With more storms forecast for Texas, where record-breaking rainfall has led to deadly and widespread flooding, officials were overseeing evacuations Thursday as swollen lakes and rivers threatened communities.
The death toll from the severe weather and flooding that began last weekend in Texas and Oklahoma increased to 22 after two more bodies were recovered in central Texas and the Houston area. At least nine people are still missing in those areas.
Throughout the state, residents began loading up possessions to take them to higher ground.
"People have been working on it for days, moving out big time," said Jerry Davila of Houston's Rio Villa neighborhood Thursday. "You rent a trailer, rent a truck, load it up and take it to a parking lot until it subsides. It should crest tomorrow and start coming down Monday."
Davila, 51, who owns a Mexican restaurant and has lived in the waterfront community for 25 years, said his neighbors were accustomed to preparing for storms and floods. On Thursday, he checked on a house he owns near the San Jacinto River.
"You should see how fast that river’s moving," he said. "And today it’s rising.”
Waters continue to rise all over the Lone Star State.
In Parker County, about 70 miles west of Dallas, officials announced a voluntary evacuation of about 250 homes along the Brazos River after water had to be released from rain-stoked Possum Kingdom Lake.
"The river's at 23.57 feet - that’s 2 1/2 feet over flood stage," Joel Kertok, a spokesman for the county's Office of Emergency Management, said Thursday. "We have water basically lapping at the front doors of homes."
The river is expected to crest at 24.1 feet.
"That is, if we don't get any additional rain," Kertok said. "It’s a dangerous situation. So far, thankfully, we don't have any reports of injuries. But with daylight, people get curious. The river is moving very fast with lots of debris in it, and one slip leads to a tragedy."
He said officials were monitoring weather forecasts, which called for 2 to 3 more inches of rain in north Texas.
"What we have to do is remain vigilant and keep an eye on this weather. We’re forecast to receive rain today, tomorrow and Saturday. If that happens over Parker County, our neighboring county, Palo Pinto, or Possum Kingdom Lake, then this dangerous situation that we’re experiencing just gets worse."
It was a bitter irony for Parker County to be coping with floods as the state's five-year drought comes to an end, he said.
"We desperately needed rain, and we’ve had that. Our lakes are full. ... This is how droughts sometimes end. You want the rain, but sometimes you need it to stop,” he said.
For Texas, this has already been the wettest month on record, with an average 7.66 inches of rain, breaking the record of 6.66 inches set in June 2004. More rain is forecast for many of the areas that are already soaked.
Just 5% of the state remains in drought, said state climatologist and Texas A&M University professor John Nielsen-Gammon, and “those areas are likely to pick up a half-inch to an inch or more over the next couple of days, so I don’t think we’re done improving.”
But on Thursday there were no sighs of relief about the drought-busting rains in Parker County.
Chuck Bayne owns Brazos RV Resort in the county and has a riverside weekend home there. He said about half the residents have heeded warnings to evacuate.
“Some of them have been there since 1980. They’re not leaving. The major reason that they say they’re staying is to protect their stuff,” he said.
Bayne, 57, who bought his home on the river 15 years ago, said the risk was clear: “That river is racing right now - huge trees are floating down.”
Evacuations have also been announced in south Texas along the San Jacinto River in suburban Houston and about 60 miles south on the Colorado River in Wharton.
Wharton City Secretary Paula Favors said at least 900 people in 300 homes were urged to evacuate Thursday. The area has flooded before, usually when the river reaches 43 feet, she said.
“We’re at 38 feet, and we’re projected by the [National Weather Service] to crest at 45 feet. We’re fairly close. And it seems to be a steady rise. ... People are gathering their things, possibly moving out some things. We’re trying to get everybody to safety just in case there might be an issue,” she said.
The area could get more rain this weekend, she said, and “any additional rains would of course cause additional problems because the ground is already saturated.”
Dennis Cavanaugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said the risk of flooding was widespread.
“We have a flash-flood watch in effect for most of north Texas" through midday Saturday. "Just about anywhere in north Texas right now, the lakes and reservoirs are pretty much at capacity,” he said.
The problem is that there’s nowhere for the runoff to go, he said.
“We were in drought since 2009. So initially, when we went into this weather pattern, the water mostly was processed and stored. Now, when the water goes into the reservoirs, they have to release something,” he said, such as they did in Parker County.
"Any additional heavy rain and flooding is going to be more likely to impact people because there’s no storage, there’s nowhere for it to go that’s uninhabited," Cavanaugh said.
He said at least 2 to 3 inches of rain were expected in parts of north Texas through Saturday, which could cause problems there and as the water drains south.
“With thunderstorms, they don’t distribute rain evenly. It really boils down to where the thunderstorms dump the heaviest rains. And that’s largely unknown until we see them on radar,” Cavanaugh said.
He said forecasters were not expecting heavy rain in central Texas, where homeowners are still recovering from flooding earlier in the week and volunteers continue searching for the missing.
In hard-hit Hays County, where flooding along the Blanco River last weekend washed away a house and left at least eight people missing, officials said they found another body on the banks: a boy, still unidentified. Four bodies had previously been recovered, and scores of volunteers have traveled to the area to aid the search and clean up.
“We’ve really started to get our feet on the ground in regards to recovery. We are removing debris, we’ve got security in place,” said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley.
He said it wasn’t clear whether the area would see more rain this week.
“It’s really hard to predict, especially in central Texas. ... These isolated storms pop up and literally five miles away it’s beautiful as can be. It will be a matter of where those isolated storms hit,” Conley said.
He urged those in regions under voluntary evacuations to take heed, especially riverfront tourists who may not be familiar with the area.
“Please listen to your local officials when they give out the warnings to evacuate those river areas. Time is of the essence and things can move very quickly,” he said.
In Houston’s Rio Villa neighborhood, resident Steve Benoit drove his pickup through a foot of water that had cut off part of a road. He’s lived in the subdivision on the San Jacinto River for 24 years.
“When I moved in, you had to be 20.5 feet above mean sea level, which these all are,” he said as he drove by elevated homes on concrete pylons and wooden platforms.
Many of the homes were dark, with empty spaces where cars and boats had been moved to a nearby lot reserved for residents. Neighbors patrolled the streets on all-terrain vehicles.
Benoit checked his two-story wood-frame house, which faced a rushing river. It was fine. He glanced at a nearby drainage ditch, which was full.
“It's pretty dang high,” he said. But given how high his house sits, “it's not a concern.”
At least not yet. He pointed to another inlet, where the water level was low but rising. When that water gets too high, he said, “that's how I know when to leave.”
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