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Monday, August 23, 1999

Bret drenches South Texas

Electricity, water cut on Island

By Heather Howard
Caller-Times

 

John Kennedy/Caller-Times
As black rainclouds loom in the background, a sailboat owner fastens down his craft after it was placed in a cutout ditch on the median along Ocean Drive on Sunday.
With the fiercest storm in more than three decades bearing down on the Coastal Bend Sunday, frenzied residents scrambled to secure their homes and stock pantries, and city officials helped usher thousands of evacuees north, out of Bret's path and into safer spots.
   The storm aimed at Baffin Bay - the same spot where a storm that killed nearly 300 people made landfall 80 years ago.
   The Federal Emergency Management Agency will send workers, cots, portable toilets, water, ice, blankets and tents to areas hard hit by the storm.
   "There's always life or death when there's a storm - not just during the storm, but after the storm, too," said Red Cross Director Judy Oestreich. "People drown after a storm, have a heart attack after a storm. It's important that people not be careless or reckless. When people dare, or take risks, that's when they get hurt."
   Early power outages
   As rain moved in, Central Power and Light estimated more than 2,000 power outage calls, mostly farther south, toward South Padre Island, spokeswoman Jessica Mahaffey said. The power company reported about 300 outages in the Corpus Christi area, she said.
   At mid-morning Sunday, an outage affected about 2,900 customers in Port Aransas and north Padre Island after the wind battered a tower and caused it to lean, Mahaffey said.
   Workers restored power to Port Aransas and Mustang Island, but the company decided to cut power to north Padre because the tower was unstable.
   "That area should be evacuated," Mahaffey said. "We just can't get in there because of where it's located."
Closings and
road conditions

School closings

  • Corpus Christi Independent School District will be closed Monday
  • Taft Independent School District will be closed Monday
  • Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has evacuated students from the campus. All university and South Texas Institute for the Arts activities are cancelled for Monday
  • Robstown Independent School District will be closed until further notice.
  • The Texas A&M University-Kingsville campus has been evacuated and closed. All offices will be closed Monday
  • Del Mar College has canceled convocation for Monday and both campuses will be closed until further notice.
General closings
  • City of Alice facilities and offices will be closed until further notice.
  • Road Conditions For information on road conditions statewide, call the Texas Department of Transportation at 1-800-452-9292.

   City officials have cut off water supplies to Padre Island and North Beach, officials said.
   Water problems
   Also on Sunday, several city water mains broke, including a 20-inch cast iron water main in the Up River Road area where problems have been reported throughout the week.
   Water Superintendent Danny Ybarra said crews would fix the mains when Bret had blown over. The main breaks weren't caused by the storm, he said.
   Ybarra said the department is getting water storage facilities prepared for Bret's aftermath.
   "Fixing a main like that takes time - time that we don't have," Ybarra said. "Right now all we've done is isolated it, and when the storm blows through, we'll go back and fix it."
   Assistant City Manager Ogilvie Gericke said he doesn't expect Bret will force the city to shut off the water supply, thanks to the Mary Rhodes Pipeline.
   In previous years, even a moderate storm surge could force salt water over a barrier dam on the Nueces River, infiltrating the city's freshwater supply and forcing the city to rely on a short-term supply in the sediment basins at the O.N. Stevens Water Treatment Plant that would last about three days.
   "But if it comes over the dam, we'll just switch to the water from the Texana pipeline this time," Gericke said.
   Getting prepared
   As Bret was gaining strength, residents scrambled to area grocery stores and gas pumps to prepare for a possible pounding.
   At the Wal-Mart on Greenwood Drive, customers stood in lines 10 shoppers deep, even at 2 a.m. Sunday. Just before 1 a.m. Sunday, lines at the Super K-Mart in Moore Plaza had 30-minute waits, and canned food was disappearing. By that time, many shoppers at an Alameda Street H-E-B searched in vain for batteries and bottled water, coveted crisis supplies that had long since been snatched up in the pre-Bret buying binge.
   And as many residents who stayed in the Coastal Bend Sunday continued to shop for provisions throughout the morning, Corpus Christi officials issued an order forbidding price gouging - a directive meant to keep residents from having, for example, to pay $4 for a gallon of gas.
   Officials forbade businesses and residents to take advantage of the storm by selling or leasing fuel, food, medicine or other necessities at an exorbitant price.
   Area homeless shelters saw a brisk business as residents - those without homes and those who didn't think their homes would be safe - looked for a place to stay, Salvation Army officials said.
   Getting out of town
   By 8 a.m. Sunday, Corpus Christi officials had declared a state of emergency and asked residents to evacuate.
   Thousands packed gas lines and then fled to higher ground and the numerous shelters that were setting up in San Antonio, Austin and Victoria.
   Kingsville, Port Aransas and Mustang Island residents left under mandatory evacuation orders, and the Port Aransas ferries shut down about 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
   Downtown Corpus Christi became a ghost town as businesses boarded and taped windows and boats evacuated from the marina.
   Traffic on major roadways crept, making a more than six-hour trip out of the normally two-hour drive to San Antonio for some drivers.
   By early afternoon the Corpus Christi International Airport had closed, and the Texas Department of Transportation had closed State Highway 361 from Aransas Pass to the ferry landing at Port Aransas, highway officials said.
   Park Road 22 to Padre Island also had been closed. However, cars still were being allowed to travel from the island to the mainland, officials said.
   The Port of Corpus Christi tied down vessels in preparation for the hurricane, said Ray Harrison, traffic control chief at the Harbormaster's Office. Workers tied the larger vessels against the docks and tied the smaller crafts to the bigger boats. The largest vessel in port was the 771-foot, 79,993-ton Eagle Corona, which had delivered crude oil to Citgo from Venezuela. Harrison did not know of any ships offshore waiting to come in.
   Cancellations
   Officials at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi evacuated the waterfront campus, which was expected Sunday to suffer flooding. The school also canceled Monday classes, as did Texas A&M University-Kingsville, which also evacuated. Del Mar College and the Corpus Christi and Taft independent school districts will not have class today, either.
   And refineries also began shutting down by early afternoon.
   "We will have operations curtailed by this evening," Koch spokesman Rich Tuttle said Sunday afternoon from his home, where he was boarding up windows.
   Strongest storm since '80s
   Hurricane Bret is the first major storm to menace the lower Texas coast since Hurricane Gilbert caused flooding when it hit 80 miles south of Brownsville in September 1988. Hurricane Jerry killed three along the upper coast as it sloshed ashore in October 1989. Since then, the state has enjoyed the longest period without hurricanes since record-keeping began in 1871.
   In 1970, Hurricane Celia brought 180-mph gusts, killed 11, damaged 60,000 homes and caused $500 million in destruction.
   Hurricane Allen slammed into the lower coast in 1980, killing two and causing $55 million in damage.
   In September 1967 Hurricane Beulah, a Category 4 storm, hit Brownsville, killing 13 and causing $150 million in damage.
   Texas' 367-mile coast has also been assaulted by storms with winds just below the 74 mph required for hurricane status.
   In August 1998, Tropical Storm Charley dumped 18 inches of rain that killed 19 people in flooding from Del Rio across South Texas.
   One month later, Tropical Storm Frances caused major flooding across southeast Texas and southern Louisiana.
   At the time, Texas had gone an unprecedented eight years without a hurricane.
   Although Bret initially was traveling west toward the Texas-Mexico border, the storm on Saturday started moving north into a hole in a high-pressure system that has covered the state for most of the summer, hurricane center forecaster said.
   The same system that has kept Texas sweltering under high temperatures has been weakened in the past few days by a cold front moving from the north, forecasters said.
   The cold front created a hole in the high pressure, splitting it toward the East and West coasts and opening a path for the storm to travel north.
   On Sunday, the storm turned back west as the high pressure reinforced itself, said Jeremy Pennington, a hurricane center meteorologist.
   Throughout the morning Sunday, the storm turned slowly and moved slightly north of due west, he said.
   The storm was traveling 8 mph toward west, northwest Sunday afternoon and slowing its speed. Forecasters expected that the storm could continue slowing into the night, Pennington said.
   Because the storm traveled so far north, it had, by Sunday, become a greater threat to the Texas Coast than originally anticipated.
   "(Tide surges) could compare to 1919 storm, which made landfall near Baffin Bay," said Mike Coyne, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi. "We had 16-foot storm surges in Corpus Christi because the storm made landfall a little south of the city and pushed water up. When a storm makes landfall to the south, it really causes problems."
   Damage depends on factors
   The damage that a hurricane does depends largely on the speed of the storm and on how much rain it dumps, weather officials said.
   Tide surges, which are caused by winds, depend on the speed of the hurricane and angle of its attack. But stronger storms don't necessarily bring heavier rainfall.
   Typically, hurricanes that move slowly or stall bring heavier rains than rapidly moving storms.
   To prepare for whatever might blow in, Dr. Karen and James Chaney spent Sunday boarding up their windows, putting furniture and valuables above ground level and making sure their neighbors in the Country Club area also had what they needed to weather the storm.
   "To say that I feel very comfortable and all is not true," Karen Chaney said. "I'm actually kind of scared. I think the mood is one of seriousness. We're not taking this lightly."
   Neither were their neighbors.
   Throughout the day Sunday, the Chaneys heard neighbors sawing and nailing as Country Club residents prepared for Bret's arrival.
   By early afternoon, the Chaney family had secured their home and settled in front of The Weather Channel to wait, with plenty of candles and with fingers crossed.
   "We've been watching television all afternoon long," she said. "Every once in a while, we just shut it off to take a breather, and then we check it again."
  
  




Staff writers Tracey Cooper, Mack Harrison, Stephanie Jordan, Dan Parker, Novelda Sommers and Ana Tamez and Jen Deselms contributed to this report. Staff writer Heather Howard can be reached at 886-3767 or by e-mail at howardh@caller.com

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