Tropical Depression Imelda deluged southeast Texas today, pounding some areas with torrential rain and causing devastating flooding that shut down highways and left hundreds of residents stranded and waiting for rescue.
The storm, which had been churning over Houston on Wednesday, slammed the area around Beaumont, Texas, overnight, adding to rainfall totals that are among the highest the region has faced since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
As the chaotic scene unfolded today, the toll from Harvey was fresh in the communal memory in a part of the state that has been flooded again and again, where some residents who were devastated by the storm two years ago had only recently begun to fully recover.
Harvey battered a wider region, lingering for days as a tropical storm and dropping more than 50 inches of rain in some areas. Imelda’s heaviest rains have come in more isolated pockets, but have soaked areas southwest of Beaumont with up to 42 inches of rain this week, most of it in the last 24 hours, and many residents feared that the storm could do just as much damage.
“It’s bad,” Judge Jeff Branick of Jefferson County told The Beaumont Enterprise. “Homes that did not flood in Harvey are flooding now.”
BEAUMONT IS FLOODING, AND UP TO 42 INCHES OF RAIN HAVE FALLEN
Imelda, with maximum sustained winds of 25 mph, is the first named storm to hit the region since Harvey in 2017.
While Houston was perhaps the hardest hit then, Beaumont also suffered deadly flooding that shut off running water and nearly turned the city of 120,000 into an island. Between the two cities, for 100 miles, town after town was under water.
Today, drivers in Beaumont were stuck in their cars as the flooding around them reached as high as their door handles. Exxon Mobil shut down its chemical plant there and was closely monitoring its refinery on the same site. The Beaumont Police Department said that it was overwhelmed with calls, fielding nearly 600 requests for assistance as of this morning.
In the southwest part of the city, residents were reporting water as deep as 5 feet. Volunteers in boats were pushing their way into neighborhoods to rescue stranded people.
Kenny Vaughan, who lives in Beaumont, said he had been out on his airboat with his daughter since daylight, ferrying people to nearby hotels, the tallest buildings around.
“We can’t get them out of here fast enough,” he said, just after pulling onboard a man with a disability who had been trapped in a bed encircled in water.
Vaughan said he had made similar runs during Hurricane Harvey, but that this time the devastation seemed more severe.
“Everyone has three more feet of water than they did during Harvey,” he said. “The whole city is going under.”
To the southwest, Chambers County was experiencing some of the worst flooding, as heavy rain poured down from a dark gray sky, giant blue-white veins of lightning flashed and thunder growled. Some panicked residents were struggling to get through to 911 operators, and resorted to email instead. A hospital evacuated some patients but remained open, with employees trudging barefoot across the sopping floor to treat those who remained.
As the rain pelted down and waters rose today, some homeowners and officials were reporting flooding as severe as any they had seen in years, with little sign of a reprieve. Forecasters predicted that the rain would continue, with an additional 10 inches of rain possible through tonight.
“What I’m sitting in right now makes Harvey look like a little thunderstorm,” Sheriff Brian Hawthorne of Chambers County told ABC13 in Houston. “It’s dire out here. I’m fearful for this community right now.”
A DRIVE TO WORK BECAME A SWIM TO SAFETY
Jody Chesson, 53, who commutes 33 miles to his job at the Goodyear chemical plant in Beaumont, got an early start today, knowing the heavy rain would slow him down. “When I left Bridge City about 3:30 in the morning, it wasn’t that bad,” he said.
Driving a lifted 4-door Jeep Wrangler, he kept his speed to 25 mph, he said, and didn’t have too much difficulty with the wet spots on Highway 69. But when he got to Beaumont and took the ramp onto Interstate 10, he got in too deep almost before he knew it.
“It was immediate,” he said. “I put my brakes on, but it was at the hood. By the time I stopped, it was over the hood.”
He tried backing up, but the engine died. “Water was just gushing in,” Chesson said. He couldn’t open the driver’s side door, but he managed to get out on the passenger’s side and climb onto the roof of the Jeep. He called 911 from there, but was told no one was available to help him right away.
“I decided, I’m not going to just stand put,” he said. So he left the Jeep and set out for a nearby hotel, the Elegante, walking when he could and swimming when he had to. He said he was glad he had thought to grab his work bag from the Jeep, because it had a flashlight in it, and his phone charger.
The hotel still had power, and others had taken refuge there as well. When water began to flood the lobby, he said, they climbed the stairs to higher floors because the elevator couldn’t be used.
Much too late, Chesson then found out that he could have just stayed home: Goodyear sent out a notice at 7:30 a.m. that it was canceling his shift and closing the plant because of flooding. Stuck at the hotel, he got himself a bag of popcorn, he said; by early afternoon, he had half of it left.
HOUSTON WAITED AND WATCHED, WITH HARVEY ON ITS MIND
In the Houston area, which had seemed to escape the worst of the storm earlier in the week, rain was falling at up to four inches per hour today.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport north of Houston, which serves an average of 120,000 travelers a day, briefly came to a “full ground stop,” in the morning, with all flight operations halted because of the weather. Flights headed to Houston were delayed by an average of nearly four hours. Some were diverted south to the city’s secondary airport, William P. Hobby, where flight operations were continuing.
At a news briefing, Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston discouraged employers from sending their workers home early, saying everyone should avoid driving on the roads until the flooding receded.
“Wherever you are right now, stay put,” Turner said. “If you’re at work, please stay put.”
Climate change tends to increase the amount of rainfall during storms, since a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, but scientists must evaluate individual storms after the fact to determine how much climate change may have contributed to them. (Researchers found that the record rainfall during Harvey was as much as 38% higher than would be expected in a world that was not warming.)
‘I’VE LOST EVERYTHING’
Margie Carroll, who moved into a house in Winnie, Texas, two months ago after selling her small farm in Ohio, said she had no idea she might get hit with such extensive flooding so soon. Her flood insurance application had not yet been approved.
“I’ve lost everything,” she wrote in a text message from a shelter in Chambers County near the small city of Anahuac, on Trinity Bay east of Houston and southwest of Beaumont. Her phone could not get a strong enough signal today to take calls.
“My house is gone,” she wrote on Facebook. “My Jeep is gone.”
She posted a video early today showing brown water rising throughout her house, with the floodwater nearing the top of her kitchen counters, as lightning flashed outside. “Please make it stop, it’s got to stop,” she said.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “At what point do you call for help?”
Carroll had floated her eight dogs, which were frightened by the rising waters, on mattresses and a love seat in her house. Later in the morning, she said she and her disabled brother, as well as the dogs, had escaped from the house and reached the shelter.
About 50 people were staying at the shelter in Chambers County, where about 800 houses and businesses had been flooded, said Ryan Holzaepfel, the county fire marshal. He said officials were responding to about 100 requests for rescue, but were having trouble getting to some people because Interstate 10, a main highway, was closed by flooding.
“A lot of people are getting flooded in their cars,” he said. “They think they can drive through the water, but it’s deeper than they think.”
A VOLUNTEER WITH A BOAT
Colby Croom, a volunteer who uses his boat to help rescue people from flooded homes in the Beaumont area, said his cellphone was inundated with dozens of calls this morning, sometimes hearing from more than 10 people a minute.
“Most of them are crying, begging for me to come rescue them,” Croom said from a grocery store parking lot in Vidor, Texas, describing the calls he had gotten from miles away in Beaumont and Port Arthur. “There’s no way for me to get there,” he said.
In a video phone call today, Croom pointed out the high water surrounding him in the parking lot, which was serving as his base of operations. He said he had been out since early in the morning, and had already helped several families flee their homes.
“I’ve seen water over rooftops,” he said. “I’ve seen vehicles stalled out. Man, it’s kind of like the Harvey deal all over again.”