Shared from the 9/20/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition


‘WE SHOULDN’T BE USED TO THIS’: Over 2,100 rescued as storm returns with fury on Day 3

Brett Coomer / Staff photographer

A man wades through floodwaters after a deluge from the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda inundated Patton Village, about 35 miles northeast of downtown Houston.

Yi-Chin Lee / Staff photographer

Flood evacuees find shelter Thursday at White’s Park Arena and Barn in Wallisville after Imelda’s rains stranded motorists and sent water into homes.

Yi-Chin Lee /Staff photographer

Alfonzo Herebia fights through to get to his father’s house and help him move belongings in Anahuac. Herebia said the house was not damaged by the flood.

Weather forecasters issued a simple warning as remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda passed over Houston on Wednesday: Don’t let your guard down yet.

Imelda returned a day later, lashing Southeast Texas with heavy rain, flooding wide swaths of Harris County and surrounding areas, and wreaking devastation as far away as Beaumont and Vidor. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 13 counties, including Harris and Galveston, and two Texas congressmen called on President Donald Trump to issue a federal disaster declaration for the region.

By late Thursday, authorities had attributed two deaths to the storm — one in Harris County, where sheriff’s deputies pulled a man out of a submerged van, and one in Jefferson County, where authorities said 19-year-old Hunter Morrison suffered an electric shock trying to rescue a horse. Across the region, first responders rescued or evacuated at least 2,100 people. Tens of thousands more lost power in counties north, east and south of Houston — service that may take days to fully restore.

The storm grounded or delayed more than 900 flights at Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports and brought Metro service to a halt for hours, forcing residents to find other ways home. It flooded streets, stalled trash pickup and forced the closure of city courts.

Imelda also caused havoc for thousands of families after at least 20 school districts remained open, requiring schools in many cases to keep kids later as parents negotiated flooded, traffic-clogged streets to pick their children up. Several area school districts announced they would be closed Friday, including Houston, Conroe, Channel-view, Fort Bend, Humble and Spring ISDs.

And it flooded a stretch of Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, turning the highway into a mileslong parking lot of submerged vehicles.

One family of five stared in awe at the flooded freeway from the North Street overpass. They said it reminded them of the scene during Hurricane Harvey.

“We shouldn’t be used to this,” said the father, Alejandro De Almaida. “Harvey was the 500-year flood, so we weren’t expecting this after two years.”

Meteorologists stressed that Harvey was more severe, but added they had been concerned Imelda might circle back to the region.

“This is why we were telling people not to let their guard down,” said Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, “because we could see that there was the potential for additional rainfall.”

Thursday’s downpours hit some areas even harder, dumping more than 40 inches over 72 hours. Imelda was the first named storm to strike the Houston area since Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on some parts, leading to catastrophic flooding.

In Winnie, the storm knocked the Lower Neches Valley Authority water treatment plant offline. Authorities said it is unclear when the plant, which serves Bolivar Peninsula, will be up and running, but said there should be enough water stored to last residents for the next two days. The storm also forced the closure of Exxon’s chemical plant in Beaumont.

The weather system was expected to calm down Thursday night, with forecasters expecting only a 40 to 50 percent chance of scattered showers and only up to an inch of rain Friday in Houston.

Imelda started as a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall as a tropical depression in Freeport on Tuesday afternoon

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, some portions of north Harris County had taken on more than 14 inches of rain as the outer, southwest bands of the storm lashed the area. Much of the county’s central portions had received at least 7 inches, with bayous overflowing their banks and highways inundated with water.

Imelda also dumped more than 25 inches of rain on parts of Montgomery County.

The storm’s effects varied widely. Some parts of Liberty County got more than 30 inches of rain from the slow-moving, disjointed, tropical depression, while parts of Harris County, received less than an inch.

The high water sent first responders and citizen rescuers slogging through flooded streets to help stranded motorists as well as residents trapped in inundated homes.

Some 1,200 to 1,500 Harris County residents were either evacuated or rescued from their homes as water levels rose, authorities said. There were reports of minor injuries, including one firefighter, according to Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo spent much of the day wading through waist-deep water in the North Kingwood Forest subdivision, urging residents to evacuate with his officers. The murky floodwater hid a roadside ditch that the large police vehicle carrying the chief fell into, according to a live video stream he posted to Twitter.

It took two people in SUVs to pull the police vehicle out, Acevedo said.

Houston residents across the city said Imelda’s return Thursday caught them by surprise.

Juan Sorto said he received calls and texts all day from neighbors in flooded Lakewood, near the confluence of Halls and Greens bayous in northeast Houston.

“There are a lot of people, including myself, we came to work — we thought ‘OK, the worst is over,’ ” he said. “But we were all caught off guard. Every one of us pretty much either sent our kids to school or went to work just like it was any other day. But now we know different.”

People didn’t necessarily let their guards down, Lindner said, but likely grew less concerned as three days passed without serious conditions in Harris County, and as communities east in Beaumont and Winnie bore the brunt of Imelda’s wrath.

First responders were also busy across the region.

In Montgomery County, first responders made about 400 rescues, according to Kevin Bates of the Montgomery County Fire Marshal’s office. In one instance, they transported 83 residents of a senior living complex to safety from floodwaters.

“We’ve had an unprecedented amount of rainfall that was for the most part pretty unexpected toward the end,” Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said.

Chambers County authorities reported that they had rescued 300 people since Tuesday, with about 250 or so of those occurring on Thursday.

In nearby Liberty County, first responders had made at least 37 water rescues since Thursday morning, according to Ken Defoor, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

Perhaps due to the weaker precipitation earlier in the week, at least 20 school districts in and around Harris County were open Thursday. When weather took a turn for the worse, many districts canceled after-school activities — while some sent students home early. Floodwaters spilled into at least two schools.

School officials had to make split-second decisions on how to keep kids safe and in many cases kept students on campus, forcing parents to scramble to pick them up.

As foul weather pummeled Houston, Cynthia Kelley, 31, rushed home from her job downtown to her west Houston home to pick up her 10-year-old daughter from Briargrove Elementary School.

Hours later, she and thousands of other HISD parents received a note from interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

“In today’s case the weather event unfortunately took a turn that was unforeseen by many area school districts and agencies,” Lathan wrote. “Throughout the day we took proactive measures to keep our students and staff safe. We followed the emergency management officials’ advice to shelter in place and maintain normal dismissal times.”

That came as cold comfort for Kelley, who said districts should have canceled class.

“The meteorologists said from the get-go, ‘Wednesday and Thursday will be the worst,’ ”she said. “We know the city of Houston floods. We know this. Did we not learn from Harvey? Memorial Day? Tax Day? Houston floods.”

Many residents whose houses flooded during Harvey were horrified to see water enter their homes once again.

By noon Thursday, water had begun to seep through Annie Green’s front door, having covered the porch of her home, which is being rebuilt after flooding two years ago.

“I’m really tired, and I don’t know how much more of this I can stand,” said Green, 66. “I mean, what can I do?”

As of Thursday evening, Houston police recovered more than 200 abandoned vehicles from city roadways, and hundreds more vehicles remained stranded.

Residents in north Houston along Halls Bayou escaped flooding, but Thursday evening they were keeping a wary eye on the banks.

This time, luckily, the bayou didn’t overrun its banks, thanks to upgrades such as a widening of the once-narrow channel and the construction or expansion of four detention ponds upstream.

Even the local goats do their part with erosion and debris control. A nearby resident has a flock of around 40 that are fixtures on the banks. He was out shortly after the rains ceased, keeping watch as they munched on the grassy slope, inches from the rushing stream.

“He saves the county a lot of money,” Santos Hernandez said. “He keeps it mowed.”

Todd Ackerman, Brittany Britto, Dug Begley, Jordan Blum, Hannah Dellinger, Marcy de Luna, Catherine Dominguez, Alan Fossler, Jeff Forward, Emily Foxhall, Julian Gill, Jose R. Gonzalez, Nicole Hensley, Michelle Iracheta, Jay R. Jordan, Samantha Ketterer, Lomi Kriel, Reid Laymance, Justin

Maskulinski, Dylan McGuinness, Mike Morris, Nick Powell, Jasper Scherer, Sarah Smith, Alex Stuckey, Jamie Swinnerton, David Taylor, Rob Tate and Shelby

Webb, as well as the

Associated Press and

Beaumont Enterprise, contributed to this report.

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