Erin hits Texas, flooding a concern

From The Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON, Texas – Bands of rain from Tropical Storm Erin fell along the Texas coast early Thursday before the system was expected to move ashore near Port Aransas Thursday morning, becoming the first named system to make landfall in Texas since 2003.

Erin was downgraded to a tropical depression Thursday morning.

Erin, which churned through the Gulf of Mexico with winds of 40 mph Wednesday night, posed primarily a flooding threat to coastal areas. The system attained minimal tropical storm status, with wind speeds of 39 mph, earlier in the day.

Early Thursday, the National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for six counties along the Texas coast near the anticipated landfall of the storm.

At 4 a.m., the storm was centered about 55 miles southeast of Corpus Christi and about 180 miles southwest of Galveston, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Its top wind speed remained at 40 mph.

Erin was moving toward the west-northwest at around 12 mph and was expected to continue following that track for at least 24 hours.

Isolated tornadoes were possible along the middle Texas Gulf Coast on Thursday, the center said.

Texas hasn’t had a direct strike by a named storm since Tropical Storm Grace, another minimal storm, made landfall on Galveston Island in August 2003. The centers of Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ivan, which made its second U.S. landfall in 2004 as a tropical storm, narrowly missed the state by coming ashore in Louisiana near the Texas border.

For Houston, Erin should provide more relief than pain after more than a week of heat advisories and dry conditions, forecasters said. Highs today and Friday may only reach 90 degrees, and widespread showers through at least Friday should be welcomed by parched lawns.

Isolated rain totals of up to 5 inches wer expected around Houston. Forecasters said they did not expect widespread flooding.

Flooding concerns increased farther down the coast, where more rain could fall closer to Erin’s center. Some of those areas remain soggy from weeks of heavy rain. Regions accustomed to 28 inches all year, such as Bee County just northwest of Corpus Christi, received more than 35 inches of rain in June and July alone.

“We had a few road closures for a couple of days,” said David Morgan, Bee County’s emergency management coordinator. “Everything’s green.”

As for Erin, Morgan said the area is prepared to receive the predicted 8 to 10 inches of rain forecast once the storm made landfall.

“We’ll have some low-level flooding in areas,” Morgan predicted. “We’ve had three weeks of pretty hot, dry weather. That’s going to help us.”

In Corpus Christi, still recovering from earlier flooding, city workers spent Wednesday cleaning street drains and encouraging residents to clean debris from the yards in case of high winds. Kim Womack, city spokeswoman, also noted the increased interest in surfing with the high winds.

“We can’t control the surfers,” she said. “We can fine them, but to do that, we have to catch them. When there is a safety issue we can’t have police out there.”

In San Patricio County, just north of Corpus Christi, officials also prepared for Erin’s expected rain.

Typically, the area gets 2 to 3 inches of rain from January to August but this year received 30 inches. Earlier this year, access to neighborhoods in the western part of the county was cut off by flooding.

“It’s one way in and out in those subdivisions,” said William Zagorski, San Patricio’s emergency management director. “We’re primarily in a wait-and-see mode.”

Thomas Sanchez, emergency management coordinator for the city of Kingsville and Kleberg County, said officials there began preparing for the storm Monday, getting emergency vehicles fueled, collecting barricades and checking equipment.

“This is routine for us in the Coastal Bend,” Sanchez said. “Where we run into problems is getting people to prepare themselves before the last minute. Some heed our advice, but many don’t,” he said. “If I wasn’t in the business of emergency management I would have boarded my house up and driven to Laredo and I’d be sipping on a margarita.”

Officials in some coastal counties that are expected to feel the full impact of Erin said it would take more than the predicted rainfall to do any damage.

In Goliad County, north of Beeville and southeast of Karnes City, County Judge Harold F. Gleinser said the area’s drainage system can handle up to 10 inches of rain easily.

“We’re very fortunate,” Gleinser said. “Goliad drains good for the most part.”

Katherine Cesinger, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor Wednesday activated 30 additional National Guard troops in Corpus Christi.

As Texas prepared for Erin, Hurricane Dean loomed as a greater threat far out in the Atlantic Ocean.

The National Hurricane Center this morning upgraded the tropical storm to a hurricane as it moved westward toward the Lesser Antilles, where a hurricane watch was posted Wednesday night. The National Hurricane Center forecast that Dean could reach the northwest Caribbean Sea by Monday.

At 4 a.m., Dean was centered about 485 miles east of Barbados and about 590 miles east of Martinique, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was moving west near 24 mph, and was expected to continue the same path for the next 24 hours.

Maximum sustained winds were near 75 mph, above the threshold for a hurricane.

Forecasters’ best guess is that the system, which faces little wind shear or dust to inhibit its development, could become a strong Category 3 hurricane by Monday. At that point, it could be poised to enter the Gulf of Mexico or cross the Yucatan Peninsula.

Such long-term forecasts are, of course, fraught with errors. But forecasters have become increasingly confident that Dean will not curve northward any time soon and head harmlessly out to sea, earning the affectionate description of a “fish storm.”

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