SAN MARCOS, Texas – Nicholas Pinter, one of the country’s leading experts on flood plains, still can't believe the magnitude of the events of last month. In what was the wettest May the state of Texas has ever recorded, the worst floods in the state since 2011 left thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed and at least 23 people dead.
“This is where some of the worst flooding occurred,” said Pinter, standing along the Blanco River, just upstream from San Marcos. “Mother Nature is not forgiving when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Nestled between Austin and San Antonio, San Marcos is the fastest-growing midsize city in the country and home to Texas State University, which set a record for student enrollment last year. It's just one of many cities and towns in Texas that has increasingly allowed developers to build squarely in harm’s way.
“Here we are in the state [that's] maybe the most pro-development, anti-regulation sentiment of any in the country," said Pinter, who's also a geology professor at Southern Illinois University. "We’re in the community that prides itself in being one of the fastest growing in the whole country. And this is where all this damage is occurring this year. I think maybe that’s not a coincidence.”
Almost every year, the state of Texas leads the nation in flood-related deaths and property damage. Three years ago, developers proposed building an off-campus housing complex just steps from the San Marcos River to help accommodate the growing student population at Texas State.
Dianne Wassenich, program director for the San Marcos River Foundation, has lived in the community for 30 years. She said she didn’t think there was any “earthly way” the state would rezone a riverbank for a large apartment complex.
But it hasn't stopped development, says Pinter. And today, the National Flood Insurance Program is $24 billion in debt.
“Lots of people are asking themselves, ‘How did we get into this situation?’” Pinter said. “A lot of it is this deference to private property rights.”