ORANGE, Texas – Paul Fregia II has spent the past few days placing sandbags around his girlfriend's home in Orange, one of several riverside towns in Southeast Texas inundated by floodwaters after days of heavy rains. He said the flooding was worse when Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, but that the dangers this week have been deceptive.
"You don't see the rain with this flood, you just see the water rising," the 21-year-old Fregia said Wednesday. "It's creeping up on you, and you don't know how high it's going to get."
Thousands of people have been displaced and more were evacuated Wednesday amid rising water along waterways in the region, including the Sabine River, a long border between Texas and Louisiana that authorities said has reached levels not seen since 1884.
The heavy rains also inundated the Houston area about 100 miles west, where the bodies of a man and woman were recovered from the rain-swollen San Jacinto River after a small fishing boat was found damaged at the bottom of a 40-foot spillway. High water from the rain likely was a factor in the accident, and evidence indicates the boat went over the spillway, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department said Wednesday.
Floodwaters have reached the roofs of houses in Deweyville, a town along the Sabine River where people could be seen maneuvering small boats near submerged cars. In Orange, about 16 miles south, a canoeist paddled around road signs near Interstate 10, one of the country's major transportation arteries that has been intermittently closed over the past few days by flooding.
Authorities warned such boaters to watch for wildlife trying to escape the water for higher ground, often in residential areas. Poisonous snakes such as cottonmouths are in the region, and people have reported seeing wild hogs in populated areas, said Lori Ardoin with the Orange County emergency management office.
Truman Dougharty, the top administrator in adjacent Newton County — where hundreds of people have fled their homes — was emotional following an aerial tour of the area by Gov. Greg Abbott.
"The number of homes that are under water and people displaced ... it's emotional, sir," Dougharty said, his voice breaking as he turned toward Abbott during a news conference. "So we've got a lot of people needing a lot of help."
Abbott has issued a disaster declaration for much of the region and urged residents to heed evacuations orders. State emergency management officials haven't released information about the extent or potential cost of the damage so far.
The American Red Cross said encroaching floodwaters in Orange forced the closure of two shelters and about 200 people stayed Tuesday night at a shelter at Lamar University in Beaumont. Local officials didn't have estimates on how many people have been displaced, but said about 9,100 people live in the evacuated area.
Paul Craycraft, who runs a livestock auction near the Trinity River west of Orange, said the river rarely overflowed its banks during the last few years because of drought conditions, but that the river has flooded "six times in the last year."
Craycraft said that poses a problem to ranchers with pastures along the riverbanks, which have rich soil for grazing grasses. He said the flooding has forced them to move livestock to higher land.
The flooding follows often torrential rains that fell over four days last week and dropped up to 20 inches in some places.