BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Hurricane Dolly slammed into the South Texas coast Wednesday with punishing rain and winds of 100 mph, blowing down signs, peeling off roofs and knocking out power to thousands before weakening over land.
Most of the destruction was on South Padre Island, a beach resort town on a barrier island off the Texas coast where the the storm came ashore as a Category 2 storm. Numerous roofs were ripped off and windows were smashed. The roadways and yards were strewn with trees, fences, power poles and fallen streetlights. Business signs rolled around on the streets like tumbleweeds.
The causeway linking the island to the mainland was closed.
But local officials' greatest fear — that the levees holding back the Rio Grande would fail and cause massive flooding — eased when Dolly meandered 35 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border just before coming ashore. About two hours later, Dolly's winds slowed to 95 mph, and the storm was downgraded to a Category 1.
"The levees are holding up just fine," said Cameron County Emergency Management Coordinator Johnny Cavazos. "There is no indication right now that they are going to crest."
The storm defied forecasts that it would swarm the mouth of the Rio Grande, pushing its current upstream and causing massive flooding on both sides of the border. But "it's still very early in the storm," cautioned Sally Spener, a spokeswoman with the International Boundary and Water Commission.
Residents of South Padre Island felt the brunt of the storm
"I thought it was just a big clap of thunder, (then) saw this stuff flying around and it's the roof," said Buck Dopp, who lives in the ground floor of an apartment building where a roof collapsed. Dopp and his family packed up and left the building, despite their plans to ride out the storm.
A 17-year-old boy fell from a seventh-story balcony, injuring his head, breaking his hip and fracturing his leg, said Dan Quandt, spokesman for South Padre Island emergency operations. He was being treated at an island fire station.
Forecasters warned of up to 12 inches of rain that could produce flooding in the heavily populated Rio Grande Valley. Up to 20 inches was predicted for isolated areas. Thunderstorms were attributed to Dolly as far away as Houston, 400 miles up the Texas coastline.
Even as the front edge of the storm passed over the Texas mainland, residents still needed breakfast. The few stores that were open — even without electricity — were doing brisk business before Dolly fully revved up.
"Tienes tortillas?" Jorge Herrera shouted, rushing soaking wet into Johnny's Grocery and Meat Market .2. His 3-year-old son Michelangelo, sporting a Superman T-shirt and matching underpants, was in tow.
Discovering the tortilla factories had closed before the storm and the store didn't have any to sell, the Herreras settled for a bag of charcoal, chocolate cookies and two tall cans of beer.
Store owners were most worried about the pounds of meat now sitting unrefrigerated in the July heat, but cashier Elvira Farias said her boss "wanted to stay open to serve the community. We know that some people need to buy a meal for their kids."
Residents were apparently staying put. Food was selling fast, but gas pumps were idle.
Those heading north likely were stopped at inland Border Patrol checkpoints, where agents opened extra lanes so they could check documentation and arrest illegal immigrants, said sector spokesman Dan Doty. At one checkpoint on I-77, smugglers were caught with between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds of marijuana. Two other immigrant smugglers also were caught.
"We could still do our job but we could do it quickly," Doty said.
Local officials had feared an evacuation would be stalled unless the Border Patrol suspended its immigration checks.
In Mexico, fields filled with water, palm trees were bent over in the wind and beaches were closed to the public.
Mexican soldiers made a last-minute attempt to rescue people at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The soldiers battled storm-charged waves in an inflatable raft to rescue at least one family trapped in their home, while others further inland were still refusing to go to government shelters, said Matamoros spokeswoman Leticia Montalvo.
"These are people who did not want to leave, and now they are in trouble," Montalvo said.
In Brownsville, palm trees leaned and small debris was strewn across the all-but empty streets. The windows and doors of shops were boarded up with plywood and most businesses were closed. Thousands were without power in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, as well as South Padre Island. Transformers were popping in downtown Brownsville, utility officials said.
People fled to shelters in towns on both sides of the border. At Gladys Porter High School, evacuees flowed inside even as Dolly's winds dismantled a school sign. Principal Dora Sauceda said people were lined up outside when she arrived at 4:30 a.m., and the shelter was quickly nearing its 300-person capacity.
Miguel Angel Cruz and his wife Maria Hernandez brought their four children to the shelter because they feared the trailer they lived in wouldn't withstand the wind and a nearby resaca — or pond formed by a bend in the Rio Grande — would flood.
"Yes, we're scared," Cruz, a welder, said in Spanish as his family settled in. "It's our first hurricane."
At 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, the storm's center had come ashore on South Padre Island about 35 miles northeast of Brownsville and was moving northwest at about 7 mph. Tornado watches were in effect for coastal counties between Corpus Christi and Houston through Wednesday afternoon.
The storm, combined with levees that have deteriorated in the 41 years since Hurricane Beulah swept up the Rio Grande, posed a major flooding threat to low-lying counties along the border. Beulah spawned more than 100 tornadoes across Texas and dumped 36 inches of rain in some parts of south Texas, killing 58 people and causing more than $1 billion damage.
Before the storm, forecasters and local officials worried the storm would follow Beulah's path, creating similar destruction.
Around Brownsville, levees protect the historic downtown as well as preserved buildings that were formerly part of Fort Brown on the University of Texas at Brownsville campus. Outside the city, agricultural land dominates the banks of the Rio Grande, but thousands of people live in low-lying colonias, often poor subdivisions built without water and sewer utilities.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Shell Oil evacuated workers from oil rigs, but said it didn't expect production to be affected. It also secured wells and shut down production in the Rio Grande Valley, where it primarily deals in natural gas. Mexico's state-run oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, said it had evacuated 66 workers from an oil platform off the coast of the port city of Tampico.
As Dolly approached, oil and gas producers in the Gulf of Mexico evacuated workers from 62 production platforms and eight rigs, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which monitors offshore activity. Oil production in the Gulf was down about 4.5 percent, while natural gas production was down 7.8 percent.
Dolly is the first hurricane to hit the U.S. since the fast-forming Humberto came ashore in South Texas last September. It is the 26th hurricane known to make landfall in the U.S. in July since record keeping started in 1851, according to federal researchers.
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.