Deadly Flooding Hits Austin; Rescuers Busy

Nov. 01--As a second October deluge triggered a second round of flooding across Central Texas on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, helicopters and boats plucked people from flooded homes and residents hacked through their roofs to escape the rising water when storm-swollen creeks swallowed entire neighborhoods.

Emergency workers continued searching flooded areas Thursday, particularly in hard-hit Southeast Austin neighborhoods near Onion Creek, where more than 1,100 homes were evacuated. City officials didn't have an overall damage estimate or a tally of how many homes had flooded citywide.

The flooding was blamed for one death in Caldwell County; the body of a second victim was discovered in Onion Creek in Austin. In Comal County, officials were searching for a 26-year-old Canyon Lake man who reportedly fell into the swollen Guadalupe River around 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

The storms erupted around 9 p.m. Wednesday and quickly set new records: Onion Creek crested at a record high of 40 feet, and Austin recorded its wettest October since record-keeping began in 1856 -- the 13.28-inch monthly total at Camp Mabry broke the 1925 record of 12.63 inches.

As much as a foot of rain fell in parts of Central Texas -- too much for the already-saturated ground to absorb -- and sent it cascading into streets, creeks and homes through the night.

Travis County Emergency Medical Services Chief Ernesto Rodriguez said fast-moving flooding occurred at the worst time, when people were asleep, "so they had very little time to escape." The 911 calls from people needing to be rescued began around 11:30 p.m.; by Thursday afternoon, 300 people had asked for help getting out of their homes, Rodriguez said.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said city and emergency responders were still assessing the extent of the damage, but "I feel confident in saying there will be (flooding) records set with this particular event. These last few hours have been a grim reminder of why Central Texas is known as Flash Flood Alley."

The epicenter

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--Since 1999, city of Austin bought and demolished 322 homes in Onion Creek flood plain

--After 7 hours, emergency responders reach woman in labor

--Insurance companies scramble to deal with flooding claims

The flooding sent emergency workers and city officials scrambling across the region. Austin opened its Emergency Operations Center and later opened three shelters. In San Marcos and Williamson County, police and deputies went door-to-door to warn sleeping residents about the approaching flood.

At the height of the flooding, 8,500 Austin Energy customers were without power as winds knocked down power lines and substations flooded, said Austin Energy spokeswoman Leslie Sopko. By 8 p.m. Thursday, power had been restored to all but 100 homes and businesses. Nearly 3,000 Pedernales Electric Cooperative members were without power at noon Thursday, most of them near Manchaca, Kyle and Buda, the Johnson City-based nonprofit electric utility said. But by 8 p.m., power had been restored to all customers who lost power during the storms.

In Austin, the epicenter of flood damage was east of Interstate 35 and south of William Cannon Drive, where Onion Creek, swollen from a foot of rain that fell in parts of Hays County, surged into streets and homes and badly damaged sections of the Onion Creek Club golf course.

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At 8:10 a.m., an inflatable motor boat sped north on Bluff Springs Road, past a gazebo submerged nearly to its roof and toward a couple huddled on top of their car. A firefighter wrapped his arm around Vicki Hardin, 64, and helped her off. Her long, blue dress trailed behind her in the water.

Barefoot and clutching her purse, Hardin followed Jacques Poisot, 73, to dry land.

Hardin said the floodwaters had knocked over their refrigerator and freezer, and when they tried to save their photo albums by putting them on their tallest furniture, the water knocked the furniture over, too. They had been huddled on the car for two hours awaiting rescue.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said police and firefighters were conducting a systematic search of the area Thursday afternoon "to see if there's any victims we haven't found, whether they're injured or potentially killed." By Thursday night, residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods -- Onion Creek Subdivision, Onion Creek Plantation and Onion Creek Forest -- were allowed to return on foot; about 15 homes were deemed unsafe for residents to return.

The body of a man estimated to be in his 50s or 60s was pulled from the creek near Onion Crossing Drive and South Pleasant Valley Road, police said. Officials were trying to identify the man.

The response

Farther east, the flood-prone Timber Creek neighborhood along Pearce Lane between Texas 130 and FM 973 became an island Thursday morning, leaving dozens of residents stranded. By 9 a.m., Pearce Lane looked more like a river.

Jessica Moran, 24, said the street downhill from her house started flooding just before 7 a.m., and, soon after, the rising water forced her and her family to head for higher ground. They were stranded on a nearby hill until rescuers in boats arrived hours later.

"It was very stressful. I was freaking out, especially for my son's sake. He's at school and has no idea this happened," said Moran, clutching her 16-month-old daughter, Sophia.

The water rose about four feet inside their mobile home, Moran said. "As many times as it's flooded here, it's never gotten into our home," she said.

Acevedo said he put officers on 12-hour shifts for a 36-hour period to ensure sufficient staffing, particularly in flooded areas. "We're going to make sure nobody tries to take advantage of the situation and tries to loot somebody's home," he said.

After flying over flood-hit areas by helicopter with City Manager Marc Ott and Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, Acevedo said he was struck by the size and velocity of floodwaters. He was just as amazed to spot a paddle-boarder on Lady Bird Lake, which Kerr said was closed and off-limits to the public along with Barton Springs Pool, which had been scheduled to reopen Thursday following cleanup from the last big storm on Oct. 12 and 13.

Acevedo said police would arrest anyone caught on the closed waterways. "You're putting yourself at risk when you get in trouble, because you will be putting our first-responders at risk," he said. He also warned residents not to go around barricades into flooded areas.

A reverse 911 system that calls homes with a pre-recorded message to evacuate their area was triggered at 9:30 a.m. to about 120 to 130 addresses in the southern end of Onion Creek, said Harry Evans, chief of staff at the Austin Fire Department.

"We sent it because we were in a lot of other areas, and we anticipated that area was going to flood as well," Evans said. "We wanted to warn residents to get out of the way of that water."

Evans said some firefighters were in the area, "but not near where we needed." He said every firefighter on duty -- typically about 240 are working at any time -- were involved "in some type of incident" during the storm and its aftermath. "We were fully committed," he said.

It was unclear Thursday how many residents in the flooded area received reverse 911 calls. The calls go out to landlines, so residents who have only cellphones must register their number with the system to receive the calls.

Flooding elsewhere

In Caldwell County, where 6 to 12 inches of rain fell, the sheriff's office said a man died after his vehicle entered a low-water crossing near FM 20 and Track Road near the Bastrop County line. The man, whose identity hasn't been released, was swept out of his vehicle, and his body was recovered by emergency personnel a short while later.

In Wimberley, where 12.45 inches of rain was recorded by the National Weather Service, 20 people were evacuated, mostly from flood-prone Mill Race Lane, and sent to a nearby shelter.

Wimberley City Manager Don Ferguson said up to two dozen homes were flooded along the Blanco River and Cypress Creek, where the force of the water tore stop signs from the ground.

In Williamson County, officials ordered the evacuation of more than 80 homes in the Round Rock and Hutto areas after Brushy Creek flooded overnight and spilled into neighborhoods. Hutto officials said they received no reports of homes being flooded. Round Rock officials estimated that 13 homes were flooded.

Wednesday's 3.24 inches of rain at Camp Mabry also set a record for Oct. 30, and Thursday morning's rains pushed the two-day total to 4.67 inches. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport received 3.13 inches over the two days.

The record rainfall has done little to help the drought-stricken Highland Lakes, however, because it fell downstream of their watersheds. Much of the Hill Country received less than a quarter-inch of rain from the overnight storm.

Copyright 2013 - Austin American-Statesman

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