The death toll from almost a week of fierce rain that has flooded many parts of Texas continued to rise on Friday as officials closely watched the swelling rivers for clues on how much longer the crisis would last.
Search teams continued their work on Friday along the raging Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto rivers near Houston. Officials say the confirmed death toll in Texas and Oklahoma since the rain began over the Memorial Day weekend was at least 26.
Twenty of the deaths were reported in Texas, including eight in Houston, after officials recovered the body of what appeared to be an 87-year-old man found in the Houston Ship Channel on Thursday evening.
At least 14 people are reported missing.
Late Friday night, President Obama declared a major disaster exists in Texas and ordered federal aid to the state, according to statement from the White House. The declaration makes federal funding available to those affected in Harris, Hays and Van Zandt counties.
Rain continued to fall in north and south Texas--up to 7 inches outside Dallas--prompting more floods and flood warnings on Friday across a state already facing its wettest month on record. More rain was expected to fall on already water-logged areas near Houston on Saturday.
Wharton City Secretary Paula Favors said Friday morning that the Colorado River had risen to 40.5 feet, and that forecasters had delayed and downgraded the predicted crest to 43.4 feet on Saturday morning.
“We’re also seeing showers in the area,” she warned. “That number does not include the rainfall.”
Cynthia Wormely, 53, had to decide overnight whether to evacuate her home near the Colorado River in Wharton, about 60 miles south of Houston.
Wormely, who is retired, was watching her 6-year-old grandson Eldrick Gonzalez while her daughter worked. She took him with her late Thursday to survey the surging, muddy waters at Riverfront Park. The Colorado had burst out of its banks and was climbing, swallowing tree trunks and nearing some homes on the other side of town.
“This is so frustrating,” Wormely said as she watched the water in her purple T-shirt and shorts.
Wharton’s west side has flooded before. This time, officials had urged about 300 people to evacuate, including those on Hughes Street where Wormely lives. The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the local middle school with about 180 cots in the gym. Only five people were staying overnight, but 67 had pre-registered for Friday.
Part of the equation in Wormely’s decision was her daughter’s pit bull, Rocky. She wasn’t sure the dog would be welcome at the shelter. Also, neighbors were divided about the shelter.
“Some say they staying, some leaving,” Wormely said.
As she left the riverfront to check the shelter, a man slowed his pickup truck and shouted a hello.
“What you doing, you staying?” she shouted back.
Heck no, the man said, laughing.
Wormely still wasn’t sure.
“He’s closer to the river than I am,” she said as she and Eldrick climbed into her battered sedan and drove to the shelter.
Outside the shelter, Wormely spotted cages for dogs, which eased her concern about Rocky.
Wormely checked out a cot as Eldrick climbed the empty bleachers at the new shelter.
“I guess everybody is coming tomorrow,” she said.
She decided to pre-register and return home with her grandson for the night.
“See you tomorrow,” she told the volunteers, and sighed. “Now my head is hurting.”
Among those sending aid was an Anheuser-Busch plant in Georgia that halted beer production and began canning water, which was sent to the Red Cross for flood victims in Texas and Oklahoma.
In Parker County, about 70 miles west of Dallas, the Brazos River was dangerously rising after overnight rains. About 250 homeowners along the Brazos were asked to evacuate earlier after water was released into the river from rain-stoked Possum Kingdom Lake.
“The river had dropped below flood stage Thursday evening, but then we started receiving rain last night and it continued into the morning,” said Joel Kertok, spokesman for the county’s office of emergency management.
The river had crested at 23.5 feet, with water “right up to the foundations of 11 homes” he said, and, “We know if we get above that we move past minor flooding to getting into people’s homes.”
The river is currently almost five inches over its banks passing flood stage at 21 feet “and it is coming up,” Kertock said. Even more water was expected to hit the river Friday morning.
“We just received word that they had opened up another [flood] gate at Possum Kingdom Lake. They had already opened one gate this morning. That water is heading down the Brazos River and will lead to continued flooding through the weekend,” Kertok said, adding, “This is what we were afraid of.”
As of Friday, the National Weather Service has issued flood warnings for 21 Texas regions including Johnson, Travis and Bastrop counties.
“It’s bad all around north Texas and into Oklahoma. We need the rain, we were in a five-year drought and that drought is over thankfully, but the rain continues,” Kertok said.
Follow @mollyhf on Twitter for national news.