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Houston, other parts of Texas besieged by Imelda's rains

The remnants of tropical depression Imelda unleashed torrential rain Thursday in parts of Texas, prompting hundreds of water rescues, a hospital evacuation and at least two death as the powerful storm system drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey two years ago.

Authorities say Southeast Texas man drowned in floodwaters during lightning storm

Jim Dunagan moves his cattle to higher ground as remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda flood parts of southeast Texas. Dunagan said his cattle were standing in water up to their stomachs before he and another man moved them to another pasture. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle/The Associated Press)

The remnants of tropical depression Imelda unleashed torrential rain Thursday in parts of Texas, prompting hundreds of water rescues, a hospital evacuation and at least two deaths as the powerful storm system drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey two years ago.

Although the amount of predicted rainfall is massive — forecasters say some places could see 100 centimetres or more this week — Imelda's deluge is largely targeting areas east of Houston, including the small town of Winnie and the city of Beaumont.

Officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, said there had been a huge number of high-water rescues and evacuations to get people to shelter. Authorities at one point warned that a levee could break near Beaumont in Jefferson County, as the longevity and intensity of the rain quickly came to surprise even those who had been bracing for floods, prompting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to declare 13 counties in the state disaster areas.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the driver of a van — a man in his 40s or 50s — approached a flooded intersection at U.S. 59 near Bush Intercontinental Airport during the Thursday afternoon rush hour. Despite floodwaters that were some 2.5 metres deep, the driver paused briefly and then accelerated into the water, submerging the van.

Rescue crews came to the scene, removed the man and began resuscitation efforts en route to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Also Thursday afternoon, authorities said a 19-year-old Southeast Texas man drowned in the floodwaters of one of those counties.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Facebook page reposted a message from the family of Hunter Morrison, saying he was trying to move his horse from floodwaters to safety Thursday when he was electrocuted and drowned 18 kilometres southwest of Beaumont.

The death was reported about 12:30 p.m. local time, Thursday. Crystal Holmes, a spokesperson for the department, said the death occurred during a lightning storm. 

The National Weather Service said radar estimates suggested that Jefferson County was deluged with more than 100 centimetres of rain in a span of just 72 hours, which would make it the seventh wettest tropical cyclone in U.S. history.   

Even when Houston was finally rid of the worst, downtown highways remained littered with abandoned cars submerged in water. Thousands of other drivers were at a practical standstill on narrowed lanes near flooded banks. 

A man wades out through floodwaters caused by heavy rain spawned by Imelda inundated the area in Patton Village, Texas on Thursday. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/The Associated Press)

"The water kept rising. It kept rising. I couldn't believe it," said Ruby Trahan Robinson, 63. She uses a wheelchair and had a portable oxygen tank while getting settled into a shelter at city hall in the small town of China, just outside Beaumont. 

"It rolled in like a river," she said. 

Meanwhile, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner evoked the memory of Harvey — which dumped more than 125 centimetres of rain on the nation's fourth-largest city in 2017 — while pleading with residents to stay put. City officials said they had received more than 1,500 high-water rescue calls to 911, most from drivers stuck on flooded roads, but authorities described a number of them as people who were inconvenienced and not in immediate danger.

A man sits on top of a truck on a flooded road in Houston. Members of the Houston Fire Dept. brought him a life jacket and walked him to dry land. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle/The Associated Press)

Ahead of the evening rush hour, Houston officials urged commuters to stay in their offices rather than embark on flooded and jammed highways. Turner made a similar appeal to parents of schoolchildren as the Houston Independent School District — Texas's largest with more than 200,000 students — did not cancel classes or shorten the day unlike neighbouring districts in the path of the storm.  

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston experienced massive disruptions throughout the day, with both incoming and outgoing flights affected. The flight tracking service FlightAware reported nearly 700 flights cancelled Thursday, with more than 200 other flights delayed, though departures resumed later in the evening. 

Airport spokesperson Saba Abashawl said some inbound flights were diverted to William P. Hobby Airport, on the south side of Houston.

'It's as bad as I've ever seen it'

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 95 kilometres 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.

Part of Interstate 10, between Winnie and Beaumont, was shut down as a result of the storm, stranding some drivers on the roadway.

Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Sarah Dupre says officials do not know exactly how many people are stranded in their cars on Interstate 10. Dupre said the department is currently working with local law enforcement on a plan to get those people off the roadway.

Two men get into a boat to float in to help a family trapped by floodwaters on Thursday, near Patton Village, Texas. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

In Beaumont, a city of just under 120,000 people about 50 kilometres 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.

"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.

This week, Hurricane Dorian delivered catastrophic damage to the Bahamas. It was a Category 5 storm when it hit the island nation, with winds of up to 295 km/hr, and Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said it left "generational devastation." Today on Front Burner, in the age of intensifying storms, two very different portraits of hurricane recovery. Janise Elie of the Guardian describes the devastation of the Caribbean Island of Dominica by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Then, Rice University assistant professor Max Besbris talks about how Houston, Texas rebuilt after Hurricane Harvey that same year. 24:26

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