Swollen Rivers Batter Towns in Southeast Texas : Weather: As waters crest below expected levels in some parts of the state, others prepare for the worst. Bush calls the flooding a 'tragedy.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than a week of drenching rains, Texas rivers from Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico continued to overflow Friday, bringing devastation to the southeastern part of the state.

President Bush, having declared five Texas counties a disaster area Thursday, arrived in the state Friday and called the flooding a "great personal tragedy" for those whose lives had been battered by the rising waters. At least 15 people have died as a result of the storms and flooding.

The President landed in Beeville, Tex., for his annual quail hunt and said that he hopes the disaster declaration will help speed federal aid to individuals and businesses in the form of low-interest loans and housing assistance.

The rains continued in parts of the state, and some of the hardest-hit areas braced for further flooding. Other areas breathed a sigh of relief as rivers crested below expected levels.

In Liberty County, located east of Houston, flooding of the Trinity River was confined to 16 low-lying subdivisions where about 3,000 people live, but the outlook was bleak as more water was expected to flow into the area from the north.

Lou Martin, a worker in the county's emergency management office, said that very few of the residents had left, many out of fear that thieves would loot their homes.

"We have so many who say they're going to ride it out as they have in the past," Martin said. "There's nothing we can do about it. A lot of them are blocked in by water and are getting in and out by boat."

Martin said that even though the rains are expected to subside in eastern Texas this weekend, the worst flooding is at least a week away as the swollen waters of the Trinity move downstream from Dallas.

"We're expecting the waters that hit Dallas last week," he said. "It'll probably be as high as we had last year."

In 1990, floods in the area submerged vast tracts of land adjacent to the river, and thousands were left homeless. As was the case last year, ranchers and farmers have worked furiously to get their cattle to higher ground, but many animals have already died.

While Liberty County braced for the worst, the town of Wharton, Tex.--already seriously flooded--breathed easier Friday as the Colorado River crested about a foot and a half lower than predicted.

"I think the worst is over," said Irma Trevino, the city's director of personnel.

The rains that have done so much damage to this part of Texas began falling last week in the Dallas area. On Dec. 20, the Dallas area record for the amount of annual rainfall, set in 1932, was shattered when the National Weather Service reported 52.05 inches had fallen during the year.

Subdivisions in Dallas and surrounding communities were flooded, and the rains kept coming. By last Tuesday, the damage in some parts of Dallas was so extensive that Mayor Steve Bartlett asked Gov. Ann Richards to declare the neighborhoods a disaster area. He said that 177 homes and 15 businesses had been severely damaged by flooding.

Wendy Wong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that Texas has been hit by a "double whammy" with rains in the north and then more in the south.

"There was nowhere for the rain to run off, so there was flooding," she said. She also said that the Houston area, which usually gets about 45 inches of rain each year, has already had 61 inches in 1991.

Flooding along the Colorado River has caused an estimated $40 million in damage to more than 200 homes in two counties.

Wong said the good news is that clear skies are expected this weekend.

"The whole state should be clearing out this weekend," she said.

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