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Soaking rains cause flooding, rescues, evacuations in Texas, Oklahoma; firefighter dies

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SAN MARCOS, Texas — Record rainfall wreaked havoc across a swath of the U.S. Midwest on Sunday, causing flash floods in normally dry riverbeds, spawning tornadoes and forcing at least 2,000 people to flee.

About 350 homes in the town of Wimberley were washed away by flash floods along the Blanco River, which rose 26 feet in just one hour and left piles of wreckage 20 feet high, Texas authorities said.

"We do have whole streets with maybe one or two houses left on them and the rest are just slabs," Hays County emergency management coordinator Kharley Smith said, describing the town of Wimberley, about 40 miles southwest of Austin, where several people were missing.

"It looks pretty bad out there," she said.

Tornados struck, severely damaging an apartment complex in Houston, Texas, and a firefighter in Oklahoma was swept to his death while trying to rescue 10 people in high water.

Rivers rose so fast that whole communities woke up Sunday morning surrounded by water. The Blanco River crested above 40 feet, more than double its flood stage of 13 feet, swamping Interstate 35 and forcing parts of the busy north-south highway to close. Rescuers used pontoon boats and a helicopter to pull people out.

Dallas faced severe flooding, with the Trinity River expected to crest near 40 feet Monday and lap at the foundations of an industrial park. The Red and Wichita rivers also rose far above flood stage.

"The water rose so fast," said Rudy Olivo, 62, whose front steps in San Marcos were under water.

This May is already the wettest on record for several cities in the southern Plains states, with days still to go and more rain on the way. So far this year, Oklahoma City has recorded 27.37 inches of rain. Last year the state's capital got only 4.29 inches.

The reasons include a prolonged warming of Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures, which generally results in cooler air, coupled with an active southern jet stream and plentiful moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, said Meteorologist Forrest Mitchell at National Weather Service office in Norman, Oklahoma.

"It looks like the rainfall that we're getting now may actually officially end the drought," that has gripped the southern Plains states for years, Mitchell said, noting that moisture now reaches about two feet below the surface of the soil and many lakes and reservoirs are full.

PHOTO: Motorists navigate deep water on after heavy rain showers flood much of the city, Saturday, May 23, 2015 in Amarillo, Texas.  Amarillo received 1.7 inches of rain according the National Weather Service.  (Michael Schumacher/The Amarillo Globe News via AP)
Motorists navigate deep water on after heavy rain showers flood much of the city, Saturday, May 23, 2015 in Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo received 1.7 inches of rain according the National Weather Service. (Michael Schumacher/The Amarillo Globe News via AP)

Wichita Falls was so dry at one point that that it had to get Texas regulatory approval to recycle and treat its wastewater as drinking water dried up. By Sunday, the city reached a rainfall record, nearly 14 inches so far in May.

The storm system was pushing northeast Sunday after moving across parts of Colorado, central and North Texas and most of Oklahoma. New flash flood watches were issued Sunday for western Arkansas, Missouri and parts of Kansas.

About 1,000 people were evacuated in Central Texas, where rescuers pulled dozens of people from high water overnight.

Tami Mallow, 41, gathered her three cats at a shelter in San Marcos while her husband put furniture on cinderblocks, and retreated to the second floor with electronics and other valuables as the floodwaters entered.

"He told me there was 2 inches of mud," Mallow said. "I don't know what the cleanup process is going to be."

Five San Marcos police cars were washed away and a fire station is flooded, said Kristi Wyatt, a spokeswoman for San Marcos, which imposed a curfew starting at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Wyatt said some 1,000 homes are damaged in San Marcos, Wimberly and elsewhere in Hays County, a fast-growing area between San Antonio and Austin.

A tornado briefly touched down in Houston, damaging rooftops, toppling trees, blowing out windows and sending at least two people to a hospital. The National Weather Service said the tornado struck with winds of about 100 mph at around 6:30 a.m. Sunday. Fire officials said 10 apartments were heavily damaged and 40 others sustained lesser damage.

About 50 miles north of Houston, authorities were concerned with Lake Lewis overflowing, its dam may fail. Some 900 residents downstream complied with a mandatory evacuation order, the Houston Chronicle reported.

In northeast Oklahoma, Capt. Jason Farley was helping rescue people at about 11:30 p.m. Saturday when he was swept into a drainage ditch. The body of the 20-year veteran was recovered an hour and a half later, Claremore Fire Chief Sean Douglas said.

Oklahoma City set a new monthly rainfall total this weekend — 18.2 inches through Saturday, beating the previous one of 14.5 in 2013.

Colorado also was water-logged. A mandatory evacuation notice was issued Sunday for residents in the northeastern city of Sterling, and several counties planned to ask the governor for a disaster declaration.


Associated Press writers David Warren in Dallas and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Mike Graf stands on the foundation of his home near Wimberley on Stone Canyon Street after it was completely swept away by the Blanco River in the flood on Sunday May 24, 2015.  "It's only things," he said.  "At least nobody was hurt." (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP) AUSTIN CHRONICLE OUT, COMMUNITY IMPACT OUT, INTERNET AND TV MUST CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND STATESMAN.COM, MAGS OUT
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