Fort Worth

Flash flood deaths: What went wrong and what could have prevented them

Mike Whisenand is still trying to make sense of it all.

How could three people drown in a part of east Fort Worth with little or no history of flooding?

“I have never seen anything like it,” said Whisenand, owner of Whiz-Q Stone, a landscaping supply company near the southeast corner of Loop 820 and Wilbarger Street.

His employees were still coping with the shock of a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter having their vehicle swept into a 15-foot-deep culvert, and essentially drowning right before their eyes.

“We have never had this much water here before,” he said.

Officials from the city are now evaluating whether they did all that they could to warn the public about rising waters on public streets.

On Saturday morning, the 2-acre Whiz-Q Stone property — normally a place where landscapers pick out their rocks, pebbles and other supplies — became a grim staging ground for recovering the bodies of those overwhelmed by the storm.

It began about 8:30 a.m. with strong, persistent rainfall. On the northbound Loop 820 service road, just outside Whiz-Q Stone, the waters not only filled up the 15-foot-deep culvert but also rose more than three feet above street level.

Several of Whisenand’s employees saw a young motorist inadvertently drive into the water and stall on the Loop 820 service road. As other vehicles passed by, waves of water lapped against her car and pushed it into the culvert, which is about 15 feet deep.

Whisenand’s workers frantically tried to get to the woman’s car, break a window and rescue her and her toddler daughter. But the car submerged and disappeared.

Killed were Jessica Romero, 18, and her 2-year-old daughter, Llaylanni. Their bodies were recovered about an hour after the incident, when waters receded enough for emergency workers to find the car.

“I have several employees who will be dealing with what they saw, and what they tried to do to help, for a long time,” Whisenand said.

Just a half-mile to the northeast, in a separate incident, 69-year-old Eddy Volpp of Arlington died when he drove into high water on South Cravens Road.

The National Weather Service said radar estimates show 5-6 inches fell in 2-3 hours in the area where the drownings occurred.

“It just parked itself over that southeastern quadrant of Fort Worth,” National Weather Service meteorologist Juan Hernandez said.

Rainfall occurred in the same area on Friday, essentially priming the soil for flooding.

“Whenever you get those rainfall rates, there is a very high probability of flooding,” Hernandez said.

The flooded area is near where U.S. 287 and Interstate 20 merge, wedged between Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood and west Arlington. Both the culvert where Romero and her toddler died and the creek where Volpp died feed into Lake Arlington, which is less than a half-mile to the east.

Monday, officials from several agencies were discussing what if anything could have been done differently to possibly prevent the loss of three lives.

Councilwoman Gyna Bivens, whose district includes the area where the deaths occurred, said she heard from residents who took refuge at a Family Dollar store two miles away that water had been “up to the door handles of their vehicles” when they exited Loop 820.

At some point Saturday, Fort Worth’s emergency operations center was activated. That facility is a place where officials can centralize their response to emergencies and coordinate the use of tornado sirens, highway message boards and other communication devices to get the word out to the public.

“You can never give people too many safety messages,” Bivens said.

Hernandez said that besides providing updates on social media and through its chat sessions to emergency management officials and the media, emergency alerts would have gone to wireless phones if those notifications were turned on.

Once the storm cell finally moved off to the east, it continued to dump rain, dropping about 4 inches on the east side of Lake Arlington.

The Texas Department of Transportation plans to upgrade the I-20/U.S. 287 interchange as well as Loop 820 and surrounding roads as part of a $1.25 billion project known as the Southeast Connector.

“This area has not been considered flood prone, but it did have high water on Saturday due to the extremely heavy rain it received,” agency spokesman Val Lopez said, noting the region was under a flash flood watch at the time. “TxDOT posted high water advisories on the area’s dynamic message signs warning motorists not to drive through high water.

“This section of I-820 is part of the Southeast Connector project area, and it will be updated to modern design standards when completed. The specific improvements to drainage are currently under study.

“While TxDOT does everything possible to keep roadways safe, flash flooding is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in Texas, and when motorists encounter high water they should turn around and use alternate routes.”

Outside Whiz-Q Stone on Monday morning, the culvert where Romero and her daughter drowned was mostly dry, although muddy tire marks could be seen where the tow truck pulled the vehicle out of the water about an hour after the tragedy occurred.

On the Loop 820 embankment, a thin line of papers, plastic bottles and other debris ran horizontally about three to five feet above the road’s surface level, providing evidence of how high the water had risen.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson

Bill Hanna: ;817-390-7698; @fwhanna