Floodwaters soak 'flat, flat, flat' plains some Texas towns still face river crests

As rivers overflow and swallow their lawns, residents hit the road

October 22, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WHARTON, Texas -- When the Colorado River seeped over its banks yesterday, Irene Edwards began to unplug the appliances and stuff her clothes into boxes.

When it crossed the road and swallowed her lawn, she called her uncle to come over in a hurry and bring his trailer.

By noon, when it crested the door jam, she was bouncing up the street with everything she owned.

"I'm getting out of here and I'm never coming back," said Edwards, 21. "I'm moving way out in the country where the river doesn't come into your living room."

After record flooding that has left at least 22 people dead, the water that began falling last weekend across central and southern Texas was still trying to find its way to the sea yesterday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said five were still missing, including a 7-year-old boy.

About 7,000 people were evacuated during the early flooding between San Antonio and Austin on Saturday night and Sunday, with an additional 8,000 people displaced in the flooding that began Monday night.

Several of the river towns along Texas' broad coastal plain, such as Victoria, had significant sections under water. Some, such as Cuero, were swamped and virtually cut off. At others, like Wharton, the worst was yet to come.

Though the rain had diminished to a drizzle and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds here and there, the Guadalupe, Brazos, San Bernard, Colorado and several other smaller creeks and rivers were all well beyond their banks yesterday.

Some were not due to crest until today.

Residents up and down the swampy flatlands said it was the fiercest flooding they had seen in years, perhaps ever. State emergency officials agreed.

Farther upstream, in Seguin and New Braunfels, at the edge of the Texas hill country, where the flooding had started Sunday, people were just beginning to make their way back home, if they had a home left. Dozens of properties had been wiped away by the rushing waters, officials said.

Early estimates, covering only two counties, put the cost of the damage at more than $400 million; officials predicted that the eventual figure would run in the billions of dollars, as some flooding was reported in 60 Texas counties.

President Clinton declared 20 of those counties a federal disaster area yesterday.

"We've got a saying around here that if you stand on a bucket, you can see for two weeks," said Wharton County Judge Lawrence Naiser. "It's just flat, flat, flat. But that makes it awful hard to get rid of the water once it's here."

Wharton Mayor Joel Williams addressed an anxious gathering of 300 of the town's 11,000 residents yesterday morning at City Hall, which was rapidly being transformed into an emergency command post. By today, he said, much of the city would be under water and some of the major highways out of town would be impassable.

Officials in several communities have had trouble getting many residents to leave. Some, who had been through previous floods, suspected that officials were exaggerating the danger; others worried that their property would be looted.

The result in several instances was that people who stayed behind had to be rescued by boat and helicopter.

Two feet of rain fell over the weekend in parts of central and southern Texas, when a weather system caused by two hurricanes in Mexico met cold air pushing down from the north.

The heaviest rain -- sometimes as much as 5 inches an hour -- hit portions of the counties northwest of Houston and north of San Antonio.

Most of the deaths attributed to the storm system occurred Sunday and Monday in San Antonio and the counties just to its north, where the downpour caused flash flooding.

The later flooding, from Monday through yesterday, has been more predictable, giving people ample warning and keeping deaths and injuries low, officials said.

Officials expected the Colorado River to crest at 50 feet this afternoon in Wharton, at the center of the country's largest rice-growing region. The previous record of 46 feet was set in 1991.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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