A little more rain
We see flash flood warnings all the time, whenever it rains hard. And the
news people feel compelled to show scenes of stupid people climbing out
their car windows into water up to the door handles. And cars being swept
away, down the river that used to be just down the street. And they tell us
how many people died last year from drowning in flash floods. On the news
tonight were stories and videos of rescues from the raging rivers. On the
one hand, sort of in defense of some people, one of the rivers rose --
ready? -- eleven feet in two hours. That is one inch per *minute*. Those
stories were followed by the videos of trucks and SUXs driving through water
up to the middle of the doors. And the police arresting them either on the
other side of the river or after they'd been rescued downstream. Turns out
that the police must actually observe the driver going around the barricades
in order to charge him or her with the Texas version of reckless
endangerment which is "deadly driving." And there were at least two of
those charges today. How can you possibly do that while the cops are
watching? Let's see, there's a raging torrent where the road used to be,
and there's a police barricade here designed to keep me from driving into
that raging torrent where the road used to be, and there's a cop car just
sitting here with his blinkers on to warn people not to drive around the
barricades and into the raging torrent where the road used to be. I think
I'll drive around the barricade and see if I can get across the raging
torrent, or maybe turn my new car into a boat and have an adventure. Must
be many, many stupid people.
Well, as of this morning, I have a new respect for flash flood warnings that
I didn't have yesterday. Two incidents. I knew that I had gotten stupider
down here, but I was not aware just how much. When I looked out the window
this morning, I noticed that Lake Spicewood, that's our name for the
playground of the elementary school behind our yard, was as large as I have
ever seen it. We are at about the highest point in the county, a thousand
feet above sea level, but hard rain fills the local low spots with puddles
like anywhere else, made slightly worse here by the ground, which is solid
limestone almost up to the surface but covered in places with inches or feet
of impervious icky clay. So when it rains, we have the Alpine Lakes of
Central Texas in the schoolyard next door.
One. Driving along a perfectly normal suburban road, past the Exxon and the
Wendy's, there is a little curve to the left. And there is a little puddle.
And suddenly, the car is half a lane over to the right. Instantly, no
warning. Had there been someone there, I would absolutely have pushed him
out of the lane. Oops. Hydroplaning at a mere forty miles an hour? Hmmm.
Should have imbued greater caution as I continued on.
The road construction in the area has changed the landscape so much that
there are now lakes and rivers where there used to be just fields. I drive
past one temporary lake in a construction area, about a two hundred feet
wide and two thousand feet long, and all right up at road level. At the
end of the lake, there is a smallish river running across the road to the
arroyo on the other side. Boy, that'll be fun to work in tomorrow. I think
they should probably put in a flume there as part of the reconstruction.
Digression: Impervious cover in Houston and Austin.
A big box store moves into your neighborhood. Jobs, more shopping, signs of
prosperity, right? Sometimes that depends on criteria that few consider in
advance. What's the contour of the land between that store and you? Is it
uphill from your street?
A single large store moves in, paves over five to ten acres for building and
parking lot. A small mall, twenty to thirty acres. A large mall, more than
that. A few million square feet of concrete where there used to be grass.
Impervious cover. Rain doesn't penetrate it and sink into the ground. It
flows off, downhill, somewhere else. Away. Not our problem. It flows off
our property. Somebody else's problem.
Well, if you're the place downhill from that concrete pad, your experience
of rain changes. Your house is above the hundred-year flood plain? Well,
it used to be. The house didn't move; the drainage pattern did. My
brother's house was at the top of the hundred-year flood plain, by only
inches, but above. Twenty years later, it seemed to be in the five-year
flood plain. Works like this:
". . . the total runoff volume for a one-acre parking lot is about 16 times
that produced by an undeveloped meadow. . . . The peak discharge, velocity
and time of concentration of stormwater runoff also exhibit a striking
increase after a meadow is replaced by a parking lot." (Center for
Zoning boards and planning commissions should pay a little more attention to
this problem and its impact on downstream neighborhoods. In the case of my
brother's neighborhood, the city of Houston has bought the entire area,
every single house, so that they can widen the bayou to prevent even more
flooding further downstream. Huge new big box stores and malls a mile to
two north. But no more houses full of shoppers.
End of digression.
Two. I thought that the underpass coming up in a mile or so would be bad,
but surprisingly it isn't. Dry, no puddles at all. A wonder of drainage
engineering. Then I come up out of the underpass and start up the little
hill beyond it. The pickup in front of me is driving through this puddle --
what's a puddle doing on the side of a hill? -- putting up big rooster
tails. But the water isn't even over the rubber of his tires. I mean, how
deep can it be on the side of a hill? On a nice, flat road? No problema.
So I go through, too. For the next hundred yards, I'm driving through a
river flowing sideways across the road. Obliquely, not perpendicular.
What's a river doing on the side of a hill? This is a new river flowing
toward me down the shoulder on the left side, then it crosses the road here
to flow into the construction ditches on the right side. It's only, oh,
four or five inches deep. But it's flowing like crazy, completely across
the four lane road in one to two seconds, which according to my arithmetic
in a later moment of clarity is like twenty miles an hour. Several times
faster than I'm going. I have to slow to a crawl to make headway and steer
at the same time. If you hydroplane on this stuff, you end up off the road
completely, faster than you can react.
In the rear view mirror, I see another pickup behind me enter the river.
Too fast. The pickup is covered with a wave, sploosh, inundated, it
disappears completely, then the water flows off and he slows down. Not
enough, he still goes too fast, putting up a much larger wake than I was,
but he makes it.
Digression: I hope he had his window closed. Back when I smoked, I always
drove with the window cracked for ventilation, to draw out the smoke, and as
a place to flick ashes. At least when I wasn't driving in desert areas like
California. Out there in the land of brush fires, you don't dare flick an
ash much less a cigarette butt out a window. One learns to use ashtrays, a
skill that is not part of the Northeasterner's training regimen. I even had
to reject a rental car once in L.A. because it didn't have an ashtray. But
that was back in the dark days before I had my brain washed at Mass General
and denied the Demon Nicotine.
In the early days of driving and smoking, there was the little front vent
window, the triangular forward tip of the front window that pivoted on a
vertical axis, right at the smoking driver's left hand, which was incredibly
convenient for smokers. Just pop the window open half an inch, the draft
sucked the ashes right off the end of the cigarette, didn't make much noise,
didn't create a large draft. What draft there was was outbound, so that
even in the middle of winter you didn't have an icy breeze cryogenically
preserving your left ear. Just turn up the heat a little to compensate for
the loss. Similarly for air conditioning in the summer.
Aside: sunroofs are good for this sucking and flicking, too, but they're
awfully noisy by comparison, and they really suck the heat out of the car in
winter and kill your air conditioning in the summer.
But then in an effort to streamline and lighten (and cheapen) cars, the
manufacturers killed the little vent windows. Cars were made to run with
the windows shut all the time. Use the ventilation system if you want fresh
air. They all come with A/C these days, so no problem even in summer. If
you wanted to draw the smoke out so that it didn't stink up the interior,
however, you still had to crack the window. Then you really did have the
cryogenic, or fry-ogenic depending on the season, process working on the
ear. See all the fun that you non-smokers missed out on? So you drive
around with the driver's window cracked a few inches so you can flick the
ashes out and have the wind suck them away. Or, if you really don't like
the guy on the motorcycle behind you, flick the whole cigarette.
In the rain, this became a problem. If the rain was coming from the wrong
direction, you couldn't really keep the window open all the time. So you
crank it down an inch, flick, crank it up an inch. Pain in the butt. And
all to keep other people from complaining that your car stinks. At the time
we didn't know about secondhand smoke. ("Smoking is so dangerous that it
kills people who don't even do it.")
So, one day (Get to the point already, geez!) I'm driving along with the
window open, oh, maybe four or five inches. The rain has stopped or at
least slowed to a drizzle. But then there's this puddle. I go through it,
no problem. It's the truck going the other way that's the problem. He
throws up a huge wake on both sides. Uh oh. I see it coming just a second
before the truck-nami hits. No time to roll up the window, only enough
reaction time to get a hand up. And that was really ineffective at warding
off the gallons of muddy water that shot the gap into my face, hand, arm,
neck, shirt, jacket, the entire front interior of the car. What a delight.
I hope he had his window closed. End of digression.
On the other side, I pass two SUXs stopped on the side of the road. They're
looking at the flood, watching me and the pickup ford the stream. But
there's no traffic coming the other way. A mile up the road, I see the
police diverting all traffic on that side to another road that goes around
the trouble. They haven't done my side yet, don't know why. Maybe it's
worse driving downstream, as they would be doing from that direction. Yes,
that's it. Driving against the current, you can still steer; but with the
current, you can't. I remember this from days on a friend's sailboat:
beware tides that flow faster than you can make headway.
This incident was an eye-opener. In the future, I think I will make U-turns
instead of trying to drive through this sort of innocent-looking stream.
Better a dry chicken. But today there were many, many stupid people plus