Water rescues begin as Imelda soaks east Texas, reviving memories of Hurricane Harvey

An aerial photograph of Sargent, Texas, on Wednesday
As seen in an aerial view, homes were surrounded by floodwaters in Sargent, Texas, on the Gulf Coast south of Houston.
(Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle)

The remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda unleashed torrential rain Thursday in parts of Texas and Louisiana, prompting hundreds of water rescues, a hospital evacuation and road closures as the powerful storm system drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey two years ago.

Although the amount of predicted rainfall is massive — forecasters say some places could see 40 inches or more this week — Imelda’s deluge is largely targeting areas east of Houston, including the small town of Winnie and the city of Beaumont.

Still, the Houston area, which suffered extreme damage from Harvey, faced heavy rains Thursday, leading forecasters to declare a flash-flood emergency through midday for Harris County, where forecasters said 3 to 5 inches of rain per hour was possible.


Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined other Texas officials in urging drivers to stay off the roads.

Imelda is the first named storm to hit the Houston area since Harvey hovered for days in August 2017 and inundated the flood-prone Gulf Coast. The storm dumped more than 5 feet of water on the town of Nederland, Texas, near the Louisiana border.

No deaths or injuries related to the storm were immediately reported Thursday.

East of Houston, some local officials said the flooding was worse than during Harvey. In Winnie, a town of about 3,200, a hospital was evacuated and water was inundating several homes and businesses.

Fast-moving Hurricane Humberto, a Category 3, swept Bermuda before heading out into the Atlantic. In the Pacific, Hurricane Lorena hovers off Baja California.

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it. Right now I’m in an absolute deluge of rain,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said Thursday morning as he took cover under a carport at an auto dealership in Winnie. The town “looks like a lake.”

Hawthorne said emergency workers rescued about 200 people overnight, and that an additional 50 households were on a waiting list to be rescued Thursday morning. Hawthorne said some residents were up on their roofs because of rising floodwaters.

Airboats from the sheriff’s office and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department were helping with the rescues along with high-water vehicles, Hawthorne said.

“Right now, as a Texas sheriff, the only thing that I really want is for people to pray that it will quit raining,” he added.

Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Sarah Dupre did not know exactly how many people were stranded in their cars on a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 10 that was closed between Winnie and Beaumont to the east. Louisiana officials also closed a portion of Interstate 10 heading west into Texas.

Dupre said the department was currently working with local law enforcement to rescue motorists.

In Beaumont, a city of over 100,000, authorities said all service roads were impassable and two hospitals were inaccessible, the Beaumont Enterprise reported. Beaumont police said on Twitter that more than 500 calls for high-water rescues and evacuations had been received.

“It’s bad. Homes that did not flood in Harvey are flooding now,” said Jeff Branick, a presiding official with the title of county judge for Jefferson County, which includes Beaumont.

During Harvey, the Beaumont municipal water system’s only pumping station was swamped by floodwaters, leaving residents without water service for more than a week.

The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post that residents of an area where a levy was deteriorating should use their boats to pick up neighbors and carry them to safety.

The National Weather Service declared a flash flood emergency for several counties, saying “life-threatening amounts of rainfall” have fallen and more was expected Thursday.

Imelda’s center was about 110 miles north of Houston early Thursday and was moving north-northwest at 5 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Heavy rain fell Wednesday in many areas. Thunderstorms spawned several weak tornadoes in the Baytown area, about 25 miles east of Houston, damaging trees, barns and sheds and causing minor damage to some homes and vehicles.

Coastal counties, including Brazoria, Matagorda and Galveston, were hit hard by rain through Wednesday.

Sargent, a town of about 2,700 in Matagorda County, had received nearly 20 inches of rain since Tuesday. Resident Karen Romero said it was the most rain she had had in her neighborhood in her nine years living there.

“The rain ... was just massive sheets of rain and lightning storms,” said Romero, 57.

She said her home, located along a creek, was not in danger of flooding as it sits on stilts, like many others nearby.

In the Houston area, some roadways were flooded Wednesday, stranding drivers, while creeks and bayous were rising.

The National Hurricane Center said Imelda weakened to a tropical depression after making landfall as a tropical storm Tuesday near Freeport, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph.

Meanwhile, as Imelda caused flooding in Texas, Hurricane Humberto blew off rooftops and toppled trees on the island of Bermuda in the Atlantic, and Hurricane Jerry was expected to move to the northern Leeward Islands on Friday and north of Puerto Rico on Saturday.