Punishing storms and suspected tornadoes Friday socked an already sodden swath of Texas that was still drying out from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, forcing evacuations and shutting down a gridlocked 10-mile stretch of interstate. At least two people died and another was missing, authorities said.
More than 16 inches of rain soaked one neighborhood and Austin Bergstrom International Airport suspended all flights after a half-foot of water flooded the air traffic control tower. A lazy creek cutting through Texas wine country swelled into a rushing torrent, sending eight members of a vacationing church group scrambling to a second floor and awaiting rescue from the National Guard.
Powerful winds tossed a trailer from an RV park onto the roof of a three-story Holiday Inn. Abandoned cars, many submerged in water, littered back roads that weary drivers risked after heavy downpours flooded Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin, closing one of the busiest stretch of roadways in the U.S.
The body of a driver who went missing in floodwaters was later found in a hard-hit area near the Austin airport, the Travis County Emergency Management Office said. Military crews also found a body at Camp Bullis, a military training installation north of San Antonio, a Defense Department spokesman said. That person was believed to be a driver whose vehicle was swept off the road by flash floodwaters.
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Another woman remained missing elsewhere.
Last weekend, storms from Patricia’s Category 5 aftermath dumped nearly a foot of rain in parts of the same region. Although not deadly, that drenching left the ground saturated and unable to sop up this latest deluge.
“The flooding was so much,” said Kathleen Haney, who was part of the Dallas church group rescued from a bed-and-breakfast in Wimberley. “It just kept coming up and coming up.”
Near San Antonio, four students with special needs and two adults were rescued from a school bus caught in floodwaters that reached the top of the tires. Emergency personnel used an extension ladder to reach the bus and rescue the driver and passengers.
Dozens of other high-water rescues busied emergency crews from before dawn to mid-afternoon. The rain was expected to clear by Halloween, but not before one last line of possible storms.
Forecasters say an upper-level disturbance from Mexico carried the storms into Texas as a strong El Niño is expected to make for a wet winter in the U.S.
“We really couldn’t take this type of rainfall that we’ve seen today,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Runyen said.
Most eyes were on Wimberley, a popular getaway spot in the Texas Hill Country where the church group found themselves stranded. Similar conditions in May — soaking storms on the heels of other soaking storms — caused devastating flooding on the Blanco River that swept homes from foundations and killed families that were carried downstream.
The Blanco River this time swelled to about 26 feet in Wimberley, nearly twice the flood stage. Residents were evacuated from the area and a community center was opened to shelter people.
Farther south in Floresville, a suspected tornado caused only minor injuries, Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said. Ruth Veliz, whose parents own a taco shop in town, said one of her employees yelled “Tornado!” and tried to keep the winds from blowing inside before a customer pulled her to safety.
“The door was flying open with her as she was trying to close it,” Veliz said.
At least five homes were destroyed in Geronimo and 15 others were seriously damaged by a suspected Guadalupe County twister, said city of Seguin spokeswoman Morgan Ash. No major injuries were reported, but there were some close calls.
Holding on for ‘dear life’
Aubri Alvarez, 30, of Geronimo had just sent her oldest son, 7, to school, and her 4-year-old son was watching cartoons while her youngest daughter, 2, slept in a crib in a separate room as warnings of a tornado in the area began.
The warnings had come in bulk on her phone, as they often do, she said, with several false alarms in the past. This time, she decided to take her children to safety and watch Netflix on their phone as the storm passed.
“I just had a really strong feeling to get my kids and get in the tub,” she said.
Just as she reached into her daughter’s crib, the window exploded. She grabbed onto a pack attached to her daughter.
“I held onto my daughter’s play pack for dear life,” she said. “Then we were launched back to the other side of the room against a bookcase.”
As she regained her footing, she ran into the bathtub with her son in tow.
“He was yelling, ‘We’re gonna die,’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not going to die,’ ” she said. “Our house exploded.”
Her house was picked up and moved about 34 feet. Parts of the room her daughter slept in could be seen in pieces over their Chevrolet Tahoe. Alvarez and her children had minor bumps and scratches.
Stuck in a tree
In one of the more bizarre episodes Friday, a man stranded in a tree near Onion Creek in Austin phoned KVUE-TV and gave a live interview in the middle of the flooding. Kerry Packer made it to the tree and climbed it after escaping his car, which had been swept up in rapidly moving floodwaters.
“I’m about 20 feet up a tree,” he told KVUE anchors. “… For as far as I can see around me, there’s water.”
Rescue personnel later confirmed to the station that they rescued Packer — who had called 911 before KVUE — from the tree, but not until after he had been stranded for more than four hours.
He also called his wife from the tree before phoning the television station. “She’s glad that I climbed a lot of trees when I was a kid,” Packer said, adding that he was a Boy Scout for years and thankfully knew how to keep his energy up.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press and the San Antonio Express-News.