Punishing storms in Texas test government emergency response

WIMBERLEY, Texas — Deadly severe weather over the long holiday weekend tested government alert and
evacuation procedures, as officials scrambled to deal with storms and historic flooding that left more
than a dozen people dead and a similar number missing.
Crews will resume searches Wednesday for the 11 people who have now been missing for three days in the
small tourist town of Wimberley, where the usually calm Blanco River swelled to an ocean-like squall
that crested three times above flood stage. In Houston, where nearly a foot of rain submerged roads and
stranded hundreds of motorists, Mayor Annise Parker said two people who capsized in a boat that was
helping with rescue efforts Tuesday have not been found.
At least 17 people were killed in the Memorial Day weekend storms in Texas and Oklahoma.
Authorities defended their warnings to residents ahead of the weather, which included alerts via phone
and in person, but acknowledged challenges with reaching tourists and said a messaging system in Houston
is still waiting for improvements.
"Nobody was saying, ‘Get out; get out; get out,’" said Brenda Morton of Wimberley. "We’re
pretty trained, so we were calculating. We knew the flood plain. 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 authorities say was swept off its
10-foot pylons by a wall of water early Sunday morning with eight people inside, which included three
children, ages 6 and 4. The house slammed into a bridge after being carried downstream on the Blanco.

Authorities in surrounding Hays County said warnings included multiple cellphone alerts and calls to
landlines. Some received in-person warnings to evacuate, but officials could not say whether those in
the washed-away home talked to police.
"Law enforcement made notification along that street. Whether they made contact with somebody at
their residence, I can’t say," Hays County Emergency Management Coordinator Kharley Smith said.
Wimberley, a popular bed-and-breakfast getaway near Austin and surrounded by wine vineyards, thrives on
weekends like Memorial Day. Some of the missing had homes in the area, but officials have acknowledged
that their electronic alerts may not reach tourists.
"Most definitely, most definitely that will certainly be part of our discussion," Hays County
Commissioner Will Conley said.
In Houston, warnings from the National Weather Service buzzed on mobile phones, but city officials say
they haven’t yet installed a system that would allow them to alert residents with more targeted
warnings. The city was still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get that framework
running, said Michael Walter, spokesman for Houston’s Office of Emergency Management.
Floodwaters 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 seeking higher ground, officials said.
"A number that we don’t know, and we will never know, is the number of lives that have been saved by
the effective response of first responders," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in Houston.
Small cars weaved between massive 18-wheelers as other drivers stared at them in disbelief. With no end
to the backup in sight, some drivers got off the freeway, only to be held up again by water covering
nearby access roads. Some motorists were stuck on I-45 all night, sleeping in their cars until the
backup was cleared shortly after sunrise.
NBA fans at the Toyota Center, where the Rockets hosted a Western Conference finals game against Golden
State on Monday, were asked with about two minutes left in the game not to leave the arena because of
the severe weather.
The game ended before 11 p.m., but about 400 people remained in their seats at 1:30 a.m., choosing to
stay in the building rather than brave the flooded roads that awaited them outside.
A spokeswoman for the flood district of Harris County, which includes Houston, said up to 700 homes
sustained some level of damage.
Abbott said 46 counties in Texas have state disaster declarations. President Barack Obama has said he
expressed condolences to Abbott and anticipates significant requests for federal assistance.
Crews were also searching for victims and assessing damage just across the Texas-Mexico border in Ciudad
Acuna, where a tornado killed 13 people Monday.
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 drenching rain threatened to linger. National Weather Service forecasts called for a 20 to 40 percent
chance of thunderstorms through the rest of the week 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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