100 Years After Devastating Flood, Its Effects Are Still Visible In San Antonio

A new book tracks both the racist policies that affected recovery and how the city’s West Side showed its resilience.

By Jill Ament & Laura RiceSeptember 9, 2021 2:02 pm, , ,

100 years ago to the day, a tropical depression stalled just north of San Antonio, pouring rain into the city’s creeks and rivers. The city’s predominantly Latino West Side was destroyed by floodwaters. Eighty people were killed.

The recovery opened up a decades-long saga of housing discrimination, environmental racism and classism.

Char Miller began asking questions about the flood’s ongoing repercussions when he lived in San Antonio near the Olmos Dam. He’s now a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Los Angeles and author of the new book West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement.

Miller says almost immediately after the 1921 flood, a narrative beyond just the devastation that it caused on the predominately Latino West Side began to emerge.

“By about three days in, the English language newspapers have shifted the narrative to say, ‘yes, that’s bad. And in fact, horrible. But the real thing that we need to focus on is protecting the urban economy in the downtown core,’” Miller said.

He says the city prioritized that narrative and decided to use public money to build the Olmos Dam.

“And although they gestured towards resolving the West Side’s flooding issues, which had flooded periodically for decades, in effect, they paid very little attention to it,” Miller said.

LISTEN: The First Of A Two-Part Fronteras Interview With Char Miller

He says it took 50 years for things to begin to really change. When Henry B. González was elected to Congress, he began to pour money into San Antonio to create better infrastructure against floods. The other thing that happened was the community reaction to yet another flood in 1974.

“The organization known as COPS – Communities Organized for Public Services – emerged as one of the most powerful grassroots movements, I would argue, in the United States,” Miller said. “And within 10 years, they secured $500 million to build new flood infrastructure, restore roadways, get better schools, build better housing. I mean, it’s an astonishing about face. It took 50 years, to be sure, but it tells us a lot about community-based grassroots organizing led often, as it is in this case, by women.”

Though these efforts were fierce, Miller says the effects of the initial reaction by the city of San Antonio to the 1921 flood are still visible today. The suburbs of Olmos Park, Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills were all incorporated after the flood.

“So the flood, in effect, created this microcosm for those of wealth outside the city who took their taxpayer dollars with them,” Miller said.

He says another reflection is in the skyscrapers built downtown between 1921 and the early 1930s.

“You see ramified these big buildings that were reflections of outside and internal capital that decided that once they protected the downtown, now you could build these things and then walk less than a mile away to the west and you will see the economic disparities that today are as great as they were in the 1920s,” Miller said.

Still, Miller says, this is also a story of the West Side’s resilience – even beyond COPS.

“The city, with federal funding as well, has helped regreen the very creeks that destroyed so many people back in the 1920s,” Miller said. “And so there’s now 60 miles of pathways, linear parks that run along the creeks in San Antonio. And what that’s produced is a community that utilizes those creeks in ways that you were threatened by those creeks back in the day. And that, to me, is also a huge pivot.”

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