It was a scene that has repeated itself countless times in the Houston area: heavy rainfall made area roadways impassable and flooded homes, schools and businesses.
On Wednesday, the Houston area was drying out after severe thunderstorms a day earlier caused flash flooding , inundating streets and stranding students at some schools. A break in the weather was expected to be short-lived as more rainfall was predicted over the next few days.
Meanwhile, heavy rain elsewhere in the state caused flash flooding in numerous parts of northern, central and western Texas, causing one death in Austin.
The rainfall was nowhere near what the area experienced during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which flooded more than 150,000 homes in the Houston area and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage in Texas. But it represents what is becoming the new normal for Houston and surrounding communities, according to a local expert on flooding.
“We’re going to have to learn to live with flooding in Houston and we haven’t quite accepted that reality yet,” said Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University in Houston.
There are various reasons why Houston repeatedly floods: The city barely rises above sea level; it has insufficient infrastructure, including drainage; and it’s experienced rapid development over the years that has drastically reduced wetlands that could soak up stormwater runoff.
Students in the school districts in Cleveland and New Caney, northeast of Houston, were forced to spend at least part of Tuesday night at their campuses after flooded roads prevented buses from leaving and parents from reaching their children. About 60 students at an elementary school in Cleveland spent the night there.
In Kingwood, a suburb north of Houston, almost 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain fell, causing almost every street there to be under water for several hours, said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“We’re going to be in an unsettled weather pattern between now into Saturday and Sunday. We are watching the situation very, very carefully,” Turner said.
Neighboring Fort Bend County issued a disaster declaration after receiving up to 11 inches (28 centimeters) of rain, said County Judge KP George, the county’s top administrator.
In Sugar Land, a Houston suburb in Fort Bend County, up to 9 inches (23 centimeters) of rain fell, flooding all major roadways and resulting in more than 100 abandoned vehicles, said city spokesman Doug Adolph. Most of the street flooding had cleared on Wednesday.
“It was pretty bad. It was raining nonstop, thunder and lightning and people were stuck on the side of the road. So, it wasn’t fun. I swam home last night,” said Matthew Graver, who lives in Richmond in Fort Bend County.
Blackburn said the rain overwhelmed local drainage systems, many of which need major improvements.
Houston’s storm drain and pipe system is minimal compared with that of other cities and at most can take 1 1/2 inches (3.8 centimeters) of rain. Houston’s streets serve as secondary drainage systems, and most will fill with water during intense rainfall, Blackburn said.
He also said some storms hitting the area are becoming “more and more severe and they tend to linger over multiple days and that’s becoming a scary pattern and perhaps is related to our changing climate.”
Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather such as storms, droughts, floods and fires, but without extensive study they cannot directly link a single weather event to the changing climate.
After Harvey, Houston-area voters approved a $2.5 billion bond program for a variety of flood control projects, more than 130 of which are already under construction.
“We need to spend the bond money and get those improvements made,” Blackburn said.
Elsewhere in the state, the body of a man was recovered Wednesday afternoon from Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin about a half-hour after a man was reported to have been swept away from a flooded street.
In the West Texas town of Merkel, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Abilene, Police Chief Phillip Conklin told KTXS-TV of Abilene that seven people were rescued Wednesday from floodwaters. Three were rescued from an apartment complex, two from flood-stranded vehicles and a couple from their home.
Flash floodwaters washed out a Texas Pacifico Transportation railroad track near Mertzon, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of San Angelo in West Texas.
Thunderstorms in the Panhandle prompted scattered reports to the National Weather Services of funnel clouds, but no tornadoes were reported.
SOURCE: JUAN A. LOZANO, AP