US president signs disaster declaration over deadly Texas storms

DALLAS (REUTERS) – President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration late on Friday for areas in Texas hammered by severe weather that killed at least 21 people, caused massive flooding and prompted evacuations this week.

Storms that battered North Texas on Thursday and Friday added more runoff to swollen rivers and prompted hundreds of calls for help in Dallas, where some areas saw almost 18cm of rain.

“Communities across the State of Texas have experienced devastating destruction, injury and – most tragically – loss of life due to the major and (an) unceasing severe weather system that has been impacting our state for weeks,” said Governor Greg Abbott, who has declared 70 counties disaster areas.

The presidential declaration frees up federal funds to help rebuild. Residents and business owners who suffered damage can begin applying for aid this weekend, according to the statement from the White House.

No estimate has been given for the damage in Texas, which has a US$1.4 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) a year economy and is the biggest domestic energy provider.

Near Dallas on Friday, thousands of cars were trapped for about six hours on a suburban freeway blocked by floodwaters. The Red Cross distributed Girl Scout cookies and water to stranded motorists.

“I feel like I am on an island and nobody cares,” Vanessa Paterson, who was on the highway with her 6-month-old son, told TV station WFAA.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch from Central Texas into Missouri, with the additional rain tipping off a new round of flooding.  Dallas officials advised people to go home early and stay off streets that have seen more water than they can handle.

“This would be a great night to stay home, watch a movie and cook some popcorn,” Dallas Police Deputy Chief Scott Walton told a news conference.

The mayor of Wharton, about 100km south-west of Houston, issued a mandatory evacuation order for about 900 people living near the Colorado River, which began flooding into the city on Thursday and has been rising steadily since.

Hundreds of Texans are set to spend the night in shelters after this week’s floods turned streets into rivers, ripped homes off their foundations and swept over thousands of vehicles.

The rushing water trapped people in cars and houses. One Dallas-area police officer had to be plucked to safety by a helicopter.  

The rainfall for May across the state has already set a new record and more storms were forecast for Texas over the weekend.

The Brazos River, which began overflowing its banks on Wednesday in Parker County about 50km west of Fort Worth, is expected to see another surge due to recent rains.

“This situation will get worse before it gets better,” said Parker County Emergency Management Coordinator George Teague.