Flooding storms rake Houston overnight

By: By DALE LEZON, JAMES PINKERTON and MARK BABINECK Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
By: By DALE LEZON, JAMES PINKERTON and MARK BABINECK Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

An intense cell of thunderstorms dumped nearly a foot of water in parts of western Harris County overnight, flooding homes and roads and closing school for thousands of students.

A powerful storm system stalled in the darkness, causing showers to “train” over the same places, some of which got their heaviest rainfall since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

And the threat isn't over yet: A flood watch is in effect until at least midnight, the National Weather Service said, and northern Harris County was under a flood warning until 1 p.m. after a fresh round of late-morning showers. A chance of rain remains in the forecast today and for the rest of the week.

Additional rain this afternoon likely will result in more flooding, said Heather Saucier, spokeswoman for the Harris County Flood Control District. "The water levels in our channels are falling. We can hope that some of that water drains off before it rains again," she said.

This afternoon, the biggest traffic tie-up was caused by flooding that closed Interstate 45 southbound at Spring Stuebner on the north side. The freeway was at a virtual standstill behind the blockage.

The weather service issue a flood warning this afternoon for the west fork of the San Jacinto River and Spring Creek, both affecting Harris and Montgomery counties. Both were out of their banks at 2:30 p.m.

Some of the 24-hour rain totals as of 7 a.m. in western Harris County were staggering, according to the weather service: Jersey Village, 10.1 inches; Bunker Hill Village, 9.7 inches; Buffalo Bayou at West Belt, 9.4 inches; Tomball, 7.5 inches; Mission Bend, 7.2 inches.

Rescuers with the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department pulled dozens of residents out of their houses in the Bear Creek subdivision near Highway 6 and Clay Road. Assistant Chief Scott Mullins said 100 to 200 homes suffered some sort of water damage.

"We got reports of one family standing on a bed in a bedroom, that was the highest place in the house," said Mullins, adding there were no known injuries but some residents in wheelchairs needed to be carried from their homes.

Mullins said the next threat to people in the subdivision, besides a possible invasion of rodents and snakes looking for refuge from neighboring Addicks Reservoir, is if upstream areas of Montgomery and Waller counties get another dose of heavy rain anytime soon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned the reservoir is rising this afternoon and could flood parts of Highway 6 or Eldridge, both of which cross it.

Fiona Maughan of the 5300 block of Pine Cliff, one of Bear Creek's main arteries that looked like a canal mid-morning, said violent storms woke her up around 3 a.m. Water moved from the garage to the kitchen and up the drains into the showers.

"We had about four inches of water in the home," Maughan said.

Most of the strongest rains moved out of the area by 7:30 a.m., but they left a giant mess behind. Traffic in spots has been nightmarish, backing up behind high water and closed roads or exits.

Despite scheduled TAKS testing, the Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Alief, Fort Bend, North Forest and Spring Branch school districts canceled all classes today because of the weather. Tomball schools delayed opening by two hours.

Katy ISD initially had called for a delay before canceling classes shortly before 8 a.m. North Forest made its announcement at 9 a.m. after some school buses already had picked up students.

Houston Independent School District campuses remained open, but there will be no TAKS testing because of the weather and possibility some students might not make it in, especially on the west side.

For other information about schools, including the closure list, click here. For notes about other items, such as Houston municipal courts and Metro, click here.

Witnesses reported seeing a woman drive into a flooded drainage ditch on the north side of Interstate 10 between Gessner and the West Sam Houston Tollway around before dawn. Houston police divers began searching around noon after waters receded to safe levels.

Christopher Jordan, 41, said he had just picked up a stranded co-worker from a nearby Home Depot when he saw the woman's car float toward a drainage ditch in front of Sam's Club and teeter on the bank. Jordan, who waded through four feet of water and grabbed the bumper, said the woman was on a cell phone.

Finally Jordan had to let go, the car was swept down the culvert and nobody appeared to escape, he said.

Jordan called 911 and told the operator he was going to go into the dark, swirling water, but the person on the other end convinced him to stay put. Houston police Sgt. G.T. Hall called Jordan's actions "heroic," but Jordan disagreed.

I just saw somebody in distress and they needed some help," said Jordan, who added that he normally doesn't drive in such conditions but did so to help his co-worker.

Hall said divers ventured about 300 feet down two huge underground drainage pipes looking for the dark-colored Toyota RAV4 Houston. Divers in the eastern pipe saw tire skid marks on the ceiling, and police were planning to go manhole-by-manhole down the route looking for the car.

However, Hall added no missing person report has been filed with police.

Earlier, Houston firefighters rescued several people trapped in their cars by up to four feet of water nearby at I-10 and Gessner, said Assistant Chief Adrian Trevino.

Firefighters used high-water rescue trucks and boats to reach the stranded people, Trevino said. No injuries have been reported so far, he added.

Zabrina Nesmoe, 25, who this morning was driving on the Katy Freeway feeder road near Gessner about 5 a.m., said she stalled out in high water for the second time in a five days. Driving a rental car, she said the water on the ramp seemed shallow but quickly became hood-deep before she pulled over and safely walked away with her boyfriend.

Her own car was damaged Friday in floodwaters near Interstate 45 and Edgebrook. Now she's waiting for a second rental car.

"Houston needs to fix the drainage system out here, big-time," she said, adding that rental agencies are telling her their inventory is either leased out or damaged.

The entire Sam Houston Tollway between the Katy and Southwest freeways was closed by high water for hours this morning but reopened before 9 a.m. Dozens of motorists were stranded on the swamped pavement.

“Some people got on Beltway 8, couldn’t go anywhere, and were just stuck there for two and a half or three hours,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “That’s just unacceptable. We need to make sure we have plans in place when that happens.”

Flooded homes also were reported along White Oak Bayou in the Hastings Green and Wren Crest subdivisions, said Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County Emergency Management.

At least 20 high water locations blocked roads, Sanchez said.

Bayous and creeks above their banks at 10 a.m. included Cypress Creek, Little Cypress Creek and Willow Creek, which were continuing to rise; and the upper reaches of Bear Creek, South Mayde Creek and Langham Creek, which were falling.

Buffalo Bayou, Brays Bayou and White Oak Bayou also were falling as of mid-morning.

Pratima Kothari, 63, reported up to six feet of water on the first floor of her Piney Point home after Buffalo Bayou intruded early today.

"I have furniture floating," she said in a telephone interview from her second story. "I had my home theater on the first floor."

Kothari said the glass-walled structure next to the bayou is just two feet above the flood plain and flooded in Tropical Storm Allison eight years ago, but "it wasn't nearly as deep (then) as it is now."

On the western and northwestern sides of the county, 24-hour gauge readings ranging from five to 10 inches were common, according to the Harris County Office of Emergency Management.

Ironically, the day won't go down officially as a massive rain event for Houston because the weather service gauge at Bush Intercontinental Airport only got 3.7 inches in the 24 hours before 8 a.m. and less than two inches overnight. Flights were running normally at the two major airports.

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