The remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda unleashed torrential rain Thursday in parts of Texas, prompting hundreds of water rescues, a hospital evacuation and road closures as the powerful storm system drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey two years ago.
Imelda is the first named storm to impact the Houston area since Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 50 inches of rain on parts of the flood-prone city in August 2017.
At least two deaths were reported in Jefferson County: A 20-year-old man was struck by lightning in the Hamshire-Fannett area when he tried to lead a horse to a barn and a local man died from cardiac arrest in an incident related to the storm, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said Thursday evening.
East of Houston, some local officials said the rainfall was causing flooding worse than what happened during Hurricane Harvey.
Both groups emphasized that people who need to be rescued should call 911, not directly contact the Cajun Navy groups.
America’s Cajun Navy had assembled an emergency flotilla of some 10 boats composed of Lafayette-area volunteers as they made rescues in heavily flooded Southeast Texas, mostly in a stretch of Interstate 10 from Vidor to Winnie. Tropical Depression Imelda had dumped up to 41 inches of rain in the area over the past three days.
Cajun Navy spokesman John Billiot said volunteers arrived in the affected areas around 9:30 a.m. Thursday and had made rescues. Billiot described flooding as erratic; some neighborhoods in Vidor and nearby Rose City, which were devastated Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey in 2017, were less affected. Other sustained more serious flooding.
Billiot said America’s Cajun Navy had been joined in the area Thursday morning by about eight local volunteers.
In Winnie, a town of about 3,200 people 60 miles east of Houston, a hospital was evacuated and water was inundating several homes and businesses.
"What I'm sitting in right now makes Harvey look like a little thunderstorm," Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne told Houston TV station KTRK.
Hawthorne told The Associated Press that emergency workers rescued about 200 people overnight, and that an additional 50 households were on a waiting list to be rescued Thursday morning. He said airboats from the sheriff's office and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department were helping with the rescues, along with high-water vehicles.
"It's as bad as I've ever seen it. Right now I'm in an absolute deluge of rain," Hawthorne told the AP on Thursday morning as he took cover under a carport at an auto dealership in Winnie. The town "looks like a lake."
"Right now, as a Texas sheriff, the only thing that I really want is for people to pray that it will quit raining," he added.
In Beaumont, a city of just under 120,000 people about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, authorities said all service roads were impassable and two hospitals were inaccessible, the Beaumont Enterprise reported. Beaumont police said on Twitter that 911 has received requests for more than 250 high water rescues and 270 evacuations.
"It's bad. Homes that did not flood in Harvey are flooding now," Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said. During Harvey, Beaumont's only pump station was swamped by floodwaters, leaving residents without water service for more than a week.
Branick said most of the damage in his county, which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, was in the rural areas in the western and northern reaches of the county. Hamshire-Fannett, west of Beaumont, saw significant flooding. He said people were wading in waist-high water in south Beaumont. Both of those areas experienced significant damage in the 2017 storms, which dropped some 60 inches of rain in the area, the largest recorded rainfall in U.S. history.
Branick said other troubled areas included Bevil Oaks, which flooded during Harvey. Otherwise, many areas that flooded during Harvey, which damaged some 80 percent of the structures in Port Arthur, were spared.
“There were a lot of houses flooded last night,” he said.
He said in addition to the Cajun Navy, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, Texas Wildlife and county workers were responding, in some cases making rescues in dump trucks.
Branick said as of Thursday evening, rescue efforts there focused on the rural areas; along Interstate 10, where motorists were stranded; and in dropping feed to farm animals that were stranded.
He said that Mayor Thurman Bartie of Port Arthur, a city of some 50,000 located 15 miles south of Beaumont, reported few homes were flooded. Port Arthur suffered from extensive flooding in Harvey in 2017.
Doreen Badeaux of the Apostleship of the Sea and the International Seafarers’ Center, said numbers for the Cajun Navy were not working Thursday morning. She said there were reports of flooding in northern Nederland, near the Jack Brooks Airport, which did not flood in 2017.
News reports said the Exxon-Mobil Refinery was shut down. But Motiva Enterprises’ refinery in Port Arthur, the biggest producer in North America, was operating.
Port Arthur businessman Fred Vernon said on Facebook he tried to make it to Baytown to escape flooding after being trapped on I-10 near Winnie for several hours, but found city streets in Baytown flooded and power lines down.
Branick said Drainage District 7 had been working 12-hour shifts to keep pumps operational. But he said the slow pace of disbursing federal funds after Harvey in 2017 had affected the county’s ability to make necessary drainage upgrades since Harvey.
“The Code of Federal Regulations is always the biggest impediment,” he said.
Associated Press contributed to this report.