Death toll rises to 17 in weekend storms

Vehicles abandoned during the floods line the side of Interstate 45 near North Main Street in Houston on Tuesday.
Vehicles abandoned during the floods line the side of Interstate 45 near North Main Street in Houston on Tuesday. Houston Chronicle

Floodwaters rose Tuesday night across much of Texas after an overnight storm that dumped almost another foot of rain on the Houston area, stranding hundreds of motorists and inundating the famously congested highways that serve the nation’s fourth-largest city.

At least four people died and three were missing in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, including an elderly couple who were in a rescue boat that capsized, Mayor Annise Parker said.

Meanwhile, in Central Texas, the search went on for at least 13 people missing, including eight who disappeared after a vacation home in Wimberley was swept down the river and slammed into a bridge.

The death toll from holiday weekend storms in Texas and Oklahoma reached 17. They included a Fort Worth man who drowned when water being released from an Eagle Mountain Lake overtook his kayak on the Trinity River.

In Ciudad Acuna on the Texas-Mexico border, 13 were confirmed dead from a tornado Monday.

In the Houston area, about 11 inches of rain fell from 9 p.m. Monday to 3 a.m. Tuesday.

The floodwaters affected virtually every part of the city and paralyzed some areas. Firefighters logged more than 500 water rescues, most involving stranded motorists. At least 2,500 vehicles were abandoned by drivers seeking higher ground, officials said.

“Given the magnitude and how quickly it happened, in such a short period of time, I’ve never seen this before,” said Rick Flanagan, Houston’s emergency management coordinator.

Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston on Tuesday and at a joint news conference with Parker added Harris County to a growing list of 46 Texas counties under disaster declarations, opening the door for homeowners and businesses to receive compensation for damages suffered in flooding brought by recent storms, and allowing local governments to be reimbursed for their response and recovery efforts.

Parker said Tuesday afternoon that four people had died and at least three remained missing. She said an estimated 4,000 l homes have suffered “significant damage” from the floodwaters, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Houston schools were closed for the day. The flooding closed several highways, and the ones that stayed open became a gridlocked mess.

Interstate 45 near downtown was backed up for miles on Tuesday morning, and a handful of motorists traveled the wrong way on the highway to retreat from high water. Some drivers got off the freeway, only to be held up again by water covering nearby access roads.

By 6 p.m. authorities said, all streams in Harris County except one had returned to their banks — the West Fork of the San Jacinto River in Humble will remain above its banks into the weekend, flood control officials said.

In Central Texas

Officials in Hays County, about 35 miles southwest of Austin, said 30 people who had been reported missing were accounted for by mid-afternoon Tuesday. But 13 were still missing.

Eight of those were in the destroyed vacation house that was swept down the Blanco River and slammed into a bridge. They were friends and family who had gathered for the holiday, said Kristi Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the City of San Marcos. Young children were believed to among the missing.

Some of the worst flooding was in Wimberley, a popular tourist town along the Blanco in the corridor between Austin and San Antonio. That’s where the vacation home was swept away.

The “search component” of the mission ended Monday night, meaning no more survivors were expected to be found, said Trey Hatt, a spokesman for the Hays County Emergency Operations Center.

The Blanco crested above 40 feet — more than triple its flood stage of 13 feet. The river swamped Interstate 35 and closed parts of the busy north-south highway. Rescuers used pontoon boats and a helicopter to pull people out.

Hundreds of trees along the Blanco were uprooted or snapped, and they collected in piles of debris up to 20 feet high.

Blanco’s record flood

Weather forecasters say Memorial Day weekend storms that dumped rain across two-thirds of Texas were epic not only in the area affected but in the intensity they maintained.

Meteorologist Kurt Van Speybroeck is an emergency response specialist for the National Weather Service Southern Regional Headquarters in Fort Worth. He said the storms that formed from the Texas Panhandle to the Edwards Plateau on Saturday unleashed what was, in some places, record flooding when it met rich Gulf moisture.

The Blanco River had a record flood that registered more than 40 feet before the gauge became inoperable. Flooding along the Red River and its tributaries was the worst for that basin since at least 2007 and perhaps since the mid-1980s. The flooding in the Houston area was the worst since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

Van Speybroeck says there won’t be another broad rainstorm for several days, with only scattered thunderstorms expected. That should allow flooded basins to dry out.

Other destruction

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management also reported four fatalities between Saturday and Monday after severe flooding and reports of tornadoes.

In the the Mexico-Texas border town of Ciudad Acuna, city spokesman Edgar Gonzalez said 10 adults and three infants died. A family of four initially reported missing were out of town.

About 4,000 homes had some kind of damage, including 800 destroyed. The city of 125,000 is across the Rio Grande from Del Rio.

Gonzalez says 300 people were hospitalized, including 10 who were in serious condition with broken bones.

By the numbers

26: Deaths since Friday – 13 in Texas, 4 in Oklahoma, 13 in tornado that hit border city of Ciudad Acuna, Mexico

13: Missing in Central Texas flooding, including eight from a vacation home swept down the Blanco River

11: Inches of rain in parts of the Houston area, mostly in a six-hour period from 9 p.m. Monday to 3 a.m. Tuesday

5.3: Average inches of rain that fell in Harris County, according to the Harris County Flood Control District

2,500: Abandoned vehicles on Houston roadways after occupants fled to higher ground

About 530: Water-related calls handled by Houston emergency crews since midnight Monday, primarily assisting motorists stuck in their vehicles

Thousands: Homes damaged by flooding in Harris County, which includes Houston metro

800: Homes destroyed in the Ciudad Acuna tornado

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