Death toll climbs to 19 from storms in Texas and Oklahoma
(AP) -- The death toll from a barrage of storms and floods in Texas and Oklahoma climbed to 19 on Wednesday, with over a dozen people missing, and another round of rain threatened to complicate the cleanup in hard-hit Houston.
The forecast was for 2 to 3 more inches of rain in the Houston area, a day after flooding triggered by nearly a foot of rain in a matter of hours swamped neighborhoods and highways and stranded hundreds of motorists.
Crews resumed the search for 11 people missing and presumed dead after the swollen Blanco River surged through the small tourist town of Wimberley, between San Antonio and Austin. Houston Mayor Annise Parker said two people whose boat capsized during a rescue effort were also missing.
Authorities, meanwhile, defended their telephone and in-person warnings to residents ahead of the bad weather but acknowledged the difficulty in reaching tourists and said a messaging system in Houston is awaiting improvements.
"Nobody was saying, 'Get out! Get out! Get out!'" said Brenda Morton of Wimberley, a popular bed-and-breakfast getaway near Austin that is surrounded by vineyards. She said year-round residents know the risks, but "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-story vacation home that was swept off its 10-foot pylons by a wall of water early Sunday with eight people inside, including three children. The floodwaters slammed the house into a bridge downstream on the Blanco. All eight victims were missing.
Authorities in surrounding Hays County said the warnings included multiple cellphone alerts and calls to landlines.
The first wave of warnings went to phones of registered users, which could have missed many tourists. But officials said that as the danger escalated they used a commercial database that would have delivered a warning to virtually anyone whose cellphone was in range of local towers.
Sheriff's deputies also went along the riverbanks and told people to evacuate, but officials could not say whether those in the washed-away home talked to police.
In Houston, warnings from the National Weather Service buzzed on mobile phones, but city officials said they haven't installed a system that would allow them to alert residents with targeted warnings depending on their location without the need to register.
The city is still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get that system running, said Michael Walter, spokesman for Houston's Office of Emergency Management.
The flooding in Houston affected virtually every part of the city and paralyzed some areas. Firefighters carried out more than 500 water rescues, most involving stranded motorists. At least 2,500 vehicles were abandoned by drivers, and up to 700 Houston-area homes were damaged, officials said.
Thousands of homes were also damaged or destroyed in the central Texas corridor that includes Wimberley -- 744 of them in San Marcos alone, said Kenneth Bell, emergency management coordinator for San Marcos.
More than 100,000 gallons of sewage spilled Tuesday from a flooded-out Houston treatment plant, officials said. They said that the spill was contained and that residents don't have to boil their water, but they shouldn't swim in areas around the plant.
Authorities in Houston confirmed two more storm-related deaths Wednesday, for a total of six. In all, at least 15 deaths were reported in Texas and four in Oklahoma.
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 forecast called for a 20 to 40 percent chance of thunderstorms through the rest of the wee006B in Houston, and more storms were also in store for central Texas.
Lozano reported from Houston. Associated Press writers David Warren and Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Kristie Rieken in Houston and photographer David J. Phillip in Houston contributed to this report.
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