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‘A madhouse’: Houston hammered by rain, flooding from deadly storm

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Flooding in Austin, Texas

(CNN) — Deluge. That’s the best way to describe the nightmare Houston residents coped with Tuesday, after over 11 inches of rain fell in some spots overnight and into the next day — inundating byways and highways, slowing first responders, knocking out power and generally bringing the southeast Texas metropolis to a standstill.

Three people in Houston died because of the bad weather in the city, the mayor said. That raises the overall death toll from the storm system that’s been ravaging the area, as well as northern Mexico, to at least 23, officials said. At least 16 people are still missing, including three in Houston and 13 in Hays County, which is south of Austin in Central Texas.

“We got hammered,” Houston Emergency Management Coordinator Rick Flanagan told CNN’s “New Day,” echoing sentiments by many others in the region in recent days. “We had cars that were stranded, mobility was stopped … signals didn’t work. It was just a madhouse.”

It still is. While the sun appeared Tuesday, more rain remains possible. And even though some parts of Houston were “high and dry,” others were not, Mayor Annise Parker said.

“The sun is shining out here right now and the city is slowly getting back to normal, but this is a little bit of a situation of a tale of two cities. Much of Houston was unaffected by the weather, but the parts that were affected by the weather were very severely hit,” she told reporters.

Underpasses, patches of highways and areas near waterways such as the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek and Buffalo Bayou, already strained by weeks of heavy rain, remain inundated.

“The defining feature of Houston is the small rivers that run through the city,” Parker said. “Many of them went over their banks and began to flood neighborhoods.”

The result of the flash floods and river overruns is “lots and lots of abandoned cars” and large pools of standing water, making for a logistical and traffic nightmare in the United States fourth most populated city.

The mayor said that as many as 4,000 properties in Houston may have suffered “significant damage,” although the assessment is complicated by all the water.

“We’ve seen flooding before, but not nearly to this extreme,” said Gage Mueller, a Houston resident for the past 40 years and a Houston Rockets employee who stayed overnight at the Toyota Center because it wasn’t safe to go home. “It rains and it rains and it rains, and there’s really nowhere for the water to go. … It’s ridiculous.”

Family separated after water shreds cabin

The nightmare in Houston echoes that in other communities in Texas, Oklahoma and northern Mexico in recent days — all from the same deadly, powerful, persistent storm system. And it’s not over.

In Mexico, the epicenter for this severe weather has been the border city of Ciudad Acuña, where a tornado killed 13 people.

In the United States, it’s been Hays County, not far from the Texas capital of Austin, where up to 400 homes washed away this weekend.

The Blanco River there surged from 5½ feet to over 40 feet — which is more than three times its flood stage — in less than two hours, sending raging waters through communities like Wimberley.

Thirty people in Hays County who were unaccounted for, meaning authorities didn’t know where they were, have been contacted, authorities said Tuesday. Another 13 are missing, meaning someone knows they went into the river.

Among them are Laura McComb, her young daughter Leighton and her son Andrew. They’d been with Jonathan McComb, Laura’s husband and the children’s father, in the family’s vacation cabin in Wimberley on Saturday night when the heavy rains began. About 20 minutes later, “something big in the house shook,” Jonathan’s father, Joe McComb, told CNN.

He suspects the noise was a loose tree that fell and knocked his kin’s cabin off its pilings, eventually causing it to plummet downriver.

“I don’t know how many miles downriver … the house went,” Joe McComb said. “When the bridge hit the house, it took the top part of the house off. That’s when all the family members got scattered.”

When it did, Laura McComb was on the phone with her sister, Julie.

“We are floating in a house that is now floating down the river,” McComb said, her sister told CNN affiliate KXAN. “Call Mom and Dad. I love you, and pray.”

Storm, search continues

The storm moved eastward, bringing rain and more danger to Louisiana and Mississippi. So that meant slightly less rain as the day wore on in Texas, though this reprieve should be short-lived; 2 to 3 more inches of rain could fall as the week wears on.

The problem with this system isn’t just the heavy rain — this is, after all, late May along the Gulf Coast — but that it’s lingered and that it’s after weeks of regular, intense precipitation.

“The water is rising very rapidly in certain regions,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told CNN. “People need to understand the power of this water. It can wipe you away very quickly.”

Thus, the storm and the threat it poses continues. So, too, does the mourning of families like those of Alyssa Renee Ramirez, a star athlete and student council president at Devine High School who died early Sunday while driving home from her senior prom.

“She had an infectious smile. Anytime you saw her you couldn’t help but smile, no matter what kind of mood you were in,” said friend Alyssa Schmidt.

The search for the missing goes on as well, though the possibility of finding survivors fades with each moment.

One miracle is Jonathan McComb, who is in a local hospital after being found downstream. The whereabouts of his wife and two children, though, is a mystery.

“We never lose hope,” said his father, Joe. “But I think reality is setting in that there is probably a good chance that it might not be the outcome we’re hoping for.

“But you never give up hope.”