In the days following last year's Halloween floods, tow trucks were indispensable to the Onion Creek community in Southeast Austin.
The flood disabled hundreds of vehicles and left them scattered throughout the area — some were in the middle of the road, while others careened into people's homes. But, after the waters receded, some say towing companies have developed a habit of towing cars — even when they’re not asked to do so.
The memories of the flood are still raw for Julian Arriaga. Before the flood, three families lived in his home — he and his wife, along with the families of two of his grown children. Speaking in Spanish, Arriaga remembers how his grandkids thought they were going to drown.
“No, my child,” he assured each of them as he carried them to the roof of their house, “nobody will drown.”
From the safety of their roof, the family could see dozens of cars floating on the water.
“It was like watching leaves,” Arriaga says, “or small pieces of trash just floating around.”
After the flood, all of those vehicles were inoperable, and they had to be towed.
Austin Police Department Commander Todd Gage says, during the first few weeks, the department oversaw the towing.
“We were towing vehicles that were a hazard inside the roadway,” he says. If the vehicle’s owner could be identified, Gage says tow-trucks would simply pull the vehicle into the owner’s driveway.
After that initial period, Arriaga’s neighbors noticed that tow-trucks were coming and taking the cars from their driveways. Few families are back in the neighborhood. So many cars sat in front of the homes without any supervision. Arriaga says that happened to his son-in-law.
“At first he thought his car had been stolen,” he says.
Nobody has firm numbers of how many cars have been towed without the owner’s permission. But, in the hopes of preventing more cars from disappearing, many owners have gone through the trouble of putting signs on their cars that read, “Do not tow.”
Commander Gage says almost no reports have been filed with the police. He says that’s understandable.
“People are so overwhelmed down there with trying to rebuild their homes and if something is stolen or something happens, a lot of times they feel like: ‘Oh! My gosh! I don’t want to deal with the police also, on top of everything that I’m trying to do.’ But, we just encourage people to please take the moment, call 311 or 911, report what [they] saw or what happened and we’ll try to do what we can at that point,” Gage says.
Even without formal complaints, APD started patrolling the flood-affected neighborhood daily since the beginning of January to try to prevent any more incidents from happening. Towing is legal per city ordinance. But right now, the cops are asking tow-trucks, in most instances, to back off from Onion Creek.