Austin American-Statesman, Ralph Barrera
AUSTIN, Texas — One man was killed as heavy rains across Central Texas swelled rivers and creeks and triggered flash flooding Thursday, prompting dozens of rescues across a region that's been dealing with a long, punishing drought.
About 10 miles south of Austin, one frightening rescue involved a couple whose SUV was swept away by floodwaters. They were forced to cling to trees for hours until a helicopter rescued them on Halloween morning.
In all, the National Weather Service said, more than a foot of rain fell across Texas' midsection, including up to 14 inches in Wimberley, southwest of the state capital.
The storm system stretched across much of the nation, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast, and carried heavy rain and strong winds. In South Texas, Houston motorists were slowed during morning rush hour because of downpours and sporadic flooding.
The Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV reported that the Caldwell County Sheriff's office said a man died Thursday after driving on a low-lying portion of road overtaken by flooding. The victim, who has yet to be identified, was swept out of his vehicle in Dale, south of Austin.
Emergency crews in and around Austin responded to more than 100 rescue calls, often with boats and life rafts, but few were more harrowing than one in the town of Buda.
Around 4 a.m., rescuers near Little Bear Creek spotted a man and his girlfriend in trees about 200 yards from the roadway.
Fire Capt. Craig Odell said rescuers encouraged the pair to "hang on" until the helicopter arrived. The man and woman, whose names were not released, estimated they were in the water about four hours before they were hoisted to safety, Odell said.
"They're definitely very lucky," Odell said. Both victims suffered lacerations and were treated for hypothermia; the man broke his nose.
By Thursday afternoon, the skies had cleared in much of the state and a warm sun was shining, meaning most youngsters didn't have to rethink trick-or-treating. Their parents might, however.
The Texas Department of Public Safety warned those out for Halloween fun "to be prepared for continued rising water and flooding."
First Independent Baptist Church in south Austin had hoped to attract 2,500 students Thursday night to a fall festival featuring booths and music on the church grounds.
"I think people will be here tonight, working," pastor Daniel Trinidad said of his church, where head-high floodwaters washed away an outdoor baptismal deck and reduced the vestibule to a soggy mess of water-logged pews and mud.
Community members were sweeping water out of the building and trying to dry framed artwork and church documents.
"They want to help out, not do Halloween," Trinidad said.
Elsewhere, Austin's Onion Creek overflowed, trapping Sabrina Loyless' neighbors atop their car. Loyless was awakened around 5 a.m. by their screams for help, and the 30-year-old tried to wade across the street — but ended up clinging to tree branches.
"When I got about halfway across the road, I realized how bad an idea it was," said Loyless, who hours after her rescue was wrapped in a firefighters' blanket and waiting for the water to recede so she could get back into her home.
Mike Brown, 54, was still barefoot as he waited for permission to return to his trailer, which he thinks will be a total loss. The auto-salvage yard employee said he awoke to water all around him — even seeping into his bed.
"My possessions were floating around," he said. "I opened my door and swam out."
The Red Cross deployed two relief trucks from Fort Worth to Austin to aid flood victims with clean up.
On a front lawn near Brown, landscaper Lee Dufrene was keeping watch over three small horses from a local ranch. He and others led another 15 larger horses to high ground, but when floodwaters crested, the animals were gone.
"I woke up at three-thirty to the sound of horses plunging through the water," said Dufrene, who choked back tears when he talked of his missing 1-year-old horse, Sunny.
The horses might have run away and then been rescued by emergency crews, but he didn't know.
"I've still got hope," Dufrene said.
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