Texas Zoo makes plans to expand

Feb. 20, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 20, 2012 at 8:21 p.m.

Oct. 21, 1998, is a day that will be forever etched into the history of the Texas Zoo.

On that day, the zoo and surrounding areas were nearly destroyed by a 500-year flood.

While some preliminary actions were taken to evacuate the animals, dramatic boat rescues by staff, police and fire department personnel were still needed to rescue many of the animals.

The small zoo was buried under more than 6 feet of ravaging, muddy water from the Guadalupe River and cut off from the rest of the city.

Of the 310 animals housed at the zoo before the flood, all of which were native to Texas and many of whom had rehabilitation needs, 90 died and 70 managed to escape.

Meanwhile, the zoo's two caretakers, who chose to stay behind with the animals, survived by taking refuge on the roof of a building.

Zoo staff hopes to avoid similar devastating situations in the future by implementing preventative flood measures suggested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Anytime you move animals, you heighten the risk factor, but if you can just batten down the hatches and make sure there is enough food, water and electricity backups, you can withstand something substantial," Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the Texas Zoo, said about her desire to prepare the zoo and its inhabitants to withstand flood waters. "It is best for everyone involved."

Very preliminary new drafts of FEMA floodplain maps indicate the zoo will move from being half in a floodway and half in a flood fringe to being totally in a floodway, which is the natural conduit for flood waters.

For now, FEMA suggestions include heightening the zoo's berms, man-made walls of earth and sand, about three inches.

The zoo's back berms stand 64 inches, while the one around the front stands 63 inches.

"There is potentially some possibility of change in that area, but until they release the final changes, we won't know," said John Johnston, development engineer and floodplain administrator for the city of Victoria. "They are far ahead of the game."

Johnston said he first began talking with zoo staff and board members of the South Texas Zoological Society about the possible changes last February.

In addition to its berms, the Texas Zoo also has two flood gates fitted with aluminum panels, one at the front entrance and another at the back that can be supplemented with tarps and sandbags, said Johnston.

A drainage valve can also be closed to keep river water from backing up into the zoo and animal exhibit platforms have been built above ground.

Not building the berms up to FEMA flood prevention standards could result in irreparable damage and a failure to be covered by flood insurance.

Damages from the 1998 flood were estimated to be $2 million.

The South Texas Zoological Society gave approval in December for a feasibility study, but it remains unknown how they will come up with the thousands of dollars needed to cover the cost of building up the berms.

The Zoological Society will hold fundraisers such as the upcoming Wild About Wine event in March to raise money for the berms.

"We have a wonderful thing going, and it's time we step up and protect our exhibits, our animals and people," said Melissa Rivera, president of the South Texas Zoological Society.

Blomberg pointed out that since 1998, the zoo has taken in animals not indigenous to Texas, like lions, tigers and baboons, all of whom could cause problems if they were to escape in the midst of a flood.

Evacuating the animals is not necessarily the best option either, said Blomberg.

"It would be a financial burden to the zoo to evacuate, and we would need to get two whole days ahead with a storm. We can't sit in traffic with these animals. They would perish," she said. "We have other zoos that would help us. They are committed to that, but they only have so much room."

In addition to expanding the zoo's flood protection, Blomberg said the zoo will also be expanding its size.

Zoo staff announced last month plans to expand the zoo to include the three-acre triangular area directly next to the zoo, which they will also encircle with the berm.

Of the 17.078 acres leased to the South Texas Zoological Society, only six acres is used.

The extra space will offer more entertainment-oriented facilities, including an amphitheater and possibly more bathrooms and a concession stand, said Blomberg.

"The idea is to get people down to the zoo and give them something to do more than once and keep them here longer," said Blomberg. "It will build up the entertainment factor and nicely enhance what the zoo will have to offer."

Talks also are underway to possibly bring back the Riverside Park train.

"We are going to stay here. We are not going anywhere," said Blomberg. "We are going to expand the good things here."



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