Gulf States Mop Up After Erin, Ramp Up for Hurricane Dean

HOUSTON, Texas, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - Packing torrential rains and strong winds, Erin claimed seven lives as it swept across southern Texas Thursday. Downgraded to a tropical depression as it made landfall, the storm still gave rain-weary Texas a beating, drenching Houston and leaving thousands stranded on flooded freeways and side streets.

Among the dead were three motorists who were killed in accidents caused by the heavy rains as well as a truck driver who drowned when his18-wheeler overturned after he accidentally drove his rig into a flooded retention pond in the La Porte area, said a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

Flooded Houston. Thursday, August 16, 2007 (Photo by Josh Carrol.)
A 19 year old man died in a rain-swollen San Antonio creek, while a grocer and a delivery man were found dead in Houston after the roof of a grocery loading dock and storage area collapsed without warning.

National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mooreland said Erin dumped the most rain on south and southeast Houston, where nearly nine inches were recorded at Hunting Bayou and Lockwood. At least 20,000 electricity customers in the area lost power Thursday, although service has now been restored to most homes and businesses.

More rainfall is expected in central and eastern Harris County over the weekend. Texas was soaked in July with record rainfall that swelled rivers and saturated the ground. The city of Victoria recorded more than 20 inches last month.

While Erin drifted west into New Mexico, all eyes in Texas turned to Hurricane Dean now blowing westward across the Caribbean. The dangerous Category 4 hurricane is expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico Monday night.

Currently, Dean is carrying winds of 135 miles per hour with higher gusts as it passes south of the U.S. Virgin Islands, reports from a U.S. Air Force Reserve reconnaissance aircraft confirm.

The government of the Dominican Republic has issued a hurricane warning for portions of the island's southern coast. The government of Haiti, which shares the same island, issued a hurricane watch, as did the government of Jamaica.

Texas Governor Rick Perry Friday declared Hurricane Dean an imminent threat to Texas, initiating full-scale state hurricane preparedness efforts.

Satellite image of Hurricane Dean moving west across the Caribbean. August 17, 2007 1500 hours UTC (Image courtesy NOAA)
Perry activated state resources, including search and rescue teams, as National Weather Service projections show Hurricane Dean could impact the Texas coast by the middle of next week.

"With the potential of another major storm entering the Gulf of Mexico and threatening the Texas coast, now is the time to begin mobilizing our resources and implementing our plan to ensure an orderly response before landfall," Perry said. "As we continue to monitor Hurricane Dean, the state is preparing to deploy ample resources, manpower and equipment to meet any potential need to ensure the safety of Texas residents."

The State Operations Center (SOC) was fully activated Saturday morning, and twice daily conference calls are being held with local elected officials, first responders, mass care providers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Weather Service to assess the latest weather projections and to coordinate state and local preparation and response.

The Texas fuel industry has begun surging fuel loads to all coastal counties to ensure adequate fuel supply, the governor said, and the Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, is displaying public service announcements in costal counties, advising residents to keep their gas tanks full in case evacuations become necessary.

TxDOT has begun pre-positioning resources and sweeping evacuation corridors in preparation for extra evacuation lanes and contraflow.

The governor says he is ready to deploy up to 10,000 Texas Military Forces soldiers if necessry.

Eighty members of the Texas Forest Service Lonestar Task Force are on standby as are 250 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department crews with boats, reacy to help with evacuations.

Hurricane Dean at Dutchman's Bay, Antigua. August 17, 2007 (Photo by Jill Fuller)
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency so that the state is prepared for Hurricane Dean. She has also requested a presidential emergency declaration to ensure federal assets are available to Louisiana prior to the potential landfall of Dean.

"These declarations are a necessary step that allows the state to move quickly if need be," Governor Blanco said. "I urge all citizens to be personally prepared, listen to your local officials and monitor your local media as this storm progresses. Please make sure your plans to get to safety should evacuation be in order. Be prepared for the worst and hope for the best."

The Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, GOHSEP, activated its Crisis Action Team Thursday to monitor the storm and provide updates to parish, state and federal partners.

On Saturday, GOHSEP will upgrade its level of readiness by activating personnel on a 24 basis from critical state agencies working within the Emergency Operations Center - the State Police, National Guard, Department of Transportation and Development, the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Department of Health and Hospitals, Department of Social Services, and the Division of Administration.

FEMA team member Vince Boyer displays communication equipment before heading to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Dean. (Photo by Mark Wolfe courtesy FEMA)
"Louisiana is prepared. We will keep a close eye on Hurricane Dean throughout the weekend," said GOHSEP Director Jeff Smith. "I want to remind our citizens to also do their part and prepare. I strongly urge our citizens to pick up an evacuation guide and begin planning for your family's safety should this or a future storm head toward Louisiana."

Criticized for its inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has already sent a five-member Federal Incident Response Support Team to Puerto Rico to meet Hurricane Dean.

FEMA officials call the move an example of "the new FEMA leaning forward."

A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew the FEMA team to Puerto Rico Thursday. Also on the plane were two trucks, one equipped with onboard satellite communications systems.

To expedite life-saving federal assistance to Puerto Rico, the team and its equipment will be able to provide video-teleconferencing capability to the people in charge of the response - the federal coordinating officer and local emergency managers on the island - and help make real-time assessments of damage.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.