Lone Star State Still Soggy After Deluge

Unusual flooding of three rivers has left some people stranded since Christmas

TEXANS generally expect a wet rather than a white Christmas. But this holiday season brought more water than folks around here welcome.

Severe flooding in this part of rural southeast Texas turned dry creek beds into raging waterways and sleepy rivers into fast-moving lakes.

The swollen Brazos River roared past this small town west of Houston carrying about two weeks of rain from central and north Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Downpours drenched the Dallas and San Antonio regions of the state during the weeks before Christmas.

By Christmas eve, swelling southbound rivers caused serious flooding in the Houston area.

Many families were evacuated from their homes on Christmas eve and some have yet to return. Water spread across roads for as much as six miles and left the tops of fence posts barely poking up in the air. Farmland in low-lying areas turned to swamp and drowned livestock in some cases.

Residents in this flood-prone region have seen a lot of water come and go over the years. In April 1990, the Trinity River suffered a record-breaking flood. But old-timers living here along the Brazos say this flood is the meanest since a 1957 deluge. At one point, the water was rising about three-quarters of an inch per hour.

Knee-high rubber boots have become a necessity here, and area stores are benefiting from an unexpected surge in mid-winter boat sales.

Weather forecasters originally predicted that the Brazos would crest on Christmas day. But nature defied modern technology.

Officials finally gave up on predictions and chose to "wait and see" along with everyone else.

The Trinity River crested over the weekend at almost six feet above flood stage. Officials expect that some people may be stranded from their homes until next week.

The Brazos reached its peak here last week but the area remains waterlogged. Low-lying areas are submerged and some homes are swamped.

Floating clusters of fire ants crawling on top of each other create red islands - some the size of basketballs - in the muddy water.

The ferocious ants cling to anything that floats and make it hazardous for people or animals to wade into the floodwaters.

Residents report snakes hanging from trees as well as deer and other wildlife venturing into neighborhoods in search of food and dry ground.

Flooding was most serious on the Colorado, Trinity, and Brazos Rivers. The Trinity flows east of Houston, and the Brazos runs west of the city.

After a helicopter tour of the area last Friday, Gov. Ann Richards said that "this is unprecedented in our history - the magnitude of this flood. This is the first time in our memory that all three of these rivers have flooded at the same time."

The flooding resulted in 15 deaths and at least $75 million in damage. Floodwater inundated about 2,500 homes, according to the Red Cross.

Water continues to rise along the lower reaches of the Brazos as the floodwaters rush toward the Gulf.

But the flow is slowing on the Trinity as officials stem releases from a dam upstream.

Just after Christmas, President Bush visited the state on a quail-hunting expedition and had a firsthand opportunity to survey the damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared 24 Texas counties federal disaster areas and more than 1,600 individuals and businesses have already applied for help from the agency.

Some opportunists are charging $50 for helping flood victims fill out aid requests.

Governor Richards, who is known for her outspoken, no-nonsense style, didn't waste any time launching an investigation of those looking to profit from the flood. She says the government will provide free help for flood victims applying for aid.

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