Updated September 19, 2019 at 5:40 p.m.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has issued a disaster declaration due to the flooding caused by Tropical Depression Imelda. First responders conducted thousands of rescues Thursday in the north and east parts of the county and a flash flood emergency remains in effect.
The remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda unleashed torrential rain in parts of Texas on Thursday, prompting hundreds of water rescues, a hospital evacuation and road closures as the powerful storm system drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey two years ago.
Hidalgo told reporters that around 1,500 rescues have been made. “The biggest message right now is that the danger continues as the rain continues to fall," she said. "And we need folks to remain at home, to remain off the road.”
She said it will be especially dangerous to drive in the dark due to high water locations and debris. Hidalgo noted that residents of east Harris County should be extra cautious, while the situation is safer in the west part of the county.
Hidalgo said shelters will be opened across Harris County in collaboration with the Red Cross. The information about the shelters can be found on the Red Cross’s website.
I've issued a disaster declaration for Harris County. This disaster declaration will allow us to ensure we have the maximum flexibility we need to respond and recover from this disaster.
— Office of Judge Lina Hidalgo (@HarrisCoJudge) September 19, 2019
As of 2:30 p.m., the Houston Fire Department had responded to nearly 1,100 high-water incidents. "The majority of these incidents that we responded to have been vehicle-related, stranded and flooded vehicles," said HFD Assistant Chief Richard Mann.
Mann said the fire department has high-water vehicles and boats deployed throughout the city. Trucks from the Houston Police Department and from the city's Public Works department are also being used to rescue people. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been live tweeting videos of their rescue efforts.
— Chief Art Acevedo (@ArtAcevedo) September 19, 2019
Officials ask that people not call 911 if they are stranded on the road, but not in immediate danger.
The amount of predicted rainfall is massive — forecasters say some places could see 40 inches (100 centimeters) or more this week.
County meteorologist Jeff Lindner said at a 4 p.m. briefing the rain had shifted south toward Galveston and Brazoria counties.
He said there is a continued chance of rain in Harris County but likely only between one or one and a half inches. “We do not expect rainfall to be heavy enough to create additional flooding problems.”
State of disaster for 13 counties
Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for 13 counties Thursday: Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Newton, Orange and San Jacinto.
A flash flood emergency is also in effect for northeast Harris, southeast Montgomery and Liberty counties.
Earlier Thursday, Hidalgo had told reporters the county had pre-deployed assets and was in contact with state officials, as well as non-profits that can help.
“We are seeing rainfall rates of 4 to 6 inches per hour across the central portions of Harris County,” said county meteorologist Jeff Lindner at a media briefing held around 11 a.m. “We had a rainfall rate in the Greenspoint area of 6.5 inches in one hour.” Greens Bayou was going over banks near U.S. Highway 59, and Greenspoint locations that have historically flooded could be at risk.
Monitoring the waterways and bayous
Lindner said the west fork of the San Jacinto River is rising very rapidly and major flooding is expected there, as well as on the east fork of the river.
Lindner said major flooding is expected in that area starting Thursday night and lasting into Friday, possibly impacting subdivisions east of US Highway 59, in the lower portions of Kingwood.
During the 4 p.m. briefing, he said the east and west forks of the San Jacinto River are expected to crest mid-afternoon Friday. The river will possibly fall within its banks during the weekend, according to the meteorologist.
Parts of Baytown could also see some flooding starting Thursday night and into Friday, according to the meteorologist. Lindner said there was significant flooding along Halls Bayou near I-45 and West Mount Houston and some structure flooding along Little White Oak Bayou, north of the 610 North Loop.
There is also flooding and overbank conditions along Cedar, Greens, Hunting and White Oak bayous. But in Brays Bayou and Clear Creek, which had been a reason for concern earlier on Thursday, conditions were good as of 4 p.m., according to the meteorologist.
Lindner emphasized however that the flood gates of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs were closed and were not releasing any water. "There is plenty of capacity in those reservoirs to handle the rainfall that we are expecting,” he noted.
Similarly, Lake Conroe's reservoir had capacity to withstand the rain at 1 p.m. The San Jacinto River Authority, which manages the reservoir, didn't anticipate any releases.
In Montgomery County, the situation was dire Thursday morning. County Judge Mark Keough told News 88.7 a disaster declaration had been issued, and that the area was most impacted early in the morning.
"Things really started to deteriorate between two and three o’clock in the morning," he said. "And it’s amazing what took place because it was moving through the area literally at 5:45 late yesterday afternoon at about 7 miles per hour, and all of a sudden we get some high pressure — things kind of turn around and come back from the northwest."
Keough said the east portion of the county had received almost 18 inches of rain in the last 24 hours, impacting Cleveland, New Caney, Porter and Splendora.
"We’ve got our assets out there and we’re doing water rescues right now. And have more assets coming from the state," Keough added. "We have both high water trucks, as well as Zodiac boats out there picking people up right now."
In New Caney, first responders moved about 80 people from a nursing home.
Imelda is the first named storm to impact the Houston area since Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches (130 centimeters) of rain on parts of the flood-prone city in August 2017.
One Imelda-related death has been reported so far, in Jefferson County.
Worse than Harvey?
East of Houston, some local officials said the rainfall was causing flooding worse than what happened during Hurricane Harvey. In Winnie, a town of about 3,200 people 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of Houston, a hospital was evacuated and water was inundating several homes and businesses.
“What I’m sitting in right now makes Harvey look like a little thunderstorm,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne told Houston TV station KTRK.
Hawthorne told The Associated Press that emergency workers rescued about 200 people overnight, and that an additional 50 households were on a waiting list to be rescued Thursday morning. He said airboats from the sheriff’s office and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department were helping with the rescues, along with high-water vehicles.
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it. Right now I’m in an absolute deluge of rain,” Hawthorne told the AP on Thursday morning as he took cover under a carport at an auto dealership in Winnie. The town “looks like a lake.”
“Right now, as a Texas sheriff, the only thing that I really want is for people to pray that it will quit raining,” he added.
In Beaumont, a city of just under 120,000 people that’s about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Gulf of Mexico, authorities said all service roads were impassable and two hospitals were inaccessible, the Beaumont Enterprise reported. Beaumont police said on Twitter that 911 has received requests for more than 250 high water rescues and 270 evacuations.
The 911 operations center has experienced a heavy call load with over 250 high water rescues and 270 evacuation requests. If there is an immediate threat to life safety, call 911. For non-emergency calls please call 409-832-1234.
— Beaumont Police Dept (@beaumont_police) September 19, 2019
“It’s bad. Homes that did not flood in Harvey are flooding now,” Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said. During Harvey, Beaumont’s only pump station was swamped by floodwaters, leaving residents without water service for more than a week.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency for several counties, saying “life-threatening amounts of rainfall” have fallen and more was expected Thursday. Imelda’s center was about 110 miles (180 kilometers) north of Houston early Thursday and was moving north-northwest at 5 mph (7 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center.
Wednesday night rainfall
Heavy rainfall occurred Wednesday in many areas. Thunderstorms spawned several weak tornadoes in the Baytown area, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Houston, damaging trees, barns and sheds and causing minor damage to some homes and vehicles.
Coastal counties, including Brazoria, Matagorda and Galveston, were hit hard by rainfall through Wednesday. Sargent, a town of about 2,700 residents in Matagorda County, had received nearly 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain since Tuesday.
Karen Romero, who lives with her husband in Sargent, said it was the most rain she had had in her neighborhood in her nine years living there.
“The rain (Tuesday) night was just massive sheets of rain and lightning storms,” said Romero, 57. She said her home, located along a creek, was not in danger of flooding as it sits on stilts, like many others nearby.
In the Houston area, the rainfall flooded some roadways Wednesday, stranding drivers, and caused several creeks and bayous to rise.
The National Hurricane Center said Imelda weakened to a tropical depression after making landfall as a tropical storm Tuesday near Freeport, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph (64 kph).
The flooding from Imelda came as Hurricane Humberto blew off rooftops and toppled trees in the British Atlantic island of Bermuda, and Hurricane Jerry was expected to move to the northern Leeward Islands on Friday and north of Puerto Rico on Saturday.
This story has been updated.
Associated Press writers Diana Heidgerd in Dallas and Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.