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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Crawford’s Cambree Aguirre (center) celebrates with teammates Avery Ward (right) and Kyla Mach after the Lady Pirates' defeat of Honey Grove. They will play in the state softball tournament next week.

Water safety experts say anyone can get in over their heads
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

As the weather warms up and Texans turn to the water for relief, those who work in drowning prevention hope previous years’ painful lessons will sink in.

Lifeguards, park rangers and parents alike are preparing themselves to spring into action to rescue someone from drowning if needed.

Unintentional drowning was a top-10 leading cause of death in every age group up to 54 years old in 2017 and the most common cause among 1- through 4-year-olds, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Texas has had consistently high drowning rates over the years, and Central Texas seems especially vulnerable, said Christine Reeves, executive director of the Heart of Texas Regional Advisory Council, which tracks drowning deaths.

Three children drowned in McLennan County in 2016, six drowned in 2017, and five drowned in the county last year, according to the council’s data.

YMCA Aquatic Director Evan Bates, who said he has been swimming his entire life, still remembers an incident from his junior year of high school. During a swim meet when he was 16, a competitor dove from the starting block and landed on top of another swimmer. Bates, from the next lane over, quickly called for a backboard.

“We didn’t jump in,” Bates said. “We got into the water gently and back-boarded both kids.”

When there is a risk of spinal injuries, lifeguards approach as gently as they can, trying not to make waves that could move the injured person and cause more harm. One swimmer made it out with bruises and the other had a mild concussion, but the incident stuck with him, Bates said. They were both strong swimmers, just warming up before a competition.

“Even with a competitive swimmer, if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing, you can get hurt very quickly,” Bates said.

Summer is a busy time for the YMCA. 45 students have come through the Y’s lifeguard training this year, and the organization will hold more than 1,000 group swimming lessons before summer is over. The YMCA’s urban swim initiative accounts for another 300 to 400 young students.

Bates said he grew up in West Texas, and most high schools had a swim team. He said when he moved to Waco, he noticed a difference immediately.

“We got here, and there was one high school team and one club team,” he said. “Moving here, I was like ‘where is all of the swimming?’”

He said many members of some families do not know how to swim, and the lack of experience carries over to children.

“It is kind of a recurring generation thing,” Bates said. “The parents are terrified, the grandparents, sometimes even the great-grandparents.”

Even basic swimming lessons or pool safety courses that teach participants how to float and tread water can make all the difference when it comes to preventing tragedy, he said.

Lifeguards are trained to recognize the signs of a swimmer in distress, but the tells might not be obvious to the untrained eye. Swimmers at the point of exhaustion often panic and move to a vertical position in the water and continue to tire themselves out by pushing with their arms, rather than moving to a relaxed near-horizontal floating position on their back that can keep their head above water with minimal effort.

A panicked swimmer struggling to stay up generally will not be able to call out for help.

“You have as little as 20 seconds from the time that you see that to be able to get to them before they potentially go under,” Bates said. “It’s a very silent emergency. It’s not what you see in the movies.”

Even in a relatively safe water park environment monitored by lifeguards, parents and chaperones need to stay vigilant, said Justin Litton, director of the Hawaiian Falls Waco water park.

“We’re here to assist,” Litton said. “Just because we have lifeguards, don’t neglect the fact your kids are in the water.”

Hawaiian Falls lifeguards are trained to focus on unattended children for that exact reason, he said. Most close calls at the park happen between 1 and 4 p.m., when guests have been running around for several hours and might be more fatigued or dehydrated than they realize.

“Kids are going to be kids,” Litton said. “We’ve all been there. People get tired, they don’t realize it and they wind up in a bad situation.”

While lifeguards are also trained to deal with the frenetic, loud crowds, it is the quiet signs of a drowning person that they look for. Litton said people who are drowning sometimes look like they are climbing an invisible ladder as they do everything they can to stay above water. Eventually, the “climbing” subsides as they become more exhausted.

“We end up assisting a lot of guests,” Litton said.

The park participates in an annual World’s Largest Swimming Lesson event on June 20, when kids can learn basic swimming skills for free. Communicating with kids, teaching them to pay attention to the depth of the water and making weaker swimmers wear life jackets can make a major difference for their safety.

While pools often have clearly labeled depths, clear water and lifeguards, open water is a different story. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger Mike Champagne said he has seen his fair share of drownings, and when it comes to water safety, open water like Lake Waco can pose dangers guests might not think about. Out on the lake, everyone needs to wear a life jacket, even strong swimmers, Champagne said.

“It’s not like a pool or a beach,” he said. “It requires so much time and effort to keep your body afloat.”

Lake Waco remains more than 10 feet higher than normal because of recent rains, meaning hidden hazards present more of a risk than usual. Murky water can hide everything from trees and limbs to picnic tables, all of which could cause a boat to crash or snag an unaware swimmer by the ankle, he said.

“There’s a lot of things that weren’t underwater that are now,” Champagne said. “If someone is going really fast and hits something like that, they could damage the boat or be ejected from it.”

Lake Waco has no lifeguards, and many drowning incidents at the lake involve alcohol, he said. However, this Memorial Day weekend should be fairly uneventful because all the lake’s designated swimming areas and boat ramps are closed. That does not always stop people from swimming in undesignated areas that have not been checked for safety.

“An area designated as ‘safe’ has been inspected,” Champagne said. “That way you know it’s not going to just drop off 20 feet suddenly. That doesn’t mean people aren’t allowed to swim. People swim where they want to swim.”

He said in his experience, most drownings are the result of boating accidents or happen in undesignated swimming areas. Reckless teenage behavior accounts for a fair number as well, he said.

“There’s a lot of kids who say they’ve never swam before, you’ve got those that are strong swimmers, but the hardest part for most people is to admit they’re not a strong swimmer,” Champagne said.

City, TxDOT edge toward agreement on I-35 flood dilemma
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

As work steps up on a $340 million project to rebuild Interstate 35 through Waco, city of Waco and state transportation officials say they may be getting closer to solving the potential flood issues that came to light last year at 11th Street and Waco Creek.

The Texas Department of Transportation has redesigned the drainage system to incorporate additional culverts to carry more floodwater under I-35, based on a new model suggesting that the area might be more susceptible than previously calculated to a so-called 50-year flood on Waco Creek.

Crews are preparing to tear down the 11th Street overpass near where they will later install the culverts at a cost of nearly $1 million. Meanwhile, TxDOT and city engineers have come to a consensus on the flood risk models and are working to find solutions, possibly including more culverts between 11th Street and Fifth Street.

Both sides say they are trying to avoid the extreme solution of digging a new diversion tunnel parallel to the existing one that carries most of Waco Creek to the Brazos River along Webster and Clay avenues. City officials say they haven’t completely ruled out the construction of such a project, though it could cost some $20 million and disrupt the burgeoning tourism scene in downtown Waco.

“That is not our preferred solution, but I wouldn’t say anything has come off the table,” Mayor Kyle Deaver said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

Runoff from a 10-inch rain in May 1989 flooded part of Interstate 35 near the 11th Street overpass, seen here.

City officials said they’re still concerned that an extreme flood such as the one that ravaged the Waco Creek area in 1989, could overwhelm the new culverts and flood neighborhoods and businesses flanking I-35.

The issue arose last year when Walker Partners, an engineering firm the city hired to do stormwater planning, modeled flood risks along Waco Creek. The models showed that the I-35/11th Street area is more vulnerable than previously believed to a 50-year flood — one that would be expected in an intense rainfall event that has a 1 in 50 chance of occurring in a given year.

TxDOT responded by redesigning the main I-35 lanes around 11th Street, raising them 3 to 4 feet to ensure that they never go underwater.

TxDOT District Engineer Stan Swiatek said while TxDOT performed its own hydrology models, Walker used a more modern model that showed flooding could be worsened by the raised roadway, something TxDOT’s modeling did not reveal.

“The degree of separation of what we were seeing versus what they were seeing started getting more evident, more serious,” Swiatek said.

Tribune-Herald staff graphic 

TxDOT has redesigned the drainage system around 11th Street to incorporate additional culverts to carry more floodwater under I-35, based on a new model suggesting that the area might be more susceptible than previously calculated to a so-called 50-year flood on Waco Creek.

The engineers have been in contact since April 2018 and have been working together to find a satisfactory solution for the last few months. Recently, the group reached consensus on the storm water modeling, using Walker’s system with some tweaks from TxDOT. Different modeled scenarios can take several hours to run.

“That now allows them to model different potential solutions,” Deaver said. “So, we’re waiting to hear what the modeling looks like, and we haven’t seen that yet.”

Meanwhile, TxDOT and city officials have disagreed about whose responsibility it was to mitigate the newly calculated flood risk. Based on the Walker Partners report, city leaders at a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting in February argued that the raised mainlanes could act as a dam and increase flood risks for businesses along I-35. They agreed to hold out on releasing more funds to the I-35 project until those concerns were addressed.

TxDOT officials say that with the new culverts they are meeting their duty to ensure that that Waco Creek will flow unimpeded under Interstate 35. But city officials remain concerned that if the culverts are overwhelmed, it could flood the Kate Ross public housing complex on one side of Interstate 35 or Baylor University on the other side.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

The 1989 flood on Waco Creek caused damage at Baylor University.

Whether it’s a new downtown drainage diversion tunnel or another less intrusive solution, Deaver said he thinks there’s an argument to be made for TxDOT partnering with the city for a solution outside of TxDOT’s right-of-way.

“We feel like TxDOT’s got a responsibility here to find a solution before they build the interstate without taking care of it,” Deaver said. “Obviously, the Webster diversion tunnel could be done without interfering with the TxDOT project, but our preference is to find a solution within the TxDOT right-of-way.”

Swiatek said TxDOT is continuing to negotiate with the city but wouldn’t help fund a downtown drainage tunnel.

“Digging up a city street and putting in a culvert, that’s more expensive,” Swiatek said. “That’s an off-system improvement. It would stop it (the floodwater), but we can’t spend transportation dollars on a flood mitigation project. I can’t participate in the cost of that.”

I-35 project could cause drainage issues near downtown

A 1989 flood that submerged apartments and swept vehicles down Waco Creek would pale in comparison to flooding a storm of the same scope would bring if drainage issues associated with a plan to widen Interstate 35 are not addressed, officials said Thursday.

Size of Waco's busy-season events growing as schedulers adjust strategies
 Carl Hoover  / 

It is Memorial Day weekend, and there are only a few public events, compared to a typical weekend in April or October or, for that matter, most weekends in October, November, February, March and April, when planning calendars run out of space and some residents resort to flipping coins or throwing darts to determine where to go.

The calendar clustering, the apparent inability to evenly distribute events, is largely a result of when potential audiences are in town and when the weather is more likely to be optimum, according to Waco tourism officials. Take the months when Baylor University and area school districts are in session, with students and families in town, and remove months when weather is too hot or too cold, and you have October, November, February, March and April, sort of.

The events calendar maintained by the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, at and filled with concerts, plays, festivals, exhibits, fundraisers, art shows, live music and more, provides a rough idea of how busy Waco weekends can be. Fridays and Saturdays this month have had about 20 listings each. Last month, the average was about 30.

“Our calendar is crazy to keep up with,” said Susan Morton, tourism sales manager of the Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau.

City use permits offer another metric of event counts. The permits cover use of city public spaces including parks and cover street closures for races, parades and other events.

Interim Parks Director Jonathan Cook said the annual number of permitted events has held steady at about 200 for the last few years, but the size of events has grown. Major new ones, including the Silo District Marathon and its thousands of participants, have been added to the calendar.

City officials updated procedures and requirements for use permits last fall, increasing the lead time for some permits to 45 days or more to facilitate planning and make demand on city resources more predictable, Cook said.

“From September to October and April to May, we’re completely full,” Cook said. “There used to be a defined event season: March, April, May and September-October, but June has become extremely busy and November is becoming busy.”

Waco’s swelling tourist traffic, boosted in large part by the attraction of Magnolia Market at the Silos, is starting to shape some attitudes about events planning.

Where planners sometimes steered clear of other major events, including Baylor University football games and the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo weekends, some are finding there is room for multiple activities.

This spring, for instance, the Texas Food Truck Showdown overlapped with Spring at the Silos several blocks over.

“(Tourists) tend to visit two or more events,” Cook said. “When you’re coming from out of town, the more the merrier sometimes.”

Though visitor attendance tends to show up at festivals, outdoor activities and restaurants more than live performances and concerts, he said.

Cultural Arts of Waco President Doreen Ravenscroft said the early years of the Cultural Arts Festival saw different approaches to scheduling. Dates with Baylor home football games were avoided, only to see last-minute television-driven changes in time and schedules. Efforts to align with the Waco Wild West Century bicycle ride and its hundreds of out-of-town riders had mixed results.

Splitting the festival into several sub-festivals, each with a dedicated following, and a consistent location on the calendar has tended to stabilize turnout, she said, although weather, as it is with so many outdoor events, remains the joker in the deck.

The advantage of consistent scheduling leads Wes Allison, president and CEO of the Heart O’ Texas Fair, to protect the weekend of the Margarita & Salsa Festival and the October run of the fair when promoters come calling.

Outside of that, there are a few rules of thumb for event scheduling at the Extraco Events Center and its facilities, Allison said. Big names such as the Beach Boys, who performed March 27, work whenever they can route a tour through Waco. Concerts work better when colleges and schools are in session. Family events like children’s stage shows, ice skating and the circus do well in the summer. And anything with Disney attached sells at any time of year.

The expansion of online ticketing also has allowed some performers and programs to sell tickets months in advance, enabling promoters to sidestep the uncertainty of walk-up box office sales occasionally affected by late summer back-to-school spending.

The number of major annual events like the HOT Fair and Margarita & Salsa Festival have made it harder to find the less-used weekend. Consider a typical year of standing Waco-area events: Brazos Nights, December’s Waco Wonderland, HOT Fair and Rodeo, Fourth on the Brazos, Westfest, the Heart Of Texas Air Show, Waco Cultural Arts Festival, Silobration, the Bowen Musicfest, Pints in the Park, Art On Elm, Deep in the Heart Film Festival, Spring at the Silos, RiverSounds, the Margarita & Salsa Festival, Homestead Heritage Labor Day Sorghum Festival and Thanksgiving weekend Homestead Fair, Ironman triathlon and the Silo District Marathon.

Waco nonprofits are also paying more attention to scheduling conflicts and complements for their fundraising events, Ravenscroft said.

Though avoidance of major events once drove planners’ date decisions, some now aim to piggyback on their drawing power, planning a benefit or fundraiser for a weekend that may attract thousands of visitors. A similar strategy is in place for downtown Waco’s First Fridays, when multiple activities play out on the same night in the same general area, creating a collective experience and pull greater than for any one event.

More Fridays and Saturdays with more than two dozen Waco events to consider may mean residents and visitors have to pick among their options, but it is also a sign of a vibrant city, Cook said.

“There may be some hard choices for consumers, but like everyone, we’re riding the wave,” he said.

editor's pick
Former Waco superintendent denied probation reduction
 Brooke Crum  / 

Former Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, arrested in March for misdemeanor marijuana possession, unsuccessfully sought to have the probation term he received in lieu of charges reduced, the Robertson County District Attorney said.

Nelson started a 90-day pretrial diversion program after his March 6 arrest in Robertson County, when a state trooper stopped him for a traffic violation and found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in Nelson’s vehicle.

Nelson was booked into the Robertson County Jail in Franklin and released the next day on his own recognizance.

If Nelson completes the 90-day program, the misdemeanor marijuana charge would be dismissed, Robertson County District Attorney W. Coty Siegert said. A judge would sign a motion stating the case is dismissed, but no hearing would be held.

But Nelson did not want to wait the full 90 days, Siegert said. Nelson’s attorney, Hoagie Karels, requested the district attorney allow Nelson to finish the program early.

Multiple calls to Karels went unanswered.

Siegert said it is common for attorneys to request their clients’ probation or sentences end early, but he said he thought Nelson’s pretrial diversion agreement was fair.

“I didn’t see any reason to give him any special treatment,” Siegert said.

It is unclear why Nelson wanted to end his pretrial diversion program early. The 90-day program would end in mid-June.

“An arrest of this nature does not disqualify him for employment with a school district,” Marlin ISD Superintendent Michael Seabolt said.

Seabolt said several people wanted to bring Nelson to Marlin, a school district of 835 students under state intervention while it works to bring its accountability rating up to passing.

“In the end, that’s not going to happen,” Seabolt said of Nelson joining the Marlin ISD. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the district.”

In response to more than five years of failed accountability ratings, the state installed a five-member board of managers in place of Marlin’s elected school board in February 2017, in lieu of closing the school district.

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath relieved two members of the Marlin board of managers, Rose Cameron and Marilyn Martin, of their responsibilities Wednesday, according to a letter from the commissioner. In their place, Morath appointed Danny Vickers and Eddie Ellis.

Vickers and Ellis now serve alongside board president Billy Johnson and secretary Byrleen Terry.

While the education commissioner appoints the board of managers and the superintendent during the state’s intervention, the board of managers has the same powers and duties as a board of trustees, including the ability to hire a superintendent, according to the Texas Education Code.

Seabolt said there was only informal conversation about bringing Nelson to Marlin. He said he discussed the former Waco superintendent’s situation with him over the phone, but the board never discussed it as a whole.

“Ultimately, it wasn’t going to pan out,” Seabolt said. “He certainly has a following over there in Waco. Marcus needs to get probably a little farther away from Waco. He’s a really great educator. He’ll land on his feet.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson/  


Painter Ira Watkins adds detailing touches to the Diversified mural.