AUSTIN (KXAN) — Rescue crews are searching for a missing Travis County sheriff’s deputy who was swept away when high waters overcame her patrol car about 2 a.m., according to Travis County Sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade. The deputy was checking low water crossings at 1:52 a.m. when she called in using her radio to say she was being swept away in the water in the 3400 block of Fritz Hughes Park Road.
Alexander Davsley says he stumbled upon what appears to be the deputy’s empty patrol car stranded on the rocks and in the water in Bear Creek — front windows on both passenger and driver’s side down — after it washed away. He said the waterfall seen in the video is by his back porch at a house he is remodeling. While checking on the home Thursday morning, he walked to the waterfall — where he saw the deputy’s car.
The damaged patrol car, with the passenger side window rolled down, was towed away from the scene just after 2:30 p.m.
“It’s extremely difficult,” said Wade, who said they are still holding out hope that they’ll find her. “We’ve got guys who just had breakfast with her, and it’s rough. We’re professionals, and we’ll get through it. And we’ll keep searching until we find something.”
A source close to the investigation tells KXAN that the deputy was on the dive team and was a very good swimmer. The hope is that she survived the swift waters and that she is holding on somewhere. The source says they did find her “trauma kit,” which indicates she tried to access it. However, it is unclear if she was able to get anything out of it.
Wade says the patrol deputy was close with everyone, and she just celebrated her seventh anniversary with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. Officials are trying to contact her family in the San Antonio area.
Wade said once the deputy radioed in saying she was being swept away, rescue units immediately responded. EMS crews, fire crews and sheriff’s deputies began their rescue efforts in the area. Shortly after, at 2:06 a.m., Wade said officials found the deputy’s car submerged.
“This is a relatively small area — small subdivision off low water crossing road. We’re hoping we’ll see a lot more once we hit daylight,” said Wade. “Low water crossings are a big danger, especially during torrential rains like we had this morning. That’s why we always tell people: Turn around, don’t drown.”
Wade said earlier in the morning that they have quite a few deputies along with fire and EMS crews working in the search. Austin-Travis County EMS said rescue efforts happening on the ground, in the water and in the air. The Austin Police Department helicopter also helped in the search for the missing deputy early Thursday morning.
“We’ve called in Texas Search and Rescue to help, as well as STARFlight, DPS helicopter and APD’s helicopter. DPS helicopter is equipped with what’s called a FLIR — an infrared body camera that can pick up heat,” said Wade. “And we hope that will help us for right now.”
Officials activated the Austin/Travis County Emergency Operation Center at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, but it has since been deactivated.
While the Lower Colorado River Authority gauge on Onion Creek reported water levels well above flood stage earlier Thursday morning, it now reads under 17 feet. That is the threshold for flood stage, and water levels have been receding since around 11 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., the gauge at U.S. Highway 183 read 21 feet, so it has gone down two about 1 foot an hour since then. The bank is full at 15 feet, and flood stage level sits at 17 feet. Still, Austin Homeland Security Emergency Management officials say this is not expected to threaten homes.
As Onion Creek started to rise to alarming levels, an emergency notification system was activated for 353 homes — asking neighbors to take precautions. Hundreds of neighbors received phone calls with instructions on what to do during this potentially dangerous time.
In both English and Spanish, the call went out to to neighbors in the call radius near Onion Creek: “The city is monitoring the water flow for Onion Creek. The water continues to rise, but has not reached flooding stage at this time. Residents are advised to take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety. Should the creek reach flood stage, a warning message will follow.”
Austin police said earlier Thursday morning that if Onion Creek reached flood stage, a warning message would be sent out. However, City Office of Emergency Management official Jake Dirr says another warning is not currently being distributed, which he explains: “LCRA flood gauge is a technical interpretation for flood by National Weather Service based on metrics. APD and Flood Early Warning System engineers are monitoring the conditions. If the water reaches the stage where it is actually flooding and threatening residences, another message will be sent out.”
Onion Creek levels during the Halloween Flood
City officials on Nov. 6, 2013, sent information from the U.S. Geological Survey about the October 2013 flood. Water levels at Onion Creek at U.S. Highway 183 reached its record height of 41 feet during the Oct. 31 storm, when the U.S. 183 water gauge rose 11 feet in 15 minutes between 6:15 a.m. and 6:30 a.m.
Records show that water levels had never before exceeded 40 feet at this location — and had only exceeded 35 feet during three other years: 2001, 1921 and 1869. The Onion Creek’s highest flow rate during Oct. 31 was 120,000 cubic feet per second, which is nearly double the average flow rate of Niagara Falls.
Other water rescues
Austin Fire Department reported they responded to over 150 calls, four of those water rescues and six “flood assists” overnight. Austin-Travis County EMS Commander Mike Benavides says he attributes the low volume of rescues to ongoing public safety messages “Turn Around. Don’t Drown.” — coupled with the time of morning when traffic volume is typically low.
- 2:52 a.m.: A woman who was sitting on top of a car surrounded by moving water in the 2800 block of Bee Caves Road at Montebello Road was pulled to safety. A police officer who slipped while pulling the woman from her car was taken to the hospital with minor injuries.
- 2:54 a.m.: 7335 Pusch Ridge Loop at Dos Cabezas Drive
- 2:54 a.m.: Crews were also in the 4900 block of Convict Hill Road at Simonetti where a person was stuck on a bridge inside a car. ATCEMS said the driver had gone into moving water and that the car stalled. The driver was able to stay with the car and is now safe and on dry land after being pulled to safety by EMS Special Operations Rescue crews, who entered the water to rescue the driver.
- 2:55 a.m.: At Roy’s Shell at Westlake in the 3000 block of Bee Cave Road, two cars got stranded passing through high water. One driver became a victim trying to help the other. Both cars and their occupants were rescued. Westlake fire crews got to them with their extended ladder.
- 3:45 a.m.: Multiple rescue crews responded to a scene near 10199 Old San Antonio Road, south of Slaughter Lane, where it was reported that a car with a man inside had rolled over. The water was as high as the windshield. The man was holding onto the car when a STARFlight crew was able to find him and lift him to safety without any injuries.
- 4:30 a.m.: Around this time, a man drove into the water on Convict Hill Road and tried to get through it, but his tires just spun in the water that came over his tires. A police officer came to his rescue, throwing him a rope that he eventually decided to grab onto and leave his truck. He is OK.
- Around 7:20 a.m., police found a car submerged in water in the 7100 block of FM 969
At one point in the morning, there were as many as 50 road closures throughout the area. One of those came at 3:16 a.m. in the northbound lanes of the 5400 block of North Capital of Texas Highway due to rock slides.
Lower Colorado River Authority sites in Central Travis County report as much as 5- to 7 inches of rainfall in some areas. The same torrential rains that brought flash flooding, lightning fires, multiple water rescues and widespread power outages also raised Lake Travis 6 inches since midnight, according to the LCRA. Most of the overnight rain fell downstream of the lake.
Flooding has Barton Springs Pool temporarily closed on Thursday. Deep Eddy Pool hours will be modified on Friday to accommodate swimmers who typically use Barton Springs Pool.