’t remember doing much that Friday night except maybe helping out around the station, and I think I slept there that night, but then the next day came and by then, massive relief help had started to arrive and so finally the rather worn and ragged volunteers of the FD started to see the welcome sight of National Guard troops and their high-up vehicles – the name of which escapes me…Deuce and a Half, I believe as it suddenly comes back to me – that could get through flood water a few feet deep without so much as a drop getting on the personnel secured up inside the back of the truck.

Saturday, July 28, 1979:

At some point on Saturday morning, it was decided that I should be assigned to a crew to go out and continue helping people get out of their flooded homes. I do not remember much of the day – mostly a blur – but I recall getting on a deuce-and-a-half with National Guard and going to some neighborhood in town – which one, I do not recall – and getting people into the truck and taking them to one of the shelters.

I also recall getting an ambulance run for a lady in labor. The roads into Friendswood were still flooded and so we had to call the Houston area air ambulance, Life Flight, and have her air-lifted to Clear Lake Hospital to deliver her baby.

At some point I came back down to the Fire Station and managed to land a spot in the dispatch room answering the emergency fire phone. This was in the days before 911 service was available, so there was a local (in Friendswood) number residents would call for Fire & Ambulance, and a different number for police. As it was the days before 10-digit dialing, residents would dial 482-7211 if they needed the FD.

Friendswood had only recently gotten its digital telephone switch, the computerized version of old mechanical switches that used to use banks of relays to complete calls, and as such new features like Call Waiting had become available.

The reason I mention this is that because the FD emergency number, prior to the digital switch, was considered “special service” by the phone company and I remember when the day came for the digital switchover, Southwestern Bell – part of the AT&T system at the time before the famous anti-trust suit landmark ruling that broke up the AT&T system in 1984 – stationed special trucks around town to insure continuity of emergency calls during the cutover to the new computerized switch.

One thing immediately became clear to us as we tested that FD phone number, namely that for the first time this “inbound-only” phone line had a dial tone! It never had one before, and in fact if you happened to pick up the phone at the fire station and were holding it in your hand, a caller would simply click on the line and be there – no ring or anything. This happened a few times while I was a member, as I recall, and suddenly on the day of the switch, with the dial tone, we discovered during testing that if you picked up the line and got a dial tone, the line would be….BUSY!

This, of course, was not acceptable and we had to call SW Bell to get them to reprogram the new computer switch to accommodate the special service this number represented. Somehow, they managed to do that and the previous capabilities of simultaneous ring at the PD and FD, plus no dial tone, and also automatic answer, were restored.

But, with the new digital switch, Call Waiting was also available on that line, and in that context then, on this Saturday of the flood, as I answered emergency calls (the PD was so overwhelmed they turned over FD line answer responsibilities to the volunteers), one call after another would come in, often on top of each other, two at a time with Call Waiting beeping in.

So, I’d take a call, write down the information of the location where people needed to be rescued, and then hand that off to someone else to radio out to crews around town.
Once such time, a call came in and it wasn’t an emergency, but some radio station wanting information about what was going on in Friendswood during the flood. I remember telling the caller I didn’t mind answering questions, but if I got a Call Waiting tone, I had to click over to it to take emergency calls and he would just have to wait.  He agreed, proceeded to interview me, and sure enough I got quite a few calls that interrupted this process.

Only weeks later did I find out, after my father went back to work at NASA, that the radio station which had called was apparently the largest AM news station in Houston, and all that time without me realizing it they had been interviewing me live on the air! My Dad’s co-workers told him they were all listening to the radio trying to hear more about the flooded towns, and suddenly “David Bilodeau, with the Friendswood Volunteer Fire Department” was on the air answering questions. That’s how they knew I was safe, because they knew my father was on vacation and that he and Mom still had a son living at home.

Anyway, after a time doing that, at some point I decided I needed to leave and try and get to my own house and assess the damage while I waited for my parents to return home. By now I had convinced them to come home on Sunday, which was the first day it was estimated the water would have receded enough that some – at least some – of the flooded roads leading into town would be re-opened.

So, I went to the house and just started looking around at the mess. I don’t really remember when I started it, but by the time my parents got home the next day, I had already pulled out all the carpets and they were sitting in a big pile in the driveway, ready to greet my parents when we pulled up from the airport.

As well, and whether this happened Sunday morning or Saturday afternoon, my brother and sister-in-law came up from Galveston to help clean up the mess.

Sunday, July 29, 1979:

I have to assume, in thinking back, that Paul & Jan probably came up Sunday morning, because as I remember Sunday was indeed the first day that F.M. 2351 re-opened after water on that (the high side) of town receded.

So, they came up to help start cleaning up. That’s probably really when we pulled out the carpets, and by then I had already had a chat with Dad’s air conditioning repairman, who told me not to try and run the air conditioning until the power had been restored for 24 hours, prior to restarting the unit, because otherwise the oil in the compressor would not be pre-heated, and damage could occur.

My brother had a different idea, and so he went to the master switch for the A/C unit, which was oddly positioned behind the hall door near our bathroom. By this time I had turned on all power, including the breakers to the A/C, but I had not – as instructed – turned on the unit itself. Paul decided he was going to, in order to expel the humidity but I objected, and that’s when the fight began.

Jan had to pull us apart, literally. I wasn’t going to let Paul suddenly come in and start making decisions, when I had already checked the facts and had been instructed what to do. He was obstinately going to do what he thought best, and so we had a bit of a meltdown right then and there. I think, actually, that was probably the last physical fight we ever had.

In the end Jan prevailed upon Paul, that I likely actually knew what I was talking about, and so I ‘got my way’ and we didn’t turn on the A/C until later. I don’t remember if the A/C repairman came out and checked the unit first before we turned it on, or if we turned it on later that day and he came out later to check it, since it had been submerged for several days, but in the end it survived without any ill effects.

That’s more than I can say for the rest of the things in the house. We had about 3 to 3 1/2 feet of water, maybe 4 in some places. Like all the flooded homes, you just had to look at the debris line on the outside of the house to tell how high up the water came.
At some point, before my parents got home that Sunday, my across-the-street neighbors had already given me the photo they took of our house, probably on that Friday, submerged. And, my very kind hosts, the Williams, had a side business engraving plaques and trophies and such, so they made me a little plastic engraved plate which said “Welcome to Wild Willy’s Wet, Whacky Waterhole” – a reference to my previous year at UT/Austin as an RA in Prather Hall dorm name for William “Wild Willy” Prather.

I framed that photo and the plaque and had it hanging in the laundry room on the back of the door, when my parents arrived home. How I did all that before Sunday, I just do not remember. And, somewhere today in a box in my garage, I still have that framed picture.
I remember driving my parents home from the airport. I do not recall meeting the flight, but I think it was in the late afternoon. Probably had left Paul and Jan at the house cleaning (and cooling off after our little disagreement), and the first thing I remember as we drove back into down on 2351 was my parents’ reaction to seeing all the mud that coated everything, and me explaining how high up the water had been.

We had to go down 2351 toward the intersection at 518 and turn on a side street there, because Mary’s Crossing between Imperial I, which had a turn-in off 2351, and Imperial II where we lived, was still impassable.

I remember pulling into the driveway and as Mom & Dad got out of the car, greeted by piles of wet carpet and Paul & Jan, Mom started to cry.

The days and weeks following that flood, Dad found out that his insurance agent at the time had failed to tell him he could have gotten federal flood insurance for nearly any amount, since we did live in a flood plain. Dad had what at the time was the statutory limit, $17,400, of flood insurance. As a result, he had to go down to the SBA (Small Business Administration) who came to town to help with emergency loans, and get a $50,000 low-interest loan to help rebuild the house. He was really angry at the agent for his failure to tell Dad about the change in rules, and as a result, as soon as Dad could, he changed agents and got flood insurance.

We managed to score an apartment down in the Salem Square Apartments.  I think Christopher Kraft, had of NASA/JSC at the time, whose house in Imperial I also flooded, was instrumental in getting his NASA management team re-housed by making some calls to apartment owners, because we had been told there were no vacancies in those apartments and the next thing I knew, we were moving into one of the units for the long rebuilding process.

In the end, we tore out the sheet rock from the floor, 4 feet up. As you probably know, sheet rock is usually laid in two horizontal sections, floor-to-4-feet and then from there to the ceiling. The upper layer of wallboard wasn’t wet, so we didn’t have to take it out.
I spent the first few days scrambling to suck water out from beneath the ranch peg wood floor in our den. It was a sunken floor, and I had heard that if you didn’t get the water out, the floor would expand and push the walls of the house, causing further damage. We didn’t have a wet/dry vac so I borrowed one from a neighbor, along with a handheld circular saw (we didn’t have one of those either). Then I proceeded to try and cut one of the 5” wide floor boards in a 25 foot strip from one end of the room to the other. All the furniture, of course, had been removed so the room was empty, but the boards were made of solid oak and I recall having a terrible time making the cut. In fact, I seem to remember having to go buy several replacement blades for the saw to complete the cut.

As soon as I managed to finish cutting the floor and get the board out, sure enough I saw the dirty water which was still under the floor, so I started vacuuming it up, but it just kept coming. Finally I figured out where the low point of the concrete foundation was, and so I just stayed in that one spot, sucking up water until no more would come out.
I recall also borrowing some fans to blow on the floor to help dry it out. When I started, the board I cut out left a 5” slot. When I finished, the slot was only 3” wide, so apparently doing what I did prevented the floor from buckling.

We put in a patch and later carpeted over the wood. To this day, I detest houses with carpeting over wood, because a lot of the wood underneath is ‘vintage’ and is better than having dusty, musty carpet.

I remember the pots & pans in the kitchen. Mom stored them upright, and all of them were therefore full of dirty creek water. Jan (sister-in-law) was tasked to empty the dishes, and because the sewers still were not working, I think she had to cart them out the back door and just dump the water in the yard. Seems to me, she spent hours and hours doing that.

At some point, I remember looking in my brother’s and my shared bathroom. It was a big bathroom with an outer section where there were two full sinks and cabinets for each of us, a cedar closet, and the inner room was the toilet, bath & shower, and towel plus dirty clothes storage cabinets. The entire floor was terrazzo and it was covered in a thin coating of smelly, raw sewage. I believe I got the job of tackling that mess.

Along the way, I had heard or read that electrical outlets should be replaced, so after counting all of them, I went down to try and buy some to begin the process of removing & replacing each and every outlet in the house. Problem was, everyone who sold outlets was sold out, so as I recall I had to wait a few days, having placed an order at the local hardware store for the quantity I needed. Remember, Dad didn’t have adequate insurance so we became a family of do-it-yourselfers for a time.

Once I got the outlets, I went from room to room, killing the circuit breakers, and removing the outlets that were flooded, cleaning the copper wire with steel wool, and replacing them. I was intrigued to notice, and still recall, the green corrosion (think Statue of Liberty green) that was on the wiring and all the fittings made of brass or copper.
At some point, we began to discover certain things that were lost in the flood which were upsetting. The one I remember the most was Mom’s recipe box. It was a small metal box full of index cards and papers in a lower kitchen cabinet, and even though I had saved family photos, my stereo, and lots of other things, none of us thought about her recipe box. It was a devastating loss in one sense, because it had handwritten family recipes that had been in our family for some generations, written by my grandmothers or their mothers. Mom did manage to recover most of the recipes by asking family members to make copies, but I’ve never been completely convinced that a couple of family favorites came back to us the same as they had originally been in Mom’s version, in that little metal box which was a gooey mess by the time we got to it.

Another devastating loss didn’t come to light until we turned our attention to our garage. It was my brother who discovered that all my Mom’s father’s tools, meticulously stored in a special case since the 20s, when he had been a tool-and-die maker, were ruined. These were precision measuring instruments – micrometers for measuring every manner of thing that could be made into a tool or a die, and dozens of them, all very expensive and impossible to replace.

All ruined – totally rusted out. They were not made of stainless steel (I don’t think it existed back then), and they were given to Paul by our grandfather Hitchcock. It was a very sad moment indeed when we all – my Dad, me, my brother – realized there was going to be no way to salvage those tools, and so we had to relegate them to the junk pile. It was as if a connection to our family tree had been severed, and I remember distinctly feeling bad that we also had not remembered those tools in that case, so I could pull them into the attic and save them. It just never occurred to any of us, especially me. They were stored in the garage on the floor under Dad’s workbench.

And then there were the cars. Both my car, a ’67 Ford Falcon and Dad’s car, a Dodge Dart or something, I had left at the end of our driveway as I have noted previously. At some point, we rolled the cars down the driveway to the back of the house, and it was there that I opened my trunk and found all sorts of moldy treasures. By now, anything that was still wet, had begun to mold. There was a Radio Shack “Realistic” brand CB Radio in the trunk, a muddy mess and some mold on it too. I took it apart, washed it with the hose, and put it into the oven at 150 degrees for a time to dry it out. Except for the signal strength meter, which stuck in place, the unit continued to work for many years after that, to my amazement. Later when I went to work for Radio Shack, I sold a lot of our CB radios by telling about the high quality of the equipment, relating a brief version of the flood story and how I salvaged a unit that had been submerged for 2 days in a flood.

Mom got a new car, Dad took Mom’s car, and he got me a red ’79 Chevy Luv pickup truck, as a thanks for all that I did to salvage what I could while they were gone. I drove that truck for a few years until the repair costs exceeded a replacement. Truth be told, it was their first mini-truck, built overseas, and it was a piece of junk.

At some point not too many days after the flood, my Mom’s sister and brother-in-law, Aunt Verabelle and Uncle Wendall, came to town to help. They camped a lot – 6 months out of the year they lived in Phoenix, and 6 months they would drag their small camper around the country to get out of the Phoenix heat. So, they came and stayed in the trailer at the house and helped us clean up. I had a piano that was ruined the flood, and Uncle Wendall wanted some of the cherry wood its cabinet was made from, so I remember helping him bust it apart to get the wood, before we took the inner workings to the junk heap. He was going to use the wood to make a fireplace mantel in his home in Phoenix.
I don’t know if they still live in that same home, but my Aunt and Uncle, both in their 90s as of this writing, still do live out in Phoenix with my cousins, their daughters, and their families. We recently made a new connection through Skype and so from time to time we chat or email.

After a few months we completed the house repairs and gladly moved back into our beloved home, presumably to resume our lives….

In September of that year another flood came and this time, the water lapped at the back of our foundation but did not get into the house, to our great relief.

A young couple over in Imperial I had purchased what had been the Warren North family home, and they had moved in just before the July flood, with their newborn baby. Then, the house flooded again in September, and not long after that, maybe in October, I was at the time teaching two classes of physics in my alma mater, Friendswood High School, having not gotten into medical school like I had tried, when the call came in for a house fire.

It was that same house, and it was ‘blowing and going’, as we would say, by the time we got there. Turns out, an electrical outlet in the garage, into which they had a spare refrigerator plugged, overheated and shorted out, starting a fire that destroyed most of the home. Remember my earlier story about me going through our house and replacing every electrical outlet? Apparently this family didn’t do that, and the resulting fire prompted them to move away, never to return. Two floods and a fire within 3 or 4 months proved too much for the young family, and who could blame them?!

Today, most of the homes that flooded in Imperial I are gone. The Federal Government, a few years ago after yet another flood, decided they would no longer insure through the federal flood insurance program, so most of the area was bought up and turned into sort of a big park. The homes which remain have to be built up on stilts, and so it is rather odd to drive through that neighborhood, like I did a couple years ago after hurricane Ike came through, and see nothing where once there was a thriving neighborhood, bustling with families, neighbors, and many of my friends. Everyone has moved away now, and even on my side of the creek, a lot of the homes that were there that fateful summer in 1979 have been torn down, unable to be insured since they are too low in elevation to qualify.

Our own home is the last one left on that side of the street down towards Mary’s Crossing, between there and another home that is also high enough not to be denied insurance, but it’s probably only a matter of time before they’ll all have to go, with subsidence in that area from excessive ground water removal causing the land to slowly sink in elevation.
It was a wonderful place to grow up, Imperial Estates II in Friendswood Texas, on Shadowbend. We rode bikes, hiked along the creek, ran and played with the dogs not on leashes, met as families in the street every 4th of July to shoot off firecrackers, held bridge club for all the adults at many of the houses which flooded and are gone, and in all enjoyed a quieter, simpler time where a telephone was still a thing of mystery, and the family entertainment was “broadcast TV” that, by 1968, also came in color (we were one of the last families in the neighborhood to get a color TV).

Today when people ask me where I grew up, even though I was born in Dallas and lived in Arlington, Texas at the time, I always answer the question “Friendswood – a little suburb southeast of Houston, where we lived while my Dad worked for NASA”.

It’s surprising to me, even today, how many people know about Friendswood for one reason or another, and as I conclude that story and this, I always like to add my tag line, “Friendswood is a great place to be from.”

David Bilodeau, October 15, 2011

*My thanks to Leslie Phillips, who lived two doors down from me and who, under her married name, works – as I do – for Verizon, up in Boston.  We discovered this some time back and she has helped me recall a few details I did not.


About djbgumpy

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14 Responses to My memories of the floods in Friendswood, Texas caused by Tropical Storm Claudette in July, 1979

  1. Tammy (Ledbetter) Fowler says:

    Fascinating story, David. I had just graduated from FHS in 1979 and was about to start college when this took place. All of the details in your account brought back lots of memories for me; I certainly recognized a lot of the names of the folks affected. My family’s home was spared from flooding (just barely) in 1979, but my house did suffer a lot of damage with Hurricane Ike in 2008, so I could certainly relate to the “cleanup” efforts you described. Thanks so much for relating this account.

  2. I’d forgotten the date and even which storm but not the events! I do remember the Target Quickie saw roof rescue. I remember trying to evacuate subdivisions while driving 82 (Relay Pumper) and the PA. Lot’s of people waved us off as idiots time and again. Going back in boats to cut them out of their attics was, at that time seeming like poetic justice. Back in the 70’s when I was 10′ tall and bulletproof. Many days in the ’75-’76 when Letha, Robbie and I were daytime coverage 7 days a week on 88. Good memories and some I still awaken to that weren’t. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Thank you FVFD and the City of Friendswood!
    Thanks David – for reliving the moments so well and your service.

  3. robynreviere says:

    Great tale David. I flew into Hobby Airport from Harlingen and my first trip to South Padre with Tricia Keith and her family. We were one of the last flights in, the airport was closing as we left. We came very slowly down Telephone/ SH35 to FM518n in Pearland. The Keith’s lived in Dunbar Estates, I in Imperial Gardens. Tricia and her then boyfriend, Richard Bailey, (of S. Shadowbend) drove me home in his muscle car, I am sure Richard would remember it’s make. As we drove down Friendswood Drive the water was lapping at the curbs, we could only get to my house by going to 528 then Sunset, Tricia and Richard barely made it back across the Cowards Creek bridge on 518 and ended up sleeping that night at the fire station. My side of town was surrounded by water and there were no stores on Sunset or 528 then. We were stranded, high and dry, with electricity and sheltering our neighbors for 3 days until the water went down.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Mine was uneventful except in the ways of a teenager looking for adventure in the dog days of summer. Helping our neighbors on Falling Leaf with the damage to their homes, feeding folks from our freezer and sheltering friends. Wishing for the water to recede so we could be a part of humanity again.


  4. marshall says:

    I remimber this day very well, for 5 hours I had the only jack-up truck running in that high water. It was just me and my wife, we had a boat pulling up to us and unloading people into the bed of our truck and running them back to a church until it was full. After that we started running people to a school until the National Guard showed up. Marshall & lisa

  5. Larry Green says:

    Your recollections really stirred memories of that terrible few days. My wife’s sister and brother-in-law, The Morgans, lived on Cherry Tree Lane off 2351 during the storm. The husband was out of town on business; his wife and two children were home when the deluge began. Sometime after midnight, the wife awoke in her upstairs bedroom and decided to go downstairs for a drink of water. As she began descending the stairs, she felt water splashing on her feet on the third step down. Flood water had already risen almost to the second floor. Waking the two children, she gathered them into a flat-bottom aluminum fishing boat that had been standing against the back wall of their home. They paddled the boat into the dark of night hoping to find higher ground. With only a flashlight whose batteries soon discharged, they became lost in the darkness devoid of visible landmarks because they were submerged. At one point, the 10-year old son stepped out of the boat thinking he could tow it by walking faster than they had been able to row. He had already checked the water depth with the oar and decided the water was shallow enough to begin walking. As he stepped down into the murky waters with his bare feet, a broken bottle ripped a nasty cut across the underside of his foot. An uncomfortable circumstance just became a medical emergency accompanied by disturbing blood loss. His mother wrapped the wound to staunch the bleeding and they continued paddling through the featureless night. When morning broke, they realized they had managed to get to Polly Ranch where they knew a doctor lived near the private airstrip there. They finally located the doctor’s home and received first aid for the son. Using the physician’s phone, they called me at work in Houston. Since I’m a private pilot, they hoped I could get access to a plane and rescue them from Polly Ranch. I was able to borrow a friend’s Cessna 172 and flew into Polly Ranch’s air strip, the southern one-fourth of which was still under water. Everything worked out for us that day, and we were able to fly to Hooks Airport in Tomball, arriving about the same time as the husband who carried his son to the emergency room for treatment. So, we too will never forget the record rainfall that Tropical Storm Claudette dropped on the Alvin-Friendswood area that July of 1979.

    Larry Green

  6. Brian Rooney says:

    I’m not sure how I came across your blog earlier, but am glad that I did. I was ten years old during this time and my mother, myself and my two siblings (a third was in the oven) were driving back from California when we saw the news about Friendswood.and Tropical Storm Claudette. We had no clue what had happened and were immediately worried about my father, who had returned early from our trip, and my grandfather who was visiting from out of town.

    Your story gave me chills because I lived in Imperial Estates I. In fact, you describe the rescue of my father and grandfather in your story (though you mention only the old man) as you cut them out of the attic. I can picture my grandfather being ticked off about the damage to the roof. But, from the stories I heard, he was likely drunk. My father told me years later that things didn’t calm down until the liquor cabinet floated by.

    You see, we moved into the old North family home. We moved there in the summer of ’78. And yes, our house did burn down as you mentioned in your blog. It was December 10th (the Oilers played the Steelers on MNF that night).. The house was almost completely remodeled from the second flood in September. My sister and I were waiting for the bus and smelled something. We ran around to the garage and that’s where the outlet had shorted. (My father was beyond livid when he found that the outlets in the garage had not been replaced by the contractor) We ran into the house to tell my folks and my father immediately called the FVFD.

    As a family, we rebuilt the house again and stuck around for two more years before moving to Seattle. Despite that summer, I have fond memories of Friendswood and still keep in touch with friends back there.

    Thank you very much for all that you and the rest of the FVFD did for our family during that time

    Brian Rooney.

    • djbgumpy says:

      Hey Brian!

      Thanks for the comments. I actually had forgotten that the attic rescue was from that particular house! I just remember seeing the crew up on the attic with the big circular gas-powered “Quickie” saw, cutting away at the roof. I also hadn’t remembered that you all rebuilt after the fire. I think at one point we had heard that ‘the family living there had decided not to rebuild’ but maybe that’s a fuzzy memory or your parents changed their minds.

      That fire that day was the first time I had run as ‘captain’ of the big truck to a scene, in charge of the truck’s setup and assignment of the hoses to the various fire fighters. I was at school (was teaching physics – 2 classes. Dr. Kennedy had talked me into it) and had to leave class to get to the fire station when the radio went off. When I got there, no one else was there and the first truck was already gone. By rule, we could not go to a fire by ourselves so I waited, and in a couple minutes one of the Assistant Chiefs (Chief Parker, if I remember) arrived, hopped in the passenger seat, paused for a moment, and then said “looks like no one else is coming. Let’s go”.

      We took off down 518, turned right on 2351 and headed to that entrance to the neighborhood that came out at 2351 – Devil’s Dip was off-limits to fire trucks and ambulances…couldn’t handle the weight nor the size of the vehicles.

      The first truck in had run up to the house without hooking up to a hydrant, but as we turned onto the street we did not know that and so I stopped at the next closest hydrant to the house – about 1000 feet up the street and around the big curve in the street back there. Chief Parker got out, grabbed the draft line, wrapped it around the hydrant, and gave me a thumbs’ up.

      I took off in first gear, laying that 1000 feet of 4 1/2″ hose (5″? whatever) down the middle of the street, around the curve and up into the driveway…only to find out that the first small pumper hadn’t hooked to the hydrant right in front of the house. It was too time-consuming to unhook everything and move the hose to the closer hydrant, so we charged the draft hose and promptly blocked every car, in or out, on that whole side of the neighborhood. As I recall we asked the police to station themselves along the hose’s path to wave off people who otherwise might have tried to drive over it, causing it to burst and then causing us to lose our water. Chief Parker then jogged down the street and joined us in the fight.

      The pumper had a 1000 gallon tank and 2 pumps – a volume pump, which used the inch-and-a-half canvas-covered rubber fire hoses you see all the time, and a high pressure pump, which could put out very high pressure but low volume in metal-fabric rubber-encased 1″ (or so) hoses that were stored on reels, not folded up in the back of the truck like the other lines, to tear through walls and roofs to get at the fire. The water pressure could sever your extremities if it hit you.

      I engaged the volume pump first (you had to turn a big lever to put the gear into the transmission) and then yanked the high pressure pump’s lever up with all my might and revved up the engine and the guys took off with the high pressure nozzles in hand to attack the fire from the inside. Only problem was that I had not pulled up hard enough on the high-pressure mechanism to engage the pump’s gears with the truck’s transmission (it was hard to do even for stronger people and I wasn’t all that strong) so I had to run inside and pull the 2 guys manning the high pressure hoses out, warn the volume hose crews I was going to momentarily stop the water, and go re-engage the mechanism.

      Finally got it with another really hard tug – felt it engage this time (and that’s when I remembered how we had done it during our training) and then revved up the engine full throttle so they’d have ‘unlimited’ water to fight the fire. By this time the other small engine’s (“Engine 83”) 325 gallon tank was empty so everyone switched to “Engine 84” and battled the blaze until it was out.

      I remember picking up one of the high pressure lines, much later, to hit a small pocket of fire that was still burning inside the corner roof line. I thought it might re-catch inside so I shot it, just as Chief Wilcox came around the corner. He jumped all over me for doing that and said that you “never spray water on a fire from the outside when there are people inside the building, no matter what you think might happen.” Whew…he was really mad! It was a safety issue, actually. Could’ve caused the roof to collapse. Oooooops.

      There you have it. That’s what I remember of the fire – and looking at the refrigerator in the garage where apparently it had started and thinking “Wonder why they didn’t replace that outlet?” (I had to do ours in our house because, as the article says, we were under-insured so we did things like that to save money. I took steel wool to the ends of the copper wires, cleaned them all nice and shiny, and then installed new outlets – every single one in the whole house).

  7. charlaynedenney says:

    Hi David.

    I’m sitting here watching yet another rainy day in Friendswood, ran across a reference to Tropical Storm Claudette, 1979, and went looking to see what happened in Friendswood. In 1979, I was in Amarillo, only dreaming of coming here to live (at the time I wanted to work for NASA). My husband and I moved to our house on Blackhawk in 1998 and we managed to not get water in the house during Tropical Storm Allison, it came 1/2 way up our yard. Many houses on Blackhawk were flooded, as were many around Clear Creek.

    We looked at homes in Imperial Estates when we first moved to town in 1995. I was in love with all the trees, the creek, and everything. My husband was very hesitant about it, afraid it would flood. We didn’t know what had happened in 1979. The two houses I fell in love with are no longer there after the Allison flooding.

    My son is a FVD member, working from our neighborhood firehouse, he’s been doing it for several years now.

    Thank you for the story.

  8. Hi-Great telling of an enormous event. We lived in Pearland and experienced the same conditions that Alvin and Friendswood did. I am actually getting ready to write my remembrances of that event for one of my children who was 2 years old at the time. It is almost impossible to remember to try and save everything from the rising waters. I remember how surprised I was at how the water seemed to come in all at once from the foundation. Thank you for all of your story!

  9. Roxanne Vaughn says:

    Interesting account of the flood. We’ve heard bits and pieces since we moved here in July 2015. We now live in what was the home of Dr. Wilson. Love the neighborhood. Friendswood is a wonderful city to retire to.

    • djbgumpy says:

      As the article alludes, we lived at 308 North Shadowbend, right across from the Wilsons. Last time I was in Friendswood after hurricane Ike we saw the Andersons and Dr. Wilson. So he finally sold his house!

  10. Russell Rhodes says:

    There are several houses still left on your side of North Shadowbend, including mine 414. Thx for the write-up.

  11. Ron James says:

    What a great trip down memory lane. I was googling around to see how many times the old neighborhood flooded. I live in Idaho now, so flooding is not much of an issue. But back then, I lived in the Forest Bend neighborhood and we were lucky enough not to flood during Cluadette. The water came up to our front step, but that was it. We were some of the lucky ones. The neighbors to either side made it as well, but that was it. We lived in the cul-de-sac junction of Stardale and Peridot Ln and all of the houses on either side of our neighbors flooded. Martha and Gerald Copeland are my aunt and uncle and we spent many childhood weekends playing with our cousins there in Imperial Estates. Was sad to see their place flood. I was 14 at the time and just remember seeing the total devastation and destruction. We had a boat and my stepfather got it out and we went around our neighborhood helping who we could. It was hard to believe how deep the water got in so many places. Clear Creek was just to the south and west of us, so it was obviously worse the closer you got to the creek. We moved there in about 1973 and made it without flooding until I graduated and left for the Navy in 1983. Not sure how they fared in the intervening years, but from the footage I’ve seen of Blackhawk Ln as a result of Harvey, I doubt the old house didn’t flood this time. Thanks for taking the time to capture your memories of this event.

    • djbgumpy says:

      Ron, good to hear from you. Would be interested to hear how the Copeland family is, and to pass along our regards. Dad died in March of 2016 at the ripe old age of 92.

      Always liked Martha and Gerald. Good folks.

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