Houston Barely Afloat After Deluge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Texas' largest city stood paralyzed under grimy skies Saturday after relentless rains drove thousands from their homes and stranded motorists along submerged freeways.

The remnants of tropical storm Allison caught this hurricane-alley town off guard, dumping as much as 25 inches of torrential rain across southeast Texas since Friday. Up to eight deaths were blamed on the storm by late Saturday.

President Bush declared a 28-county disaster area as authorities scrambled to keep hospitals running and hauled families from flooded neighborhoods in motorboats and helicopters.

"This is worse than a hurricane," said Iris Silvers, 64, who ventured from her home near Rice University to snap pictures of bulldozers and cars drowned on the interstate.

Mayor Lee Brown, who toured the city by helicopter late Saturday, proclaimed a state of emergency and said early estimates of 3,000 homes and businesses damaged were "very conservative."

"Some complete subdivisions are flooding over," he said.

Brown said the dead included a woman who drowned in a downtown office building elevator that lost power and went to a basement level, where it became caught in deep water. One man's body was found floating in a rain-swollen bayou. Another man died when his car became submerged on a city street.

Flooding crippled nine area hospitals, leaving emergency rooms dark. The sprawling Texas Medical Center downtown was hit with power outages because emergency generators were waterlogged.

Doctors and other staff struggled with no phones, water or lights. Administrators took to the airwaves to entreat somebody, anybody, to bring lanterns and batteries. Nurses spent hours at patient bedsides, pumping ventilators by hand. With elevators dead, Boy Scouts were enlisted to carry supplies up and down stairs.

At nearby St. Joseph's Hospital, the emergency room walls collapsed.

The area's 911 system was overwhelmed with calls, and authorities urged injured or stranded people to avoid calling for help unless it was serious.

Many flights in and out of Houston were grounded Saturday, and thousands of people were stuck at area airports overnight Friday. Some were forced to sleep aboard planes on runways.

Phone service was spotty. Many people who called into the city were advised that calls could not go through because of "mudslides."

City and county officials throughout the region worked to set up shelters in schools and churches for displaced residents. Buses and mail trucks were crammed late Saturday with dazed people whose homes were swallowed by flood waters. Makeshift shelters were strapped for diapers, shoes and blankets.

Military trucks big enough to navigate deep water joined the rescue efforts, National Guard spokesman Aaron Reed said. The Guard also sent five helicopters to help.

In north Houston, families scrambled onto the roofs of submerged homes to pitch tents and cower under tarps. People spent Friday night stranded in nightclubs and parking garages, on rooftops and freeways. Firefighters and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters also worked into the night rescuing families stranded by high waters.

Late Saturday, authorities marched inmates out of the Harris County Jail, where flooding cut power to the building, and onto buses. Officials declined to say where they were bound.

Across the city, filthy water stood everywhere: waist deep on freeways; brimming in underground parking garages; smothering grassy parks.

Abandoned cars were scattered haphazardly on curbs and concrete banks. The stench of overflowing sewers hung in the air.

In the parking lot of a downtown bar, Giovanni Briguglio and Chris Pate struggled in vain to jump-start a dead Mercury Sable on Saturday night. Nearby bayous had overflowed the previous night, trapping the two men overnight.

"We didn't think it was going to rain that hard, but it just sat on us," Briguglio said. "I've never seen anything like this before."

The deluge Friday and Saturday was produced by the tail end of Allison, the Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm, which blew ashore on the Texas Coast Tuesday, then quickly dwindled but refused to leave.

The effects of the storm extended beyond Texas. The flooding disrupted access to an estimated 76,000 automated teller machines in 22 states, said Julian Read, spokesman for PULSE, a nonprofit electronic fund transfer network of more than 2,600 banks.

Bobby Simpson, the mayor of Baton Rouge, La., said authorities had helped at least 255 families evacuate their homes. One was the family of Gary Rains, who evacuated Thursday. He returned by boat Saturday to bring supplies to neighbors who stayed behind.

"When I first left Thursday night, there was a foot of water in my house," Rains said. "When I came back today there were 5 feet. Everything's gone. All we got out with were some clothes, wedding pictures and baby formula."

Also in Louisiana, alligators agitated by the storm's thunder, lightning and heavy rain wandered into residential areas.

Trappers in Louisiana's St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes captured 40 alligators during the week. "I'll release them back into the swamps unless they are big and aggressive," said Richard Roussel IV, an alligator nuisance control officer for St. John the Baptist Parish.

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Associated Press contributed to this story.

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