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Punishing storms in Texas test government emergency response

By AP - May 27,2015 - Last updated at May 27,2015

Kevin Calaway pries apart debris from a cabin shattered from a flood days earlier at a resort along the Blanco River, Tuesday (AP photo)

WIMBERLEY, Texas — Deadly severe weather over the long holiday weekend tested government alert and evacuation procedures, as officials scrambled to deal with storms and historic flooding that left more than a dozen people dead and a similar number missing.

Crews resumed searching Wednesday for the 11 people who went missing in the small tourist town of Wimberley, where the usually calm Blanco River surged rapidly and crested at three times its flood stage. In Houston, where nearly a foot of rain submerged roads and stranded hundreds of motorists, Mayor Annise Parker said two people who capsized in a boat that was helping with rescue efforts Tuesday had not been found. It was raining there again Wednesday.

At least 17 people were killed in the Memorial Day weekend storms in Texas and Oklahoma.

Authorities defended their warnings to residents ahead of the weather, which included alerts via phone and in person, but acknowledged the challenges in reaching tourists and said a messaging system in Houston needs improvements.

"Nobody was saying, 'Get out; get out; get out’," said Brenda Morton of Wimberley. "We're pretty trained, so we were calculating. We knew the flood plain. People who were visiting or had summer homes, you have company from out of town, you don't know. You don't know when that instant is."

Morton lives three houses down from a two-storey vacation home that authorities say was swept off its 10-foot pylons by a wall of water early Sunday morning with eight people inside, including three children ages 6 and 4. The house slammed into a bridge after being carried downstream on the Blanco.

Authorities in surrounding Hays County said warnings included multiple cell phone alerts and calls to landlines. Some received in-person warnings to evacuate, but officials could not say whether those in the washed-away home talked to police.

"Law enforcement made notification along that street. Whether they made contact with somebody at their residence, I can't say," Hays County Emergency Management Coordinator Kharley Smith said.

Wimberley, a popular bed-and-breakfast getaway near Austin and surrounded by wine vineyards, thrives on holiday weekends. Some of the missing had homes in the area, but officials have acknowledged that their electronic alerts may not reach tourists.

"Most definitely, most definitely that will certainly be part of our discussion," Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said.

In Houston, warnings from the National Weather Service buzzed on mobile phones, but city officials say they haven't installed a system that would allow them to alert residents with more targeted warnings. The city was still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get that framework running, said Michael Walter, spokesman for Houston's Office of Emergency Management.

Floodwaters in Houston affected virtually every part of the city and paralysed some areas. Firefighters carried out more than 500 water rescues, most involving stranded motorists. At least 2,500 vehicles were abandoned by drivers seeking higher ground, officials said.

"A number that we don't know, and we will never know, is the number of lives that have been saved by the effective response of first responders," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in Houston.

A spokeswoman for the flood district of Harris County, which includes Houston, said up to 700 homes sustained some level of damage.

It was raining again in Houston on Wednesday, but county officials said the new storm was hitting different areas than those most affected by Tuesday's flooding. They said the new rainfall could lead to problems along bayous, creeks and rivers, though.

More than 100,000 gallons of untreated wastewater was spilled Tuesday from a southwestern Houston treatment plant that was flooded by a bayou that eclipsed its banks, city officials said. They said the spill was contained and that residents don't have to boil their water, but they shouldn't swim in areas around the Southwest Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Meanwhile, authorities said Wednesday that they were monitoring an earthen dam about 40km southwest of Dallas. Water was flowing over the top of the dam at Padera Lake, near Midlothian, and if the dam breaks, it could flood Highway 287 with a couple of feet of water.

Abbott said 46 counties in Texas have state disaster declarations. President Barack Obama has said he expressed condolences to Abbott and anticipates significant requests for federal assistance.

Crews were also searching for victims and assessing damage just across the Texas-Mexico border in Ciudad Acuna, where a tornado killed 13 people Monday.

The deaths in Texas included a man whose body was pulled from the Blanco; a 14-year-old who was found with his dog in a storm drain; a high school senior who died Saturday after her car was caught in high water; and a man whose mobile home was destroyed by a reported tornado.

 

The drenching rain threatened to linger. National Weather Service forecasts called for a 20 to 40 per cent chance of thunderstorms through the rest of the week in Houston, and more storms were also in store for Central Texas.

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