This year marks 100 years since the flood of 1921 devastated San Antonio neighborhoods, took dozens of lives, and set the course for flood control planning and much of the design that currently outlines the city.
"It is, to my mind at least, the single most important event that happened in the city," said Char Miller, author of West Side Rising, a new book on the event.
KENS 5 spoke with Miller, community members and local leaders about the lessons of the past, the improvements that came after, the work still left to do, and how citizens can get involved in pushing for more protection and more solid infrastructure.
(Read an interview about the research process for this book in Chapter Four, Below.)
THE STORM HITS: Remembering the Flood of 1921
Days of heavy rain began before the rivers and creeks rose, submerging neighborhoods on September 9 and 10. Miller's research shows around 2,000 people were swept into the water, with an unknown number- potentially more than 80- dying in the flood.
The storm hit much of Central Texas, and impacted most of San Antonio. But some say because of the structural inefficiencies in westside neighborhoods at that time- and the unequal response that followed the flood- the westside took a disproportionate hit that lasted for decades.
"What it revealed was systemic racism, political malfeasance, I would call it, a sort of disdain for the west side on the part of the Anglo north side that was emerging at that time, and in the power elite of the city as well," Miller said. "That's part of the story. Part of the story also is, with the construction of the dam, for the very first time, an often-flooded San Antonio decided that, since the 18th century, it was finally time to stop floods, at least in one part of town."
Following the flood, the city responded by constructing the Olmos Dam, primarily to protect the downtown business core. It worked to correct the river. But it took years- and grassroots waves of action by residents- before lasting change came for those living near westside creeks.
"Not Just Victims": Residents rise up for change
Graciela Sanchez is Director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center on the Westside. She says while growing up near Alazán Creek, families would often hear of a drowning death after a torrential downpour.
"It was animals, it was little babies, it was adults, it was elders, everybody was so vulnerable," Sanchez said.
She connects the loss she saw in the 1970s to the inadequate response of prior years.
"There was a push, of course, to take care of downtown because economically, it was where the city was going to make its profits, and all of the Chambers of Commerce and business leaders were the ones that were going to benefit from fixing up the problems of the river," Sanchez said. "They didn't care that at least 80 people perished from that flood, mostly from this neighborhood. They were more concerned in terms of the economics of downtown.
"So when does this ever change? People have been protesting forever. People have been dying forever. But there's just neglect. And it's based on class, and it's based on race. And it has to stop," Sanchez said.
(In 2018, San Antonio looked back on 20 years since the 1998 floods that many say disproportionately impacted the East side. Learn more about the changes residents mobilized for there- and the work still left to do- here.)
Henry Cisneros, former Mayor of San Antonio, says the results of years of neglect following the 1921 flood were fatal. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, he says he saw people dying each year as the neighborhood became cut off by high water.
"Hundreds of people died. About 80 or so died in that 1921 flood but almost every year after that people died," Mayor Cisneros said. "I grew up in a neighborhood called Prospect Hill. Hill, because it's a little bit higher. But down beneath us, 3, 4 blocks from my house, people died pretty much every spring when the Apache creek exceeded its bounds and people would drown and houses were washed away. So San Antonio waited a long time 'til it did the right and fair thing- and acted on all the problems."
Cisneros says the Model Cities initiative of President Lyndon B Johnson's Great Society agenda poured some money into flood improvements, but he believes the real turning point came in the 1970s when Communities Organized for Public Service, now known as COPS/Metro, organized for change. They worked to get Hispanic and neighborhood leaders elected to office, and rallied on behalf of issues impacting everyday residents.
"They organized around what the people legitimately said- we can't live with this. This is horrible," Cisneros said. "This is so blatant, the discrimination involved, that they organized around floods and flooding. And that's when the city got serious."
Sanchez, too, credits COPS as a voice for change.
"In 1974, there was a flood over in the Zarzamora creekway, and they were just organizing to meet up with the then-city manager, and this flood took place and they were able to mobilize and challenge the city for lack of, again, any support and infrastructure for this neighborhood, especially the struggle around the floods and infrastructure for fixing up the creekways," Sanchez said. "Even that city manager learned in 1974 that back 20 years before there was a master plan that talked about spending money on the creeks of the westside, but there was neglect and erasure and they just spent the money downtown. So that's gotta stop."
COPS was made up primarily of westside and southside residents, and teamed up with the East Side Alliance- composed of African American and Hispanic low and lower-middle income churches- and the Metropolitan Congregational Alliance, made up of South, Central, and Northwest area Anglo and Hispanic Protestant lower-middle and middle-income churches. Today, the coalition is known as COPS/Metro.
COPS demanded change on its own. It also worked to help elect neighborhood leaders. Miller's West Side Rising says that in the years that followed, the election of Hispanic leaders to local and federal offices brought more attention to the issues communities were facing. He writes of U.S. Representative Henry B. Gonzáles' work to obtain federal funding for drainage, housing and infrastructure and the work done by Mayor Henry Cisneros and Mayor Julian Castro.
Cisneros says each following bond issue allocated money toward the mission of fixing creeks, and during his time as mayor, he oversaw the building of a 60-foot diameter tunnel under the San Antonio River.
"We continue to make improvements," Cisneros said. "The River Walk, the 1968 fair, would not have been possible if we didn't have the steadying of water levels the straightening of the river made possible."
Cisneros says today, it's rare that people die from flooding from the Martinez, Apache, San Pedro, Zarzamora and Alazán creeks. They rise, but it typically doesn't result in the loss of life. Still, he says, there are lessons to learn- and to keep in mind when planning for the future.
"I think the flooding teaches us that a city doesn't succeed just because you locate it and will it to grow," Cisneros said. "We have to be attentive to how we interface with nature. And in the San Antonio case that has been flooding, but as we know there are other dimensions we have to be attentive to."
Sanchez says that while improvements were made, a lot more work is still needed to catch up with the years of inequitable investment impacting the westside.
"We deserve it too. We have helped build this city," Sanchez said. "We're the laborers. We are the people who make the least amount of money but we're the ones that work in the tourism industry, cleaning the toilets, making the beds of all the people who travel from far, we're the ones that pick up their luggage and make tourists feel at home.
We shouldn't be left as secondary citizens and yet in 2021, 100 years after the flood in 1921 we still live in very similar conditions and with many, many of the same problems."
"Centering People": Learning for the Future
Ben Acovio says he's lived on San Antonio's westside off and on for 66 years -- his wife's family, for 70.
"COPS Metro did a good job of getting all the neighborhood associations, getting everybody together, and getting drainage for the whole southside of the city," Acovio said. "They built some great drainage ditches along Apache Creek, Leon Creek, all these places, you have 50 foot drops for drainage, 40 foot drops, 20 foot drops. The inner city is taken care of from all these great drainage ditches COPS and everyone worked for but there are still some lacking spots for the city. And it's not just our neighborhood- I'm sure there are other places in the city that have the same problem."
Acovio walked KENS 5 around his neighborhood near Collins Garden Library on Park Avenue, showing spots he says still have trouble when the rain comes, including an inlet that had been filled in with trash and dirt.
"Right in front of us is an elementary school," Acovio pointed out. "The parents have to put kids on their shoulders to get across.
We have the street behind us, street in front of us, to the left and to the south. All that water feeds into this area. So our concern for our neighborhood is the drainage for the kids, so the kids can get to school."
Acovio has created a list of spots he says could use improvement, and connected with new District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo's office in hopes of seeking change. He recommends other residents across the city do the same, pinpointing problems early to prevent more dangerous issues down the road- and holding elected officials accountable.
"Rather than react, let's be proactive in everything we do," Acovio said. "We asked people to go out and vote, we got good council members in there, now let's let them work for the election we got them."
Councilwoman Castillo encourages that attitude- and identifies organizing, historically and in the present, as a crucial vehicle for justice.
"When we ground ourselves in history we learn that communities have always been organizing for public services," Councilwoman Castillo said. "When we were on the campaign trail, going door to door, we heard a lot about drainage or lack thereof. Flooding, every other block its flooding and folks were asking, what are we doing to address these drainage issues in neighborhoods? We see you're investing in beautification projects along linear greenways, but what about my neighborhood?"
(The city of San Antonio approved the allocation of millions of dollars toward new drainage capital projects and drainage infrastructure. To learn more, click here.)
"City leadership has an opportunity and a duty to prioritize drainage in San Antonio," Councilwoman Castillo said. "To ensure we minimize the potential death, loss of property, when it comes to flooding in San Antonio."
Councilwoman Castillo, Sanchez, Cisneros and Miller all identified lessons taught by the aftermath of the flood of 1921 that underscore the need for thoughtful future investment. They want to see equitable improvements, but say true environmental justice means that changes are also made with consequences in mind.
"So for example as we develop the beautification projects along linear creekways, people want to live near that project- you can run, you can be healthy," Councilwoman Castillo said. "But unfortunately it causes the destabilization of our neighborhoods and we experience land speculation and predatory real estate practices. [We've gone] to the door-to-door speaking with people about environmental racism and the way they've experienced industrial development or beautification projects and how these have neighborhood destabilization impacts.So when we talk about environmental justice, we need to be sure we're prioritizing and centering people and how it impacts neighborhoods, communtiies and people."
(Learn more about work underway through the Westside Creeks Restoration Project here.)
Councilwoman Castillo says along with citywide plans, the city and community must support residents who are now experiencing foundational issues in their homes as a result of decades of poor drainage- exacerbated by the fact that redlining led to less durable housing stock in economically poor areas, including on the westside.
Former Mayor Cisneros agrees it's not just about drainage. City planners, elected officials and communities must keep all environmental concerns top of mind- responding and adapting as they go to ensure equitable solutions.
"For example, this winter we had the snow and cold snap that put into danger our power and water distribution," Cisneros said. "There will be other things- heat. If we go through additional climate change and global warming, what do we need to do to protect people from heat? And then there will be other infrastructure related, like broadband.
I think the lesson is- be attentive. Anticipate, think through the worst case, and set out a plan to address it. Even if it takes a long time, and even if you have to phase in the capital- a city can't stand still. It constantly has to be thinking about how to defend itself and improve itself."
Sanchez and Councilwoman Castillo encourage residents to organize and demand change and justice on behalf of their neighborhoods. That includes contacting their city councilmembers and county commissioners, and staying tuned in to discussions about budgets and bonds.
To find your city council member, click here.
To find your county commissioner, click here.
Inside 'West Side Rising': An interview with Char Miller
This year, Trinity University Press published Char Miller's West Side Rising: How San Antonio's 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement. KENS 5 spoke with Miller about the inspiration for the book, what he learned about the flood's place in San Antonio history, and what it says about the Alamo City today.
There are a lot of lenses through which you could explore San Antonio's history. Why were you interested in the flood, and was it hard to find documents and accounts that told that story?
It was hard to find the documents although it turns out they were there- you just had to know what the key words were. But the real start of the book was, when I moved to San Antonio in 1981, I didn't understand the city. It wasn't put together like New York, like I knew- gridlocked and the like, and one of the orienting features, weirdly enough, was the dam. Once I saw the dam, I knew how to orient North, South, East and West. But other than that, I got lost a lot.
I started to wonder about the community we lived in, Olmos Park. Because when we bought our house, there was- what turned out to have been historical- documents about these covenants that excluded Mexican-Americans and African-Americans from the neighborhood and my wife and I went to the people and said hey, this is illegal. And they said- oh, it's a historical document. But I started thinking about, what's the relationship between this covenant and that dam, and that led me to think about the way in which the city was developed. And what the dam also showed me is that San Antonio lived in watersheds, which I hadn't thought about. So I started going down the watersheds, whether Olmos Creeks and the San Antonio river, or the westside creeks themselves, trying to orient myself and to understand what happened here.
You lay this out in the book, but how big of an impact did the flood itself and everything that came after have on the structure of San Antonio today?
A subtitle of the book could have been, the 1921 Flood and the making of modern San Antonio. It is, to my mind at least, the single most important event that happened in the city. Partly because of what it revealed- and what it revealed was systemic racism, political malfeasance I would call it, a sort of disdain for the westside on the part of the Anglo northside that was emerging at that time, and in the power elite of the city as well. That's part of the story.
Part of the story also is, with the construction of the dam, for the very first time, an often-flooded San Antonio decided that, since the 18th century, it was finally time to stop floods, at least in one part of town.
So one of the things the flood also reminded me was that when the Spanish town planners created San Antonio, they put it in a floodplain. And I get why they did it, they needed to be near water. But it turns out sometimes, you get more water than you banked on. So the 1819 flood really devastated the city. A century later there was another one and in the years between there were probably 15 major floods. So the city knew what it had to do but refused to do it until 1921. And then its response was only partiality. And that partiality was- let's defend the urban economy framed around the downtown, and the Anglo business interests that reside there. But for the west side, we'll gesture towards solving some of its problems but we're not going to fix it. And it's not until the 60s and 70s that that starts to change.
We hear about that in the later part of the book, and the title is West Side Rising. You tell this through a lens of empowerment on behalf of Westside residents.
The title of the book- West Side Rising- and the chapter Uprising- I think lays the argument squarely on the shoulders of grassroots organizations, individuals on the westside, who frankly were tired of being ignored by the Anglo power elite and the dominant culture of Anglo society in San Antonio. Intriguingly, it starts in two ways. When Henry B. Gonzales was elected in 1960 to be the U.S. Congressional representative for San Antonio- a person that the Anglo elite did not want- he managed to get in and one of the things about Henry B. was that he came from the west side, and he knew about this flood and so he starts to use his seniority in Congress to start moving money into San Antonio to start work on Alazan Apache Creeks that had been promised in 1921 and had not been delivered.
The second wave also depends on a flood story, the 1974 flood, small by San Antonio standards but not small by the neighboring communities, that wrapped around Zarzamora Creek, which got flooded out in 1974. This time, the organization that we now know as COPS- Communities Organized for Public Services- had been canvassing and developing its cadre of supporters for the previous two years. And they used that flood to challenge the city council to actually live up to its agreements and its encumbered budget, which had never used on the westside.
So you had this kind of top-down approach, that Henry B. took, and this bottom-up approach of COPS, that ultimately produced not just infrastructure and better streets- important as those were- but also support for better housing, working with schools, trying to elevate the environmental situation, the conditions under which people on the westside lived. And in the end, it's COPS and its allies, that manage to change how elections were run in San Antonio- and what happened? Almost immediately, Henry Cisneros became a council member for the westside, and that changed the political history of the city as well.
The flood is a telling example, but time and time again when we have weather-related incidents, they tend to impact disinvested areas moreso. Discuss the environmental justice issues surrounding this flood and what comes next.
I think one way to think about environmental justice issues is that marginalized communities are simply victimized time and time again, but what we see in San Antonio, like in Los Angeles and Phoenix and to a degree in Houston, is that the folks who are being victimized are not just victims. And I would argue that COPS clearly demonstrates that in San Antonio. And then carried that message to a lot of other Southwest cities. So COPS became, like Atlanta and the civil rights movement, kind of a hub around which these arguments emerged and flashed outward across the nation. So that's one thing.
The other thing is, in collaboration with other groups, you can save the Edwards Aquifer and it's COPS driving that along with northside environmental activists, a very important intersectional coordination- and in addition, what I talk about at the very end of the book, is the way in which the westside creeks are physically transformed. Greened up with native landscaping, turned into linear parks, a concept that had emerged in the 1980s and 90s that has grown enormously, so now we have about roughly 60 miles of these linear parks running along the rivers of San Antonio. And that does two things.
This is not the River Walk, which we have conceded to the tourists. This is for communities, that live next to Zarzamora or Apache and Alazan creeks, Martinez and the San Pedro Creeks. These are for local folks. These are for people who want to get out and walk. These are folks who do not go to the River Walk cause most of us never do, but that adds not only a thing that helps people become more healthy- it helps the earth. It makes San Antonio more climate resilient, and I think you can draw a direct line between that and the flood control infrastructure that was put in, and that's a direct line back to the 1921 flood.
That flood triggered off all sorts of responses- and yeah, it took time. And that's important. It takes time, and it takes dogged determination on the part of COPS and a host of other organizations on the west side but they have achieved enormous good.
What else do you want people to take away?
One of the things I was convinced I needed to do, and that I hope I was able to do, well enough, is I really wanted to give voice to the men and women who endured that flood, wherever they lived in the city, and I was able to find commentary and post-flood discussions. I very much wanted to pay homage to the men and women and children that died in that flood.
And I was able to- with my students we went through both English and Spanish newspapers, which reported different names and different spellings and different locations. So the book contains an appendix, as best we know, of most of thsoe who died. But there's this caveat. The police acknowledged there was probably many, many more people who died than the city mortuaries ever recorded. So I tried to capture that element, that there's still uncertainty about who perished in the flood.
But it's important to say their names, for us to remember that certain people, almost entirely of Spanish surname, were swept away in the middle of that night, in September 9, 10, and remembering them is a way to also remember- when we walk along Zarzamora Creek or we walk along Alazan, San Pedro creek and others- is that we've done a tremendous amount to protect ourselves- but we owe an incredible debt of thanks to those who perished on the west side- not just in the 1921 flood, but also subsequent ones.
(Learn more about the book here.)