BUDA, Texas (AP) — Punishing storms and suspected tornadoes Friday socked an already sodden swath of Texas that was still drying out from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, forcing evacuations and shutting down a gridlocked 10-mile stretch of interstate. At least two people died and another was missing, authorities said.
More than 16 inches of rain soaked one neighborhood and Austin Bergstrom International Airport suspended all flights after a half-foot of water flooded the air traffic control tower. A lazy creek cutting through Texas wine country swelled into a rushing torrent, sending eight members of a vacationing church group scrambling to a second floor and awaiting rescue from the National Guard.
Powerful winds tossed a trailer from an RV park onto the roof of a three-story Holiday Inn. Abandoned cars, many submerged in water, littered backroads that weary drivers risked after heavy downpours flooded Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin, closing one of the busiest stretch of roadways in the U.S.
The body of a driver who went missing in floodwaters was later found in a hard-hit area near the Austin airport, the Travis County Emergency Management Office said. Military crews also found a body at Camp Bullis, a military training installation north of San Antonio, a Defense Department spokesman said. That person was believed to be a driver whose vehicle was swept off the road by flash floodwaters.
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Another woman remained missing elsewhere.
Last weekend, storms from Patricia’s Category 5 aftermath dumped nearly a foot of rain in parts of the same region. Although not deadly, that drenching left the ground saturated and unable to sop up this latest deluge.
“The flooding was so much,” said Kathleen Haney, who was part of the Dallas church group rescued from a bed-and-breakfast in Wimberley. “It just kept coming up and coming up.”
Near San Antonio, four students with special needs and two adults were rescued from a school bus caught in floodwaters that reached the top of the tires. Dozens of other high-water rescues busied emergency crews from before dawn to mid-afternoon. The rain was expected to clear by Halloween, but not before one last line of possible storms.
Forecasters say an upper-level disturbance from Mexico carried the storms into Texas as a strong El Nino is expected to make for a wet winter in the U.S.
“We really couldn’t take this type of rainfall that we’ve seen today,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Runyen said.
Most eyes were on Wimberley, a popular getaway spot in the Texas Hill Country where the church group found themselves stranded. Similar conditions in May — soaking storms on the heels of other soaking storms — caused devastating flooding on the Blanco River that swept homes from foundations and killed families that were carried downstream.
The Blanco River this time swelled to about 26 feet in Wimberley, nearly twice the flood stage. Residents were evacuated from the area and a community center was opened to shelter people.
Farther south in Floresville, a suspected tornado caused only minor injuries, Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Reyes said. Ruth Veliz, whose parents own a taco shop in town, said one of her employees yelled “Tornado!” and tried to keep the winds from blowing inside before a customer pulled her to safety.
“The door was flying open with her as she was trying to close it,” Veliz said.
Wind gusts of up to 70 mph were reported in some places. The flooded portion of Interstate 35 was reopened later Friday, but not before southbound drivers turned against traffic and tried driving north along the shoulder. Winds peeled off roofs elsewhere and collapsed a historic 19th-century building in the small town of D’Hanis, one of three cities where suspected tornadoes touched down.
“If it would have happened at 10 a.m. instead of 4 a.m., might have been a different story,” Medina County Sheriff Randy Brown said.
Robbins reported from San Antonio. Associated Press writers David Warren and Terry Wallace in Dallas, photographer Eric Gay in Floresville and video journalist John Mone in D’Hanis contributed to this report.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber .