Hurricane Dolly slams into Texas coast, weakens

July 23, 2008 8:13:52 PM PDT
Hurricane Dolly slammed into the South Texas coast Wednesday with punishing rain and winds of 100 mph, blowing down signs, peeling off roofs and knocking out power to thousands before weakening over land. TRACK IT: Get Dolly's location, satellite and forecasted path
FLIGHTS AFFECTED? See how the storm's affecting flights in and out of the area Local officials' greatest fear -- that the levees holding back the Rio Grande would fail and cause massive flooding -- eased when Dolly meandered 35 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border just before coming ashore on South Padre Island as a Category 2 storm. About two hours later, Dolly's winds slowed to 95 mph, and the storm was downgraded to a Category 1.

By late Wednesday, it had weakened to a tropical storm.

"The levees are holding up just fine," said Cameron County Emergency Management Coordinator Johnny Cavazos. "There is no indication right now that they are going to crest."

Between 5 and 12 inches of rain had fallen in Cameron County by Wednesday evening and another 3 to 7 inches was expected during the night, according to the National Weather Service. Heaviest rains were in Laguna Vista and Bayview, where estimates reached 12 inches late Wednesday.

The storm defied forecasts that it would swarm the mouth of the Rio Grande, pushing its current upstream and causing massive flooding on both sides of the border. But "it's still very early in the storm," cautioned Sally Spener, a spokeswoman with the International Boundary and Water Commission.

Most of the destruction was on South Padre Island, a beach resort town on a barrier island off the Texas coast. Numerous roofs were ripped off and windows were smashed. The roadways and yards were strewn with trees, fences, power poles and fallen streetlights. Business signs rolled around on the streets like tumbleweeds.

The causeway linking the island to the mainland was closed.

"I thought it was just a big clap of thunder, (then) saw this stuff flying around and it's the roof," said Buck Dopp, who lives in the ground floor of an apartment building where a roof collapsed. Dopp and his family packed up and left the building, despite their plans to ride out the storm.

A 17-year-old boy fell from a seventh-story balcony, injuring his head, breaking his hip and fracturing his leg, said Dan Quandt, spokesman for South Padre Island emergency operations. He was being treated at an island fire station.

Forecasters warned of up to 12 inches of rain that could produce flooding in the heavily populated Rio Grande Valley. Up to 20 inches was predicted for isolated areas. Thunderstorms were attributed to Dolly as far away as Houston, 400 miles up the Texas coastline.

North of Brownsville the winds intensified in the afternoon and low-lying neighborhoods near Los Fresnos were inundated by murky water.

One family of eight had to be rescued by Cameron County Sheriff's deputies when floodwaters surrounded their home.

Tina Rodriguez and her extended family peered out of their garage at a large metal storage building blown apart by Dolly.

Its inventory included four four-wheelers, three motorcycles, including a Harley Davidson, three trailers, a riding lawnmower, a whirlpool and some appliances. The twisted sheets of metal from the shed blew toward her sister's house next door.

Even as the front edge of the storm passed over the Texas mainland Wednesday, residents still needed breakfast. The few stores that were open -- even without electricity -- were doing brisk business before Dolly fully revved up.

"Tienes tortillas?" Jorge Herrera shouted, rushing soaking wet into Johnny's Grocery and Meat Market .2. His 3-year-old son Michelangelo, sporting a Superman T-shirt and matching underpants, was in tow.

Discovering the tortilla factories had closed before the storm and the store didn't have any to sell, the Herreras settled for a bag of charcoal, chocolate cookies and two tall cans of beer.

Those heading north likely were stopped at inland Border Patrol checkpoints, where agents opened extra lanes to ease traffic flow while still checking documentation and arresting illegal immigrants, said sector spokesman Dan Doty. At one checkpoint on U.S. 77, smugglers were caught with nearly 10,000 pounds of marijuana. Two other immigrant smugglers also were caught.

"We could still do our job but we could do it quickly," Doty said.

Local officials had feared an evacuation would be stalled unless the Border Patrol suspended its immigration checks.

In Mexico, fields filled with water, palm trees were bent over in the wind and beaches were closed to the public.

Mexican soldiers made a last-minute attempt to rescue people at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The soldiers battled storm-charged waves in an inflatable raft to rescue at least one family trapped in their home, while others further inland were still refusing to go to government shelters, said Matamoros spokeswoman Leticia Montalvo.

"These are people who did not want to leave, and now they are in trouble," Montalvo said.

In Brownsville, palm trees leaned and small debris was strewn across the all-but empty streets. The windows and doors of shops were boarded up with plywood and most businesses were closed. More than 135,000 were without power in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, as well as South Padre Island. Transformers were popping in downtown Brownsville, utility officials said.

"Hopefully people won't get stupid and go out and think the storm has passed," said Kevin Pagan, the manager of the Multi Agency Coordination Committee getting updates from the three Valley counties most affected by Dolly.

He said shelters in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties were holding about 5,000 people. He expected the number to rise as night fell.

People fled to shelters in towns on both sides of the border. At Gladys Porter High School, evacuees flowed inside even as Dolly's winds dismantled a school sign. Principal Dora Sauceda said people were lined up outside when she arrived at 4:30 a.m., and the shelter was quickly nearing its 300-person capacity.

At 8 p.m. EDT Dolly was about 60 miles northwest of Brownsville and moving west-northwest at about 10 mph.

The storm, combined with levees that have deteriorated in the 41 years since Hurricane Beulah swept up the Rio Grande, posed a major flooding threat to low-lying counties along the border. Beulah spawned more than 100 tornadoes across Texas and dumped 36 inches of rain in some parts of south Texas, killing 58 people and causing more than $1 billion damage.

Before the storm, forecasters and local officials worried the storm would follow Beulah's path, creating similar destruction.

Around Brownsville, levees protect the historic downtown as well as preserved buildings that were formerly part of Fort Brown on the University of Texas at Brownsville campus. Outside the city, agricultural land dominates the banks of the Rio Grande, but thousands of people live in low-lying colonias, often poor subdivisions built without water and sewer utilities.

As Dolly approached, oil and gas producers in the Gulf of Mexico evacuated workers from 62 production platforms and eight rigs, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which monitors offshore activity. Oil production in the Gulf was down about 4.5 percent, while natural gas production was down 7.8 percent.

Dolly is the first hurricane to hit the U.S. since the fast-forming Humberto came ashore in South Texas last September. It is the 26th hurricane known to make landfall in the U.S. in July since record keeping started in 1851, according to federal researchers.

The busiest part of the Atlantic hurricane season is usually in August and September. So far this year, there have been four named storms, two of which became hurricanes. Federal forecasters predict a total of 12 to 16 named storms and six to nine hurricanes this season.

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