Houston tries to dry out after the deluge

Surprise storm that soaked the nation's fourth-largest city caused $1 billion in damage - and ruined a lot of carpeting.

Ellen Adams will be spending the next few days with a mop and a bucket of bleach. It's been 36 hours since a boat rescued her family from their waterlogged home, and she's finally getting a look around.

Tiles from their freshly laid kitchen floor are scattered about, along with mounds of mud and other debris that came pouring in off the street.

In her head, she tallies up everything that needs to be replaced: the carpeting, the kitchen floor, the kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and air conditioner, all the doors, the wallboard, pieces of furniture.

"But that's about it," she says in the most encouraging tone she can muster.

The Adamses are among the estimated 15,000 Harris County residents evacuated from their homes in the wake of tropical storm Allison, which submerged southeast Texas over the weekend. The surprise storm, the first of the hurricane season, is responsible for some of the worst flooding in the region's history; it has now moved heavily and soggily into Louisiana.

"This is the worst disaster I've ever witnessed," said Houston Mayor Lee Brown after touring the city by helicopter with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "Hurricanes come and go, but this storm didn't leave."

Allison lingered over the Houston area for days, feeding off itself and pounding the fourth-largest city in America. At least 17 people were killed in Texas, with at least one death reported in Louisiana. City officials estimate that damage to Houston alone will tally $1 billion. The high cost stems from the fact that the target was a large urban area, rather than a "no-man's land."

"It just meandered around the area, and because it was moving so slowly, it dumped copious amounts of rain," says Brian Kyle, a forecaster with the Houston Weather Research Center.

Indeed, Allison dropped as much as 36 inches of rain in four days. Its only rival in this region is the 1979 tropical storm Claudette, which dropped more than 40 inches of rain over southwest Houston in 24 hours - still the North American record for rainfall. (Houston's average rainfall for an entire year is 46 inches).

After Governor Perry declared a state of emergency Friday, President Bush - who was spending the weekend at his Texas ranch - classified 28 southeast counties as disaster areas and began the rapid flow of federal money to them.

Hundreds of thousands here will need it as they begin the massive task of cleaning up and drying out. Homes are still submerged, freeways are impassable, street lights are out, and cars are stranded in pools of water.

People were asked to stay out of downtown Houston on Monday. The underground tunnel system was swamped, and power was out in many of the buildings. Calling for a "day of recovery," Mayor Brown gave nonessential city employees the day off and asked companies to do the same.

This is not the first time an Allison has wreaked havoc in this area. Back in 1989, another tropical storm Allison dropped 17 inches of rain in eight days. As a result, many folks in Texas never want to hear the name again and are hoping it will be dropped from the national list of storm names.

But it is not the only name remembered unfondly. The most recent liquid deluge occurred in 1998. Frances Sanchez remembers it well because it was named tropical storm Frances. Still, in her 25 years here, she says nothing has rivaled this weekend's flooding.

Mrs. Sanchez woke up early Saturday morning to find a river where the street once was. The water had crept all the way up her sloping lawn before stopping just short of the house.

"I just ran around waking everyone up, saying 'You've got to see this,' " she says, sitting on her porch. She's been watching TV and studying the clouds all day. "This storm took everybody by surprise. I'm keeping my eye on it this time."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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