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Four More Bodies Found in Texas Flood Waters

Weather: Authorities pull car with victims, including infant, from swollen creek, raising state's toll to 29. Damage estimated at $400 million.

October 23, 1998|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WHARTON, Texas — Colorado River flood waters and sunny skies made parts of this city of 10,000 a sparkling ghost town Thursday, but the death toll in southeast Texas rose to 29 as authorities pulled a car containing four more bodies from the bottom of a muddy creek in San Antonio.

Wharton is the latest of 60 communities to be inundated by flooding. High waters from the Colorado, Guadalupe and East Bernard rivers prompted President Clinton to declare 20 Texas counties disaster areas Wednesday.

Divers in San Antonio pulled a car from 10 to 12 feet of water in muddy Salado Creek on Thursday and found it to contain the four latest victims, including a 2-month-old baby.

Forecasters lowered their prediction of how high the waters would crest here this morning by a foot to 48 1/2 feet, relieving some of the anxiety of besieged residents. City officials said they expect the waters to spare much of downtown. But a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in effect, and at least nine local and federal relief agencies are in place. National Guardsmen joined local police and relief workers in rescue and recovery work.

"It doesn't sound like much, but [the 1-foot-lower crest] makes a big difference," said Wharton County Judge Lawrence Naiser. The higher crest would have backed up creeks on the city's north side, allowing flood waters to swamp most of the town, he said.

The town's economically depressed west side, which lines the Colorado River, was battling the flood waters. About 1,500 people were evacuated from the area. About 250 found haven in a municipal shelter in El Campo, 15 miles away.

"They said it could come into the house, and with the kids, we didn't want to take any chances," said Jenna McCann, who fled the area with her husband and 10-month-old and 3-year-old daughters.

"The key about this flood that makes it different from all the others is that it's slow-rising," said Thom Jones, working at the scene with the Texas Engineering and Extension Service. "The severity is that once it reaches its crest, it will be slow to go down."

Emergency officials put preliminary damage estimates in the state at $400 million.

Rivers, creeks and lakes quickly filled and overflowed, washing out roads, pulling homes off foundations and drowning cattle by the hundreds. San Antonio and Austin received 10 to 20 inches of rain over two days. In New Braunfels, the Guadalupe River rose to more than 30 feet, about 10 feet above flood stage.

In Victoria, 125 miles south of Houston, helicopters rescued residents from rooftops. Northwest of Victoria, in the town of Cuero, three-fourths of the town was submerged when the Guadalupe River crested at 49.7 feet, more than twice its 20-foot flood stage.

The floods forced more than 7,000 people from their homes across the state.

Harvey Spencer, 39, an iron worker who lives in the flooded area here, said the water was "close" to his westside home. His girlfriend and her parents live with him. Her parents left for a motel.

Even if the water rose higher, he said, he would not leave his house. "No I'm not going anywhere. I've gotten wet before."

Times researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Texas flooding

President Clinton declared 20 Texas counties federal disaster areas Wednesday, making them eligible for federal aid. State officials put preliminary damage estimates at $400 million.

Water level above flood stage

Cotulla: +2.4'

Corpus Christi: +6.2'

Tilden: +2.1'

Goliad: +15.27'

Victoria: +10.1'

Wharton: +10.5'

Washington: +7.2'

Sources: National Weather Service, Associated Press

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