Hurricane Dolly rolled into South Texas and northern Mexico on Wednesday, deluging the Rio Grande Valley with rain, knocking out power to tens of thousands of people and ripping roofs off resorts on South Padre Island.But the worst fears of local officials did not materialize. The levees along the Rio Grande held and no major flooding was reported, state and local officials said. The brunt of the storm surge did not flow up the river.
"The levees are holding up just fine, and the river level hasn't risen too much," said Johnny Cavazos, the emergency management coordinator for Cameron County, at the state's southern tip. "We got lucky."
Some officials still worried about the enormous amount of rain the storm would dump — up to 20 inches in some places — which could swell the river and breach levees in the coming days.
The storm, the first to affect the United States mainland this year, first raked across South Padre Island, a tourist resort, in the early afternoon. A few hours later, it hit the coast about 30 miles north of Port Isabel, churning inland and losing power slowly, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
As the hurricane touched land, winds were clocked at 100 miles per hour, making it a Category 2 storm, though it was later downgraded to Category 1 when winds slowed to 95 m.p.h.
On the resort island, many roofs were torn off, trees toppled, signs blown down and windows smashed, The Associated Press reported. Roads were strewn with branches, tree trunks, power poles and streetlights.
A 17-year-old boy was seriously injured on South Padre Island after he was blown from a seventh-floor balcony of the Lighthouse Condominiums, said Dan Quandt, a government spokesman. The boy suffered a broken leg, a smashed hip and a head injury, but survived. "He should buy a lottery ticket," Quandt said.
In Brownsville, high winds knocked out power and toppled oaks around the county courthouse. For most of the day, winds howled and trees bent and danced crazily under leaden skies. Thick rain whipped sideways through the warm tropical air, pelting the pavement and pooling at intersections.
The storm destroyed several important power lines, including a major line running into Brownsville, city officials said. More than 80,000 people in four counties were left without power, crippling refrigeration systems and, in Brownsville, the sewerage system. An official for American Electric Power said crews would start working to restore power as soon as the storm cleared, but it could take two or three days.
Governor Rick Perry asked the White House to declare the affected counties a U.S. disaster area.
Late in the afternoon, state search and rescue teams in helicopters searched poor neighborhoods known as colonias in low-lying areas along the Rio Grande, many of which lack basic services. The teams reported no heavy flooding, nor did they rescue anyone, Perry said at a news conference.
As dusk fell, reports of minor flooding poured in from towns along the border, especially Rio Hondo, Combes and Harlingen. At least 60 people were trapped in houses in Cameron County by rising waters and asked county officials to ferry them to shelters, officials said. Officials sent out trucks and boats.
Local officials said it might be impossible to assess the full extent of the wreckage the storm caused until Thursday afternoon, but the worst damage appeared focused on South Padre Island, Port Isabel and in Rio Hondo.
More than 4,000 people, mostly from low-lying regions along the river and the coast, crowded into schools for shelter. Eight hundred milled through the halls or lay sleeping on blankets at the Homer Hanna High School here. Babies crawled across the floor, and boys played tag in the hallways while rain hammered the outside of the building.
"The apartments where we live are not very good, and they are close to the river," said Viviano Alanez, 82, who arrived at the high school at 9 p.m. Tuesday. "Here we are safe."
School buses carried hundreds of evacuees away from South Padre Island, where the storm surge was expected to be six to eight feet above the high tide line, and Port Isabel on the coast. They were taken to a high school farther inland in San Benito. But some hardy souls stayed on. Some took shelter in a convention center that was damaged by the storm, officials said.
"In the state of Texas, even if there is a mandatory evacuation, you cannot make people leave," said a county commissioner, John Wood.
The hurricane is the first to hit the mainland since Humberto came ashore in South Texas last September. Many had worried it might follow the path of Beulah, the 1967 storm that flooded the Rio Grande Valley with 36 inches of rain, killing 58 people.
On the Mexican side of the river, thousands of people in shoddy housing fled to government shelters, Mexican newspapers reported. Fields filled with water, palm trees bent in the wind and beaches were closed. Mexican soldiers made a daring rescue of people trapped in a flood near the mouth of the Rio Grande, using an inflatable raft to rescue a family from its home.
Farther up river, some levees have deteriorated, especially in Hidalgo County, officials said. "The farther upstream you go, they are not all the same height," said County Judge Carlos Cascos, Cameron County's top elected official. "There are some that are suspect. The next three days will be critical. If we don't get massive flooding by Saturday, I think we will be all right."
Usually its my state getting hit, Florida. I really feel for these people.