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Aug 03, 2016 | Carol Muegge

High Water Can’t Dampen Spirits


In the mid-afternoon of Thursday, May 26, the rain started falling on Washington County. It didn’t stop until Friday afternoon. Reports vary that between 24 and 32 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period and the resulting flood caused five people to lose their lives. Many of St. Peter’s families suffered rising water or damage from fallen trees, and several couldn’t get home past swollen creeks or washed-out bridges. 


Longtime parishioners Owen and Joan Zeiss, both 87, watched 10 feet of water rush into their home of 60 years before being rescued by boat with their dog, Cheddar. Memories of a lifetime were washed away or destroyed by the flash flood but their spirits remain undaunted. 


The property, which sits close to New Year’s Creek, has been in the Zeiss family for 125 years. When the water started quickly rising into their house, Owen called their daughter Jomaye and son-in-law, Eddie Schmidt, and told them they needed help. Eddie came in his large tractor to pick them up but by the time he got there the water was so high and rushing so fast, he almost got washed away trying to help. Owen and Joan were moving up the stairs to get to a higher level while Cheddar was floating on furniture. 


When EMS finally arrived, they put Cheddar in the boat, then Joan and then Owen. “We’ve lived here for 60 years without any trouble getting out the gate,” Owen said. “It was under 10 feet of water in minutes. Furniture was floating on the ceiling!”


As quickly as the water rose, it was gone. By the next day only a soggy, muddy mess remained. Furniture, photos and historical family documents were strewn throughout the house and across the farm. The force of the water even pushed papers into cracks in the walls, and the photos that Joan had just sorted were gone. After some road repair, the cleanup began. Joan found a brass cross shining up at her from the mud puddles to remind her that Christ was with them. 


They were further reminded when fellow parishioners showed up to help. “We never could have managed without you,” Owen wrote in the church newsletter. “We will always be grateful. You did what Christians do.”  


One volunteer recognized important historical documents among the debris of the old longtime Washington County natives. A receipt book made by Joan’s father included a notation for Budweiser beer bought one year after the brand came on the market. An 1880s atlas, published in Germany, contained beautiful maps, now soggy and mud covered. These items and other family documents, a quilt and paintings went immediately to the Brenham Heritage Museum to be cleaned and preserved. The director and curator were able to save everything that had been found. 


Owen and Joan continue to work and clean out their house after the historic flood. They never looked or acted their age. Perhaps their faith and lifelong involvement in their church has something to do with it. Joan started singing in the choir at age seven, later taught Sunday school, cooked for the annual turkey dinner and remains the head of the Altar Guild. Owen has served as Senior Warden, several times as Junior Warden, head of Ushers (25 years), cooked for men’s chili supper (25 years) and was on the building committee when St. Peter’s moved locations in 1965. They both still volunteer weekly by picking up mail, answering the phone and folding newsletters. 


They plan to rebuild on their land, but on higher ground. 


“Nobody should take life for granted,” Owen said. “We never know what’s in store for us.” Joan is amazed by a crepe myrtle that was knocked over by the force of the water. Lying on its side, it is still blooming. Life does start anew and, along with the grief, there is optimism in their voices.


Muegge is Ministry and Communication Coordinator at St. Peter’s, Brenham


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