Small south Texas town soaked by floodwaters, and residents downstream fret

Wednesday, July 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TILDEN, Texas (AP) _ For nearly a week, much of this tiny south Texas town has been underwater. That doesn't stand to change any time soon.

The ferocious rains that pounded the region last week are running downhill toward the Gulf of Mexico, and low-lying spots like Tilden, along the bulging Frio River, have become lakes with homes and businesses sticking up like islands.

``It's starting to get old,'' said Nell Hodgin, McMullen County clerk.

In the past week, floods in Texas have caused an estimated $1 billion in damage and killed at least nine people.

In downtown Tilden, population 350, a street sign marked the corner of River Street and Water Street on Tuesday, and the brown water flowing beneath the marker was all the proof anyone needed.

The high water should start going away soon, albeit slowly. A chance of rain was in the forecast for Wednesday, and the Frio was expected to crest here at just over 30 feet, more than 8 feet above flood stage. Floodwaters will persist at least through the weekend.

In Tilden, 70 miles south of San Antonio, the Frio is normally about 20 yards wide and in places only a foot deep. Now the river's flow is more than a mile wide, pouring over thousands of normally dry acres of mesquite trees and prickly pears and cutting off roads to the north and west.

Residents slowly drove their cars and pickup trucks through the hub-deep water covering State Highway 72, and picked up their mail as usual at the post office and their groceries next door at Wheeler's Mercantile. Both buildings were just above the waterline.

The high water was all anyone was talking about at Wheeler's, and the exchanges showed a sense of humor was enduring.

``Oh my God, I'm drowning,'' a young woman cracked as she burst through the door to get out of a brief thunderstorm passing overhead.

Officials at the Choke Canyon Reservoir, which the Frio River feeds into, began releasing water Tuesday from the dam at its southern end.

The releases were intended to keep the reservoir from overflowing, as happened at several lakes farther north with disastrous results. But some of those living downstream of the dam said they were worried that too much water might be released.

``I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight,'' said Morgan Stewart, campground host at Tips Park in Three Rivers, on the banks of the Frio. ``We don't know how high it's going to come.''

Cleanup continued in the San Antonio and Abilene areas while extensive flooding continued in less populated counties along the coastal plain.

The city of San Antonio has reported a preliminary estimate of more than $5 million in damages to streets, bridges and other infrastructure facilities; debris removal; evacuation and building damage.