Sept. 19 (UPI) — Catastrophic flooding from stalled Tropical Storm Imelda endangered communities across southeastern Texas on Thursday as the system dumped more than 3 feet of rain in places, bringing back unwanted memories of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Forecasters say final rainfall totals could challenge the record amounts left by Harvey two years ago.
Two deaths have been reported. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez confirmed that a man was pulled from a submerged van and pronounced dead at the hospital. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office reported a man was electrocuted and drowned while trying to move his horse.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for 13 counties that were experiencing the flooding.
“The state of Texas is working closely with local officials and emergency personnel to provide the resources they need to keep Texans safe from Tropical Storm Imelda,” Abbott said in a statement. “I thank our first responders who are acting swiftly to help the communities that are facing this severe weather event. I urge all those in the path of this storm to take the necessary precautions and heed all warnings from local officials.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office posted that its dispatchers have fielded 790 weather-related calls, including 350 high-water rescues as of Thursday afternoon.
Some locations have been inundated by feet of rain, in what officials have called a “life-threatening situation.” The highest rainfall report through noon Thursday was a 72-hour rainfall total of 42.68 inches near Hamshire, Texas, about 65 miles east of Houston. Texas Greens Bayou, northeast of Houston, recorded 9.68 inches in 3 hours during the middle of the day Thursday.
AccuWeather meteorologists are projecting a maximum of 55 inches.
While Houston initially avoided the heaviest rainfall from Imelda, heavier bands of rain began shifting southward over the city as of late Thursday morning, and bayous were rising rapidly, according to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
On Thursday afternoon, a very heavy rain band east of Houston continued to drop 3 to 4 inches of rain per hour, adding to the flooding, forecasters said.
Imelda first came to life on Tuesday as a tropical depression before it rapidly grew into a short-lived tropical storm.
Following landfall in Freeport, Texas, the storm crept inland and began to trigger a deluge that is now in its second day. Forecasters say the threats of flooding and isolated tornadoes will persist into Thursday night.
The flooding rain has resulted in an increase in power outages and travel shutdowns. More than 70,000 were without power and flights were grounded at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport. Interstate 10 was shut down in both directions near Fannett while access to I-10 was also limited near Beaumont as many access roads were flooded.
In Vidor and Winnie, officials interviewed by separate media outlets both spoke of the dangerous waters and the severity being worse than Harvey in 2017.
Vidor, Texas, Police Chief Rod Carroll told KFDM News that the situation in town was “catastrophic” and the flooding in town was worse than Harvey.
Videos on social media Thursday showed numerous water rescues being carried out by airboats, including some by the Texas Game Warden.
As flooding overwhelmed many access roads, access to Interstate 10 and Highway 69 from Beaumont became “extremely limited,” the police department said. The City of Beaumont has closed non-essential offices for Thursday.
Lamar University said it was closing its campus on Thursday and urged students and faculty to stay off the roads and avoid areas with standing water.
Beaumont received nearly 2 inches of rain in one hour on Wednesday night and has picked up near 18 inches of rain since Wednesday morning.
Farther south, Chambers County Emergency Management said significant flooding was occurring in Winnie, with water coming into homes and businesses. Riceland Hospital has been evacuated, and a flood shelter has been opened at White’s Park Community Center.
The Chambers County Sheriff’s Office said the community of Winnie was “devastated” by rising water and high water rescue vehicles and airboats had been deployed.
In an interview with ABC News, Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said the flooding in Winnie was “absolutely horrible” and homes and businesses that never got water during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 have been overwhelmed by flooding.
Elsewhere in Beaumont, the dual ABC/NBC affiliate,12 News, was forced to evacuate Thursday morning due to the rising floodwaters. The station said on its Facebook page that news anchors would broadcast from their sister station KHOU 11 out of Houston.
Imelda could be responsible for a few tornadoes that spun up in Chambers and Harris counties on Wednesday. Beaumont was under a tornado warning for a time early Thursday morning, but there have been no initial reports of a confirmed tornado.
What’s left of Imelda will dissipate by Friday, but the threat of ongoing flooding will persist across eastern Texas through the weekend as rivers and streams continue to rise.