BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Residents and recovery teams began fanning out across south Texas at dawn Thursday and cars crept along roads with darkened stoplights as the region got its first look at the destruction left by Hurricane Dolly.
Traffic picked up on local roads littered with debris as people emerged for the first time in more than 24 hours after Dolly's soaking rains and punishing winds. After crashing ashore on South Padre Island, the storm ripped roofs from homes, flooded roads and downed power lines, but the Rio Grande levees officials had feared could breach held strong.
Still, the danger had not passed as power lines hung across streets and water surrounded neighborhoods. Residents should stay at home "unless it's life or death," said Tony Pena, Hidalgo County emergency coordinator.
Hurricane Dolly slammed ashore as a Category 2 hurricane midday Wednesday and then loitered over deep south Texas as a tropical storm, dumping as much as a foot of rain in places and bringing 100 mph winds. Those winds had dropped by half Thursday morning, and forecasters said the tropical storm warning for the Texas coast would likely be canceled later in the morning. The storm was expected to break up by Friday.
By 8 a.m., the tropical storm was centered about 50 miles southeast of Laredo with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared 14 south Texas counties disaster areas and sought federal disaster declarations, and was scheduled to fly over the region Thursday afternoon.
While the rain set records in Brownsville's Cameron County — ranging from six to 12 inches with another three to seven expected overnight — they did not appear to pose the threat to the Rio Grande's levees that had been feared.
The river rose steadily through the day in Brownsville, but did not reach flood stage.
"We're not experiencing any issues with the levees right now," Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, said late Wednesday. "The water is just not high enough."
But the torrential rains and fierce winds that lasted much of the day in south Texas still caught some by surprise.
By Wednesday afternoon, the community of Laureles north of Los Fresnos had been reduced to a chain of sunken islands, separated from the main roads by floodwaters of two feet or more in places.
Mailboxes barely peaked above murky, wind-swept waters where neighborhood loops met county roads.
Pedro Zuniga, his wife and their six children fled their mobile home for the comparative safety of a relative's wood-frame house next door. That home's owner had already left to take shelter in another relative's brick house.
Peering out the back door at the trailer he deemed too wobbly for his family, Zuniga said the water crossing his yard toward a canal behind was not as high as he had seen it a few years ago when it reached the base of his elevated trailer.
"We were going to go to a shelter, but they said there was only one so we decided to stay," said Zuniga's wife, Aleida Cardenas, 29. "But we didn't know it would be this bad."
Others did head to shelters. More than 5,000 people moved to public shelters in the three hardest-hit counties and the numbers were expected to grow Thursday as more people became stranded by floodwaters.
In Hidalgo County, Pena said there were several incidents late Wednesday requiring emergency personnel to rescue people from homes.
One family was left huddling in their topless house after winds blew the roof off, Pena said. Also, sheriff's deputies rescued a family of eight from Los Fresnos after floodwaters surrounded their home.
The only serious injury reported Wednesday occurred when the wind knocked a 17-year-old boy from a seventh-story balcony on South Padre Island. The boy suffered a broken hip, leg and a head injury but could not be transported off the island until about 5 p.m. The causeway linking the island to the mainland had reopened.
The island sustained some of the storm's heaviest damage and was still without power Wednesday night. Roofs were torn off hotels and homes, there was significant flooding that had begun to subside and debris was everywhere. A curfew was imposed for 8 p.m., Zamora said.
No deaths were immediately reported in Mexico, but Tamaulipas state Gov. Eugenio Hernandez said 50 neighborhoods were still in danger from flooding. About 13,000 people had taken refuge in 21 shelters, he said.
"Strong winds are no longer the problem. Now we have to worry about intense rain in the next 24 hours," Hernandez said.
Earlier in the day, Mexican soldiers made a last-minute attempt to rescue people at the mouth of the Rio Grande, using an inflatable raft to retrieve at least one family trapped in their home. Many people farther inland refused to go to government shelters.
Many Texans heading north 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.
The U.S. Census Bureau said that based on Dolly's projected path, about 1.5 million Texans could feel the storm's effects. The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was the fast-forming Humberto, which came ashore in southeast Texas last September.
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.