Cleanup begins after two confirmed tornadoes, wind damage leave mess behind

January 26, 2012 3:18:44 PM PST
It'll be a day full of cleanup after twin tornadoes hit northwest and south of Houston yesterday. Today, storm assessment teams will look at the damage throughout the region. They'll be looking for signs that even more tornadoes dropped from the sky yesterday in places like Bryan, Caldwell, Somerville, Huntsville and Montgomery.

Late last night, EF-0 tornadoes were confirmed to have hit Brenham in Washington county and Pearland in Brazoria County.

The storms tore up businesses and trees along Main Street and Broadway in the historic heart of Pearland.

"Everything happened so fast," said witness Rose Smith. "We saw everything flying and all of a sudden, we saw Chevron Got hit."

On South San Antonio Street, heavy winds hit a mobile home, damaging its awning and leaving a neighbor's yard covered with sheets of metal. In another part of the city, another wall of metal draped over power lines. It was ripped from a bicycle shop's rooftop by strong and gusty winds. Most of the mess ended up in a Chevron gas station across the street.

In Brenham, the National Weather Service says an EF-0 tornado touched down just north of Brenham Airport. Several small metal outbuildings were destroyed, a roof was removed from a barn and minor wind damage was reported to house, as well as numerous large trees down. The damage path was approximately 2.5 miles long and 50 yards wide.

Flooding was also a problem Wednesday. In Houston, White Oak Bayou covered part of a walking path and Buffalo Bayou was full, but moved along. In west Harris County, South Mayde Creek couldn't handle it. It overflowed near Greenhouse and accumulated trash along the way. Halls Bayou swelled, too, but the Harris County Flood Control District reported no other problems.

"The good news with this event was that this storm was moving quickly to our east so it didn't have the opportunity to stall," said Heather Saucier with Harris County Flood Control District.

At a northeast Houston home, the problem wasn't rain, but rather wind. A tree snapped in half puncturing a hole in the roof.

It was part of the second major storm event of this month. Throughout Wednesday, buckets of rain and powerful winds swept across the Houston area, forcing drivers to abandon cars on flooded roads but not dropping enough water to make up for a historic dry spell.

The squall of storms swept from north to south, first pounding Dallas and Fort Worth overnight. At dawn, rescue workers were able to peek into car windows to make sure people weren't stuck in cars stranded in windshield-high water.

As the storms inched south and settled over Central Texas and Austin, record amounts of rain -- more than 5 inches in some areas of the capital -- drenched areas that just a few months ago battled the most devastating wildfires the state has ever seen.

At least one tornado touched down in northeast Austin, damaging an industrial park and a few homes, but causing no injuries, said Chris Morris, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in New Braunfels. In total, the National Weather Service was investigating at least half a dozen tornadoes statewide.

By midday in Houston, some roads and freeways were flooded, and the Houston Independent School District cancelled all afterschool activities.

Despite the damage, the downpour was seen as a blessing in some regions, including Washington County, a rural area northwest of Houston that hasn't seen much rain this year.

"It's really nice to see some of the cows in the county have water after all these months," said Robert Smith, the county's emergency management coordinator. "I think the cows are doing a jig."

Near San Antonio, some areas got more than 9 inches of rain, and the National Weather Service sent experts to survey storm damage to determine whether a tornado touched down overnight. The San Antonio Fire Department made 14 rescues, pulling people out of their vehicles after they drove into rising waters.

By Wednesday morning, weather was so severe east of Austin that the Bastrop Independent School District closed schools for the day, just months after consoling students who had lost their homes and belongings in drought-sparked wildfires. At least two other school districts experienced delays and closures, and one asked parents to bring their children to school after the roof of the building that houses the school buses was damaged.

The National Weather Service also will have to survey damage to confirm whether a tornado or straight-line winds toppled trees and power lines, damaged businesses, blew out windows, flattened barns and ruined rooftops throughout Washington County and downtown Brenham, a town about 60 miles northwest of Houston. No one was injured.

Another apparent tornado damaged a tire shop in Somerville, and the third was spotted in Waller County.

Still, meteorologists said Wednesday's storms would not be enough to end a drought that has parched Texas for more than a year.

"Certainly, it's not a drought-buster. We have a long way to go to dig out of a big hole," said Clay Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service for the Austin and San Antonio region.

It was, however, one of the biggest rain events some parts of the state have seen in months. A record 5.66 inches of rain dropped on the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport between midnight and early Wednesday, Anderson said. Some areas east of Austin and San Antonio got more than 9 inches of rain.

Unfortunately, though, only 4 inches of rain fell in areas that recharge the aquifers that are a major source of water for Austin and San Antonio.

Pat McDonald, a National Weather Service meteorologist in New Braunfels, said the most rainfall recorded from the storm was in Caldwell County, where 9.3 inches fell in Uhland.

Even before the storms reached Houston, wind gusts of up to 50 mph brought down power lines, leaving thousands without power. An airport spokeswoman said several flights were delayed at the city's two airports because of wind, rain and tornado warnings.

Victor Murphy, a climate expert with the National Weather Service, said these storms could bring enough rain to some parts of North Texas -- including Dallas and Fort Worth -- to pull them out of drought conditions, but that won't be clear for another week.

But areas of South and southeast Texas that are in severe and exceptional drought will get only minor relief, Murphy said. The streams, reservoirs and lakes are too low to be refilled by one line of storms.

"It's just an improvement," he said. "This drought's too severe and too prolonged for one rain event to just end the drought, especially in areas like Houston and Central Texas."

A little more than two weeks ago, the Houston area saw downpours and tornadoes that caused widespread damage and flooding. Check out photos from that day across the Houston area.

The Houston Fire Department is reminding residents to "Turn Around, Don't Drown" and says the safest option is to simply avoid driving over water and find an alternate, safer route, or wait until the danger has passed.

The Harris County Flood Control District urges residents to be proactive and act now to protect their families and property by creating a family preparedness plan. All residents are urged to monitor rainfall and bayou levels on the Harris County Flood Warning System website.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report