HOUSTON — Buckets of rain and powerful winds that apparently spawned several tornadoes swept across Texas on Wednesday, forcing drivers to abandon cars on flooded roads but not dropping enough water to make up for a historic dry spell.
The squall of storms swept from north to south, first pounding Dallas and Fort Worth overnight. At dawn, rescue workers were able to peek into car windows to make sure people weren't stuck in cars stranded in windshield-high water.
As the storms inched south and settled over Central Texas and Austin, record amounts of rain — more than 5 inches in some areas of the capital — drenched areas that just a few months ago battled the most devastating wildfires the state has ever seen.
At least one tornado touched down in northeast Austin, damaging an industrial park and a few homes, but causing no injuries, said Chris Morris, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in New Braunfels. In total, the National Weather Service was investigating at least half a dozen tornadoes statewide.
By midday in Houston, some roads and freeways were flooded, and the Houston Independent School District cancelled all afterschool activities. The National Weather Service will survey damage in Pearland after residents reported a possible tornado touching down in town about 18 miles south of Houston.
Despite the damage, the downpour was seen as a blessing in some regions, including Washington County, a rural area northwest of Houston that hasn't seen much rain this year.
"It's really nice to see some of the cows in the county have water after all these months," said Robert Smith, the county's emergency management coordinator. "I think the cows are doing a jig."
Near San Antonio, some areas got more than 9 inches of rain, and the National Weather Service sent experts to survey storm damage to determine whether a tornado touched down overnight. The San Antonio Fire Department made 14 rescues, pulling people out of their vehicles after they drove into rising waters.
By Wednesday morning, weather was so severe east of Austin that the Bastrop Independent School District closed schools for the day, just months after consoling students who had lost their homes and belongings in drought-sparked wildfires. At least two other school districts experienced delays and closures, and one asked parents to bring their children to school after the roof of the building that houses the school buses was damaged.
The National Weather Service also will have to survey damage to confirm whether a tornado or straight-line winds toppled trees and power lines, damaged businesses, blew out windows, flattened barns and ruined rooftops throughout Washington County and downtown Brenham, a town about 60 miles northwest of Houston. No one was injured.
Another apparent tornado damaged a tire shop in Somerville, and the third was spotted in Waller County.
Still, meteorologists said Wednesday's storms would not be enough to end a drought that has parched Texas for more than a year.
"Certainly, it's not a drought-buster. We have a long way to go to dig out of a big hole," said Clay Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service for the Austin and San Antonio region.
It was, however, one of the biggest rain events some parts of the state have seen in months. A record 5.66 inches of rain dropped on the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport between midnight and early Wednesday, Anderson said. Some areas east of Austin and San Antonio got more than 9 inches of rain.
Unfortunately, though, only 4 inches of rain fell in areas that recharge the aquifers that are a major source of water for Austin and San Antonio.
Pat McDonald, a National Weather Service meteorologist in New Braunfels, said the most rainfall recorded from the storm was in Caldwell County, where 9.3 inches fell in Uhland.
Even before the storms reached Houston, wind gusts of up to 50 mph brought down power lines, leaving thousands without power. An airport spokeswoman said several flights were delayed at the city's two airports because of wind, rain and tornado warnings.
Victor Murphy, a climate expert with the National Weather Service, said these storms could bring enough rain to some parts of North Texas — including Dallas and Fort Worth — to pull them out of drought conditions, but that won't be clear for another week.
But areas of South and southeast Texas that are in severe and exceptional drought will get only minor relief, Murphy said. The streams, reservoirs and lakes are too low to be refilled by one line of storms.
"It's just an improvement," he said. "This drought's too severe and too prolonged for one rain event to just end the drought, especially in areas like Houston and Central Texas."
Associated Press writers Linda Stewart Ball, Diana Heidgerd and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, and Will Weissert in Austin contributed to this report.
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