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Remembering the storm that saturated Austin

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TWC News: Remembering the storm that saturated Austin
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Memorial Day Flood: Part One - Tuesday marks 30 years since the Memorial Day Flood swept through Austin.

The storm killed 13 people, caused millions of dollars in damage and shook the city to its core.

During the night hours of May 24, 1981, a storm saturated Austin and dumped thick sheets of rain totaling 10 inches in just four hours.

At the time, Jim and Heidi Turpin were young students at the University of Texas, set to be married in six days. They were living in a ground-level apartment across from Pease Park, feet from Shoal Creek.

"We got home and within 30 minutes it was an ocean out here. It was all under water," Jim said.

Shoal Creek normally flows at 90 gallons per minute, but that night it peaked at six million gallons per minute.

"There were no warning systems at that time. The only warning was our neighbor knocking on the door and quite literally seeing the water coming up around us," Heidi said.

After standing in three feet of water with the power on, the Turpins feared electrocution and decided to flee.

With dresses and rice bags in hand, the Turpins evacuated to a neighbor's second-floor apartment.

"We basically had to make the decision to grab what we could and run upstairs," Jim said.

They recounted what they saw once they got up to their neighbor’s apartment.

"We were looking out the window. There were cars underwater, cars floating down Lamar [and] pianos. There was a music store. Strait Music was there. Pianos [were] floating down the street," they said.

Former Travis County Deputy Tommy Blackwell was working that Memorial Day eve.

"It was just unexpected for all of us," he said. "I stopped on top of the 15th Street Bridge to kind of get a look at what the place looked like. It was just this raging river, very brown, very loud [and] very surreal. It just didn't look anything like Austin."

After fielding calls from the sheriff's office, Blackwell ventured out.

"It was really foolish to try to get out in the water like that and try to find the lieutenant," Blackwell said.

Eleven people died in their cars that night: six at low water crossings, five at bridges and two others at a home on Jefferson Street.

Blackwell's lieutenant nearly washed away filling up his patrol vehicle at a gas station on Lamar Boulevard.

After failed attempts of yelling the lieutenant's name into the darkness, Blackwell helped an off-duty parks and wildlife officer launch a boat.

"He came back within just about five minutes. He had made three rescues. He had found that homeless person who was yelling. He had found my lieutenant and he also found an employee of Whole Foods," Blackwell said.

The Turpins said the water began receding around 2:30 a.m.

"We were concerned about how high the water would go. If it was going to reach the second floor," the Turpins said.

It never did, but Heidi and Jim lost just about everything. They did however manage to get hitched the following Saturday, as planned.

"We were lucky. We just lost things. Other people obviously lost their lives, so we were very fortunate," Jim said.

The water from the Memorial Day Flood caused over $35 million in damage - $17.3 million in residential damage, $10.7 million in commercial damage and $7.5 million in public damage.

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