Devil Creek

Years ago--I don't remember how many; I was young myself, that's how long--an old guy pointed a line across my neighborhood with a chopping motion of his arm and told me it was where the creek bed must have been.

I have romanticized the memory--a bad habit, I know--but I picture him now as an ancient mariner in yellow slicker and hood with snow-white beard and whirling gray eyes and his words as, "Thar's whar the water wants to go."

His theory was based on a series of houses on three blocks that suffer perennial foundation problems, and he had some notions about the lay of the land that I couldn't quite follow.


Mill Creek Master Drainage Plan

One thing that attracted me to our neighborhood in the first place was that we were far from any water. I noted with satisfaction that we were two and three-quarter miles from the closest creek at White Rock Lake.

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A few years after my conversation with the ancient mariner, a city employee told me that beneath the intersection of Glendale Street and Bryan Parkway, 150 feet from our house, lies a huge holding tank, "big enough to put a couple houses in."

Twice I have seen sudden, violent flooding in the neighborhood--in '95 and again two weeks ago. A decade ago, the rain had barely started to pelt when we looked outside and saw a Dumpster sailing down the street like the Flying Dutchman.

The flooding two weeks ago was a little more gradual. I realized all of a sudden I needed to drive my car four blocks uphill quickly and park it above the flood. I walked back downhill, and by the time I got to the intersection above the holding tank, water was surging across in waves. I had to turn toward the current and crab-walk sideways to avoid getting knocked over and sent to Davy Jones' locker on my butt. It even occurred to me what an ignominious fate it was going to be: "Last seen in a sitting position scooting backward on Glendale toward the raging maw of a storm sewer."

But I reached dry ground. A few minutes later the water surged even higher, crashing around trees in a high white-water foam. A guy came driving up our street toward the intersection in a small sedan, plowing through the surf like a tugboat.

I started making the international chimpanzee jumping-jack signal for stop--waving my arms in an X and jumping up and down wildly. He slowed, smiled at me indulgently, then drove out into the intersection.

The rear end of his car lifted up and the front end nosed deeper. He began whipping the wheel furiously and gunning the engine. Then the front end lifted up too. The car pirouetted nicely. And he floated off into the spray like a kid on the log ride at the State Fair.

For an hour the neighbors and I tried to see what had become of him, but we couldn't get down there. We were castaways trapped on our lawns by the tempest.

Later when the water stopped, we saw his car on higher ground with one door open. No deaths were reported near us, so we assume he made it. But wherever he is, he needs a new car.

In '95 and again in this recent one, I watched the water crashing into the neighborhood from Live Oak, the big street just northwest of us. The waves came toward us on Glendale and crashed against a corner lot just across from our house on Bryan Parkway, right into the opening where the city guy had told me the huge holding tank was. But this time instead of flowing into the opening, the water shot straight up out of it.

The day after the flood, the debris line across the street--limbs, plastic, a pumpkin, unidentifiable objects--lay in a path directly where the geezer had chopped with his arm years ago, from the opening of the holding tank through the line of houses on our street to the next block over where the perennial foundation problems occur.

Last week I wrote about some of this for the Dallas Observer blog, Unfair Park. The item had barely been up an hour before I started getting e-mail about it, some of which came from informed sources, at least one of whom I can't even identify. One message was from community activist and political consultant Lorlee Bartos, who told me I needed to get a look at a study done for the city by a local engineering firm two years ago called the Mill Creek Master Drainage Plan.

But I don't live on a creek. Do I?

The study reported that the city of Dallas began burying the creeks through East Dallas in the 1930s, diverting them into storm sewers. The run-off from these creeks and branches started at a high point on the M Streets a few miles from my house, coursed across the Swiss Avenue area down through the neighborhood around Baylor hospital and finally out across what is now the southwest corner of downtown into the Trinity River.  

The old conduits and tanks intended to carry the system have been poorly maintained over the years. In certain areas, especially at Old City Park, around Baylor hospital and in Deep Ellum, flooding can be sudden and severe when the system is overwhelmed. We have written before about a portion of this problem ("Up the Crick," by Paul Kix, June 24, 2004): Kix told the story of the "river of poop" flowing under buildings in Deep Ellum, where the city's decrepit sanitary sewer system has ruptured into the conduits intended to carry Mill Creek.

But it never occurred to me that any of this could impinge on my property, which I believed to be high and dry, far from any water. A day of scrounging on the Internet, however, and the blessed intercession of Google, my new religion, brought me to a huge collection of old city maps, the Murphy and Bolanz block and addition books put up by the Dallas Public Library at These maps, hand-drawn between 1880 and 1920, are very early renderings of the city's streets and blocks.

It took some searching (well, I have to say that, don't I), but at last I found the creek beautifully hand-tinted in blue on some of the maps, wide as a street in places. The maps show Mill Creek and branches of Mill Creek--a small river, really--winding through streets all around me, at Worth Street and Prairie Avenue, barely three-quarters of a mile from my house at Ross and Fitzhugh avenues, then all through the area where Baylor is now and over by Old City Park and finally through the southwest end of downtown to the Trinity.

I went to one of the newer branches of my new religion, Google Earth, which not only gives me satellite views of the city (hallelujah) but also pinpoints the elevations wherever I put my cursor (thank you, Google). There is a kind of continental divide somewhere in the M Streets area (below Mockingbird Lane, between Central Expressway and Abrams Road) where the land falls one way toward White Rock Lake and the other way toward me.

At Monticello Avenue and Alderson Street, 1.4 miles from me, the elevation is 592 feet above sea level. At my house the elevation has fallen to 515 feet. Less than a mile away from me at Ross and Fitzhugh, the point closest to my house where I was able to find Mill Creek on the old maps, the elevation is 509 feet. At Baylor it's 464. At Old City Park, 420. Where Mill Creek reaches the Trinity River, it's 385 feet above sea level.

I have always thought of myself as living on flat land. But that's a drop of more than 200 feet--the height of a 20-story building--in five and a quarter miles as the crow flies.

No wonder that water gets in a hurry.

As nature designed the land, much of the eight inches of rain that fell on the area in a few hours two weeks ago would have soaked directly into the ground. The rest would have roared down swollen branches into Mill Creek and on down into the Trinity.

As we have rebuilt the land, that rain fell on huge new expanses of impermeable McMansion rooftop, shot straight down the streets, smashed into the 75-year-old brick-walled conduits and holding tanks we haven't cleaned out or kept up in decades and then went angrily looking for its own way to the river.

I stood on the corner of our street and watched the water thrash against curbs, leap around tree trunks, hurl automobiles out of its way--an enormous angry snake writhing, a demon up out of the earth howling, "Where is my creek?"

At the very worst of it, my sense was that if it rose one more foot, enough to jump the lawns, the water would damn well find its ancient path right along the line where the mariner had chopped with his arm.

Days later I talked about it with city council member Angela Hunt--the representative for my area and the only person on the city council with whom I have ever spoken who seems to understand flood control. She said the measures proposed in the engineering study to correct the drainage of Mill Creek would cost $130 million--10 percent of the entire bond issue now under consideration.  

"I don't see that happening," she said.

Neither do I. But something will happen. We are foolish ants who think we have made the river disappear beneath our mound.

Oh yes, and I almost forgot: those hundreds of millions of dollars we're going to pour into decorative suspension bridges as part of our "flood control" program downtown? Think of me doing the chimpanzee jumping-jacks thing right now.

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