TX: Catastrophic flooding forces state of emergency for area

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June 9, 2001, 2:32PM

Catastrophic flooding forces state of emergency for area

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle

Catastrophic flooding overnight has brought the Houston area to a near standstill this morning, with nearly 10,000 people left homeless and 3,000 homes and businesses affected within the city limits alone, Mayor Lee Brown said this morning. Both commercial airports are shut down and at least one weather-related death has been reported.

Across Harris County, as many as 21,000 homes are thought to be without power, phones and water, said County Judge Robert Eckels. About 5,000 homes are flooded in the county.

Roughly 17,000 people were going to need some type of temporary shelter and county officials ordered the Reliant Astrohall opened for that purpose. Schools, churches and other public facilities were also being opened as shelters.

Gov. Rick Perry declared a state of emergency in the Houston area and 28 southeast Texas counties. The declaration, if approved by President Bush, makes residents in those counties eligible for low-rate disaster relief loans, grants and other financial assistance.

Brown spoke to Perry about 2:30 a.m. to request the declaration. Brown has requested equipment including boats, heavy vehicles, swift-water rescue teams and medical support including ambulances. Some of those requests are already being addressed, he said.

Perry also forwarded Brown's request for a federal emergency designation to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Corey Ray, a city spokesman. Such a request, if approved, would allow Houstonians to apply for low-interest, federally backed recovery loans.

The National Guard has not been called in, Brown said. The confirmed fatality occurred in downtown, Brown said, but details about the circumstances were not yet available. City Public Works crews continued to rescue residents around flooded areas today. About 200 people had been picked up and dropped off at shelters around the city, Ray said.

Brown, who toured the city this morning, advised residents to remain indoors. "We want to encourage everyone to stay in unless there is an emergency. All in all, our employees are out there working hard," he said.

Brown also advised residents with nonemergency calls to refrain from calling the city's 911 line. Many people have been calling asking about weather information or to ask what city streets remained open, Ray said.

The deluge - in which as much as 28 inches of rain fell in the past 24 hours - has affected all aspects of life in the area, from communications to transportation to basic infrastructure:

All Metro bus routes have been canceled today because of high water. No buses are running, Metro Police said.

Both Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports have closed today. More than two feet of rain fell at Intercontinental, forcing Continental Airlines to cancel all flights through 6 a.m. Sunday there.

Authorities shut down some local freeways in order to clear broken-down vehicles. Currently, U.S. Highway 59 (Southwest Freeway) is shut down eastbound at the Fondren/Bellaire exit. Interstate 10 is reportedly shut down in spots, too. I-10 at T.C. Jester is submerged and blocked by stranded vehicles, including massive 18 wheelers that floated like a child's bathtub toys. In some places, water is touching the bottom of freeway underpasses, turning the low-lying roadways into lakes.

The city reported its communications system was down, but communications are going ahead through hand-held radios. The mayor said 911 service is working, but stressed to only use the service in the case of a true emergency.

Eckels authorized workers to pump water out of an AT&T switching center in the 1400 block of Jefferson, saying he was told if that center went down, the area would lose all wireless and long distance communication.

Reliant Energy HL&P said 27,000 customers were without power early this morning. Spokesman Graham Painter said most of the problems occured downtown, but people in most flooded areas lost power. Crews working to restore electricity were hampered by high water. Power to Memorial Hermann, Ben Taub and Methodist Hospital was lost, Painter added.

As of 12:45 p.m., The Harris County Office of Emergency Management has reported the condition of local creeks and bayous: Clear Creek is out of its banks and is stationary; Lower Brays Bayou is out of its banks and is falling; Sims Bayou is within its banks and is falling; Greens Bayou is out of its banks and is stationary.

Halls Bayou is out of its banks and is expected to fall; Hunting Bayou is out of its banks and is falling; Cypress Creek out of its banks and is falling; Garners Bayou out of its banks and falling; Willow Creek is out of its banks and is stationary; Spring Creek is in its banks and is expected to fall; White Oak Bayou is out of its banks and is expected to begin falling; and the West Fork of East San Jacinto River is in its banks and is expected to crest at 56.5 feet.

More rain is forecast for most of Southeast Texas today as the remnants of Tropical Storm Allison move slowly toward the Gulf of Mexico where it could become powerful, according to the National Weather Service. The center of the depression was just north/northeast of Palacios and is moving south/southeast this morning, said Kent Prochazka, a weather-service meteorologist said.

Heavy thunderstorms are expected to dump between 2 and 4 inches of rain throughout Harris County and surrounding areas, Prochazka said.

Emergency management officials were also trying to get a fleet of fuel trucks ready to take gasoline to rescue vehicles that had been out on the streets for hours without refueling.

Some in Houston threatened by high water turned to Brazoria County when they were unable to reach authorities in Harris County for help. They included a woman who called to say she was stuck in her attic at a home on Valley Wind Drive in Houston, said Amy Askins, a Brazoria County sheriff's dispatcher.

Another woman called a friend in Brazoria County and asked her to tell the sheriff's department she was stuck in a van that was floating in the high water, Askins said.

Allen Cannon, a 29-year-old engineer from Pearland, called Brazoria County dispatchers when he couldn't reach his wife, Shundra, who had checked into a motel at Interstate 10 and Federal after floodwaters marooned her in traffic. He last spoke with his wife, a 29-year-old assistant principal at Welch Middle School, at 1 a.m. today, he said.

"She told me the water was to the level of the mattresses on the first floor," he said. "She's on the second floor. She's pregnant but she's got a friend with her." The worried husband said his wife sounded calm but her cellular phone battery was about to go dead.

In the Galveston County city of La Marque, authorities were stunned at the degree of flooding. "I haven't seen rain like this probably since Hurricane Alicia," police Sgt. Kevin Currington said today. "We had streets flooded that just do not flood.

"We had to have public works crews come out and bring a dump truck so we could patrol the flooded area," he said. "There were several people who had water in their homes and were asking to be evacuated.

"We had flooding basically all the way along Bayou Street," Currington said. "On First Street right by the police department, I just barely got my unit up in the parking lot and we've never had it like that." Currington said flooding was especially bad on FM 1765, with many stalled vehicles abandoned.

At 9 a.m. today, drivers still were stalling out on FM 1765. City crews were struggling to clear clogged drainage ditches so the water could recede more quickly. "It looked like it was not going to hit us," Currington said. "Then, all of a sudden rain started picking up and within an hour we had streets flooding. I couldn't believe it."

Ben Taub is not accepting any patients, but Harris County's LBJ Hospital remains open. Hermann Hospital in the Medical Center and St. Luke's are transferring critical patients. Texas Children's Hospital and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center remain open.

The Medical Center is experiencing severe flooding and power outages. Many ambulances are unable to traverse the high water in the area to deliver patients and there are reports that some patients on automated life-support machines were being kept alive by manual means.

Hospital officials are making arrangements to transfer the most critical patients to other hospitals as far away as Austin and San Antonio, city officials said.

The Houston Fire Department has fielded 500 water calls and 200 fire calls since 11 p.m. Friday night, city officials said. "I'm not aware of anybody we haven't actually been able to respond to," Brown said this morning.

At 7 a.m. today, catastrophic flooding was being reported along Spring Creek near Spring on the north side of Houston with water possibly near the rooftops of some homes in Timberlake and Timberridge subdivisions in Montgomery County and and the Spring Hills subdivision south of The Woodlands.

The National Weather Service reported that Clear Creek in Friendswood southeast of Houston was rising rapidly and was at 17.7 feet at 6:30 a.m. at FM 528. The record flood level at that point is 19.1 feet. Record flooding already was being reported along Garners Bayou near Beltway 8 at 59.2 feet with an additional 2-3 foot rise anticipated.

In other areas, waters were starting to recede from flood levels. At 6:30 a.m., Hunting Bayou near Loop 610 East was at 41.4 feet and falling. Flood stage is 37 feet at this point.

But Greens Bayou near U.S. 59 was at 67.8 feet and appeared to nearing a crest expected to be around 68 feet. Near Ley Road, Greens Bayou was at a record flood stage of 43.3 feet at 6:15 a.m., but the bayou had slowed its rise and appeared to be near a crest expected to be somewhere between 43.5 to 44.5 feet.

Fort Bend County, which had been hard-hit by Allison's inital assault, kept its emergency management office opened throughout the night and although more rain fell, there were no reports of any serious flooding.

"We have been very fortunate so far," said County Judge Jim Adolphus. Adolphus said only a few streets in Stafford and Missouri City had high water Saturday. He said many emergency workers have been sent home and that the county has loaned equipment and boats to Houston emergency officials.

Waller County was spared most flooding, but a few spots were hit by high water, authorities said this morning. Residents monitored local creeks through the night and a flood warning persisted into the daylight hours.

Sheriff Randy Smith said locally heavy rainfall overnight made stretches of Joseph and Hegar roads in north Waller County impassable, but no one was in danger.

Apartment occupants at a complex on Waller's south side were stranded briefly by high water, and roads in the Fieldstore area, just west of hard-hit Montgomery County, faced the threat of rising water. By contrast, Hempstead, in west Waller County, and Brookshire and Katy, far to the south near Fort Bend County, reported no problems.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will be closed today and Sunday because of minor flooding in the service area that has affected the air-conditioning and telephone systems. No art has been damaged. Films and family activity scheduled today and Sunday are canceled. Also, advanced tickets purchased for the "Star Wars" exhibit for today and Sunday will be honored at a later date.

Rienzi and Bayou Bend are also closed for the weekend. No art was damaged at those museums. Portions of the Alley Theater were under water today. Performances for today and Sunday are canceled, said Jennifer Garza, theater spokeswoman. "The Neuhaus Arena stage is submerged," Garza said. The theater's costume and scene shop were also flooded, she said.

The University of Houston downtown campus will be closed today also, said Mike Cinelli, university spokesman. The flooding began when the tattered remains of Tropical Storm Allison regrouped late Friday and pounded the Houston area with another round of downpours. Montgomery County, which was largely spared from the storm's first assault earlier this week, was swamped in some areas Friday with as much as 8 inches of rain within a few hours.

Holly Pichette, the spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Hospital District's emergency service, said an 11-year-old girl was injured in a lightning-related incident. Her condition and other details were unavailable.

Conroe police Lt. Robert Whytter said: "The flooding is very, very bad -- as bad as I've seen in 11 years." About 20 mobile homes were evacuated in Conroe after nearby Stewart's Creek flooded, pouring 2 feet of water into some of the homes. Streets and highways all around Conroe were impassable because of high water and rush water, Whytter said. He said some vehicles had been pushed off roadways by rushing water.

In east Houston, Javier Gonzales and his family stood outside his grandparents' house in the 7400 block of Waxahachie and watched floodwaters pour down the street. "It's never been flooded like this before," he said. "It was raining so hard, you couldn't see the houses across the street."

Gonzales said the rain started about 6:45 p.m. and in 15 minutes more than a foot of water was standing in low spots of the street. A few blocks from the Gonzales home, Interstate 10 was closed in both directions about 7:30 p.m. Friday. Houston police officers said the freeway was flooded at the McCarty overpass.

The intersection of Wayside near I-10 had about a foot and a half of standing water about 8:30 p.m. At a Whataburger on Wayside and I-10, the business was brisk in soft drinks and hamburgers. Dozens of stranded motorists stopped there to eat.

Rene Gomez, 35, was headed home on I-10 to Channelview about 7 p.m. when the rain started. He ended up at the Whataburger to wait out the storm. "I'm not going to risk it," he said. "I guess I'll wait here for breakfast."

Capt. Mike Nieto, a spokesman for the Houston Fire Department, said officials rescued numerous people trapped in stalled cars, primarily on Houston's east side. He said that flooding in low areas was so bad along I-10 East near McCarty that eastbound and westbound lanes on the freeway were "stopped solid."

The high water on the freeway was exacerbated by high water at the exits, preventing people from getting off the freeway. Nieto said there hadn't been any serious injuries associated with the weather in Houston.

The weekend outlook was not encouraging. The National Weather Service forecast a 90 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms today and a 50 percent chance for Sunday. After forming quickly in the Gulf of Mexico and taking the upper Texas coast by surprise Tuesday afternoon, Allison drenched the Houston area and moved slowly northward.

The storm system stalled, however, spinning in place while it dumped rain on Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Intense storm clusters began to reform Friday afternoon and the system drifted to the southwest toward Brenham, dousing parts of Central Texas and triggering flash flood watches in southeast Texas. The storm hit hard in Louisiana on Friday, dumping moisture that it was drawing from the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster declared emergencies in 11 southern parishes that have received more than a foot of rain this week, flooding homes and roadways. Baton Rouge, the state capital, reported more than 16 inches of rain since the storm began, with more anticipated.

In Southeast Texas, some homeowners in the Jefferson County town of Bevil Oaks were putting sandbags around their homes earlier Friday as the waters of rain-swollen Pine Island Bayou crept over its banks. While many residents of the western parts of Beaumont, as well as smaller towns such as Nome and China, started to dry out soggy carpets, emergency officials cast wary eyes to the sky.

"We'll be all right if we just don't get too much more rain," said DPS spokesman Richard Vasser. The National Weather Service reported that eastern Liberty County had gotten 25 inches since June 1.

Officials were keeping an eye on the flood-prone Trinity River in Liberty County and Luce Bayou near Huffman, in far northeast Harris County. Both waterways were expected to exceed their banks this weekend. The Neches River was forecast to overflow in Beaumont by Monday morning, and the Sabine River was expected to crest near flood stage at Deweyville.

Meanwhile, water levels were slowly dropping in eastern Fort Bend County, which was hit hard earlier in the week. "Things are going pretty good. The water is down and people are cleaning up," said county emergency management director Mel Speed. "Right now we are just watching the weather forecasts and keeping our fingers crossed."

Speed said local officials have been able to make only a quick survey of the damage from Thursday's storm and do not expect to have an estimate on the cost until next week. Based on preliminary reports, he said, most of the flooded buildings had only 4 or 5 inches of water in them. "It was mainly wet carpets," Speed said.

Pearland officials Friday lowered their figures for single-family houses damaged by the flooding from 141 to 139. No one in the city took advantage of a shelter that was opened, but 27 of the water-damaged homes are not insured by the National Flood Insurance Program, said Larry Steed, the city's emergency management coordinator.

American Red Cross officials said about 2,000 homes in the Houston area and Beaumont were affected by the storm. That figure, however, does not include southwest Houston, where officials were still counting, said Red Cross spokesman Russell Hubbard.

Chronicle reporters Burke Watson, Richard Stewart, Ruth Rendon, Steve Olafson, Eric Hanson, Harvey Rice, Dale Lezon and Jerry Urban and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), June 09, 2001


Is Texas getting "punished" for the prejudice and Discrimination that (some) Texans hold against California, and its now dire effects on California's economy? I hope not, since those being punished may not be the guilty, and this is unfair. But doesn't it at least seem like a case of "Divine Retribution"?

What might be fair is this: Texas imposing a special tax on power producer windfall profits --- to pay for disaster relief and aid those afflicted. This we can at least hope for.

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), June 10, 2001.

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