Five Dead in Houston-Area Flooding

by | April 19, 2016

By Mike Morris Mihir Zaveri and Mike Tolson

Once again the assault came under the cover of night, loud and impressive, and by the time daybreak arrived, Houston and its neighboring communities were literally awash in familiar scenes of misery.

Storms that had been anticipated for two days finally descended with a fury Sunday night, bringing as much as a foot and a half of rain to parts of Texas' most populated region. Once again its residents were confronted by power outages, submerged and dangerous roadways, overloaded bayous, and flooded homes, some recently rebuilt after last year's Memorial Day deluge.

Authorities said at least five people drowned as a result of this storm, which was another reminder of the vulnerability of the broad South Texas coastal plain where water can rise quickly -- especially so at dipping highway underpasses -- but often drains at an achingly slow pace.

Hoping to keep the human toll at a minimum, all local school districts canceled classes early Monday and the Metro transit system was suspended. Many employers, large and small, never opened their doors. Government offices also were shuttered. At least nine hospitals stopped accepting emergency traffic. Scores of flights at Bush and Hobby airports were cancelled.

Those areas within Houston that struggled most with flooding, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, were Meyerland, Greenspoint, Inwood Forest, and Acres Homes. During the height of the storm, the city had received 180 calls for assistance that responders could not answer due to high water, Turner said.

"I don't think anyone expected the rainfall to come as soon as it did and persist as long as it did," Turner said, citing totals between 10 and 15 inches in different parts of town.

Turner acknowledged the event was difficult to forecast but said city officials would not have prepared any differently than they did. City personnel were on alert Sunday night, Turner said, and he and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett early on decided to have only public safety personnel report to work.

The powerful storm sent an estimated 240 billion gallons of water into more than a dozen creeks and bayous, and eventually into more than 1,000 buildings and homes. Near the Waller County line, Harris County officials recorded a high of 17.6 inches of rain. Much of the northwest swath received over 15 inches in 24 hours.

"This was so widespread," Emmett said, contrasting the flooding with last year's Memorial Day floods that were more concentrated in certain areas. "This was pretty much over the entire county and the entire region."

Emmett said the fatalities included one at Greenspoint Drive and Beltway 8, one at West Hardy Road and the Beltway, and three at frontage road underpasses east and west of the U.S. 59/Loop 610 interchange. A death in Waller County could also be attributed to the storm.

While officials hope the worst of the weather has passed, the National Weather Service put the chance of additional showers and thunderstorms Tuesday at 70-80 percent. More rain is likely into Thursday.

A handful of Houston-area school districts and campuses already plan to close or start late Tuesday. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state's third-largest district with 114,000 students, will be closed again, citing "rising water and transportation concerns." Likewise, the Royal ISD in southern Waller County will be shut down. Alvin ISD in northern Brazoria County will start two hours late Tuesday.

Even without more rain, flooding in the north and west parts of the county could continue through Wednesday, officials said, and the west fork of the San Jacinto River likely will see elevated levels in the coming days as water from the rains slowly feeds into it. County and city officials warned people not to travel if they don't need to, saying that high water could still pose dangers.

After conferring with area officials, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a state disaster declaration for nine counties: Harris, Bastrop, Austin, Colorado, Fort Bend, Grimes, Montgomery, Waller and Wharton. That will allow local officials to implement state emergency-assistance plans and order curfews, if necessary, should heavy rains continue through Tuesday.

Immediate estimates of property damage were not available. Should they prove excessive following a detailed assessment, a federal disaster declaration is expected in a few days.

"The rainfall so far is about half of what we had for (Tropical Storm) Allison ... but some areas of Houston had well over a foot of rain in 24 hours," Abbott said. "That's the most I have ever seen."

Flooding hit most areas adjacent to local creeks and bayous, resulting in the evacuation of a number of apartment complexes and more than 1,200 high-water rescues throughout the county. One of the most dramatic rescues involved more than 70 horses stabled at facilities near overflowing Cypress Creek. Stable employees and volunteers braved roiling waters to pull, nudge, and coax the frightened animals toward higher ground. No horses were said to have drowned.

West and northwest Harris County received a powerful blow from the storm, which began just after dark and continued on through the night. Swollen creeks, including South Mayde, soon spread water into neighborhoods that don't typically see it.

Also hit hard were neighborhoods near Brays Bayou, all too familiar with the ravages of heavy, sudden rainfall. The Memorial Day flood damaged many homes in and around the Meyerland subdivision, and some were hit again in Monday's early-morning hours.

"I regret anyone who's having to go through the flooding of their homes again," Turner said. "For some individuals, they've just finished the repairs and moved back into their homes, and then less than a year later, here we go again. I know it's very difficult. This is just one of those things that no one can control."

Thousands of homes in all parts of town were affected by the rapid downpour. In Aldine, for example, Roberto Figueroa found himself standing in ankle-deep water when the skies brightened Monday afternoon. Less than 24 hours earlier, he had been gardening in his backyard and noticed the ground seemed a little dry.

The 67-year-old Figueroa, surveying his now-soaked yard and one-story rental home afflicted with six inches of mud-brown water, said: "Nothing is damaged, I hope."

As Figueroa spoke, a neighboring family of five floated past on an inflated air mattress. On board were Jesus Amador, Fabiola Medina and three children, ages 7, 4 and 2. Asked why they had set out on the makeshift raft, Amador said in Spanish, "to seize the moment."

Their side street started flooding around 5 a.m., said Amador, 34, and water had seeped into his garage.

"I'm afraid it will come into the house," he said.

Oblivious to the danger still lurking, his 7-year-old son Isai reveled in being able to float down his street. "This is my first time," Isai said triumphantly.

For those who have lived in southeast Texas for a while, that is not true. And it surely will not be the last.

Ericka Mellon, Rebecca Elliott and James Pinkerton contributed to this story.

(c)2016 the Houston Chronicle