A broad swatch of torrential rains swept up the Interstate 35 corridor before daybreak Friday and, in a grim echo of the 2013 Halloween flooding, claimed at least one life after dumping up to 14 inches of rain in Central Texas through the middle of the day.
The several hours of storms closed hundreds of roads, interrupted power, shut down schools, MetroRail and, for much of the day, Austin’s airport, and once again inundated the beleaguered Onion Creek and Blanco River/San Marcos River flood plains.
The body of a man reported missing earlier Friday was found in the floodwaters off RM 1625, just west of U.S. 183, Travis County sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade said. And authorities said two other people remained missing Friday evening: a man who had been stranded in a car near FM 812 and Texas 130, and a woman whose husband was rescued from their southeastern Travis County home that afternoon.
After a respite Friday afternoon, the skies were predicted to open again overnight Friday, bringing an additional 2 to 3 inches of rain, even as floodwaters moved downstream on various Central Texas rivers and creeks.
Onion Creek reached 39 feet Friday afternoon where it crosses U.S. 183, 22 feet over flood stage. The Blanco River, which devastated the Wimberley area with flooding just five months ago, spiked to 26.5 feet there Friday, well under the 40-plus feet of the Memorial Day weekend flood, but still above what the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority considers major flood stage.
The waters flooded and closed down Interstate 35 for part of Friday morning in several spots between northern San Marcos and Buda, the Texas Department of Transportation said. Onion Creek did the same to U.S. 183. In all, TxDOT reported almost four dozen state roads with flooding or complete closures Friday between New Braunfels and Killeen.
The rising water even threatened the emergency shelter at the San Marcos Activity Center, but with roads around the center remaining submerged, authorities decided not to move the evacuees who were already there. About 178 residents remained at the center Friday evening, while an additional 30 took shelter at Doris Miller Middle School.
A tornado to the south
The Austin Fire Department, amid a busy day of 478 calls by 4 p.m., reported 14 water rescues and 44 “flood assists.” Police closed more than 300 low water crossings in the Austin area at various times Friday.
That list even included, for a time, South First Street, virtually in the shadow of downtown Austin’s skyscrapers. What is normally a dry creek just south of Barton Springs Road became a lake that stretched to the grounds of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, partially submerging cars parked in the area. The receding waters, as they did all over the area, left a carpet of vegetative debris on the cityscape.
The dousing throughout the metro area — Onion Creek saw almost 14.33 inches of rain Friday, Dripping Springs had 9.13 inches and much of Austin had between 5 and 8 inches of rain in just a few hours — led the Lower Colorado River Authority to begin releasing water from Lake Austin into Lady Bird Lake before 11 a.m.
Rainfall totals in the Lake Travis area were generally about 4 inches as of 11 a.m. The lake, which had been replenished by winter and spring rains but had dropped a few feet through the dry late summer, gained 2.1 feet between midnight and 6 p.m. Friday and was still rising quickly.
The storm also knocked out electricity in spots. At 10:40 a.m., Austin Energy officials said about 5,600 customers were without power, a number that had been reduced to 2,500 by midafternoon. Bluebonnet Electric Co-op reported an additional 5,600 outages across more than 50 locations, with the worst concentrated near Zorn along Texas 123 south of San Marcos and in Mustang Ridge on U.S. 183 southeast of Austin.
The National Weather Service reported a tornado on the ground near Zorn about 8 a.m., and there were several tornado warnings in Central Texas as the worst of the storm passed through. Wind damage was also reported near D’Hanis, west of San Antonio, and Floresville south of San Antonio.
In the wake of widespread flooding, officials signed disaster declarations in Bastrop County, Comal County, Luling and New Braunfels.
Flights grounded, MetroRail halted
Because of the timing of the rains, many students had reported to area schools before the severity of the flooding, and the possibility of wind damage, became clear. So at 9:20 a.m., about an hour and a half after elementary school students would have arrived, Austin school district officials said that all district schools south of Lady Bird Lake were in reverse evacuation mode, which meant students had to remain inside the buildings.
Students at Perez Elementary, located near Onion Creek, were evacuated to the Burger Activity Center.
School was canceled for the San Marcos school district, where an early morning report of tornado damage at San Marcos High School turned out to be incorrect. Texas State University, meanwhile, delayed classes until noon.
The Friday night lights were mostly extinguished by the storm, as Austin schools — along with the Pflugerville, Round Rock, Georgetown and Leander school districts — postponed their games until Saturday afternoon. Most of them will kick off at 2 p.m. A handful of games, primarily involving private and parochial schools, were canceled entirely.
Many flights were grounded at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport during the worst of the rain, officials said, primarily because of flooding in the airport’s traffic control facility. The ground floor had 6 inches of water in it, and the flooding damaged key electronic components.
By 4 p.m., what airport officials called “limited aircraft operations” had resumed, in part with help from air controllers in Houston, and the airport was seeing departures and arrivals of airliners.
Capital Metro, meanwhile, suspended MetroRail service about 10 a.m. because of flooded tracks in several spots, particularly south of MLK Jr. Boulevard, as well as debris on the tracks. Crews were seen Friday afternoon in the 6800 block of Airport Boulevard repairing what appeared to be severe erosion in the MetroRail track embankment’s east side.
The transit agency said many bus routes were being rerouted because of street flooding.
Flooding also led to the closure of five early voting sites in Travis County, as well as all Austin branch libraries and Travis County’s Richard Moya and Barkley Meadows parks, which were underwater.