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In Texas, a week of flood and fire: "It felt biblical'

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Flood. Then fire. Then a plague of oil.

The recollection of the last seven days for thousands of people will be the stuff of stories passed along to generations.

"I remember back in '94" the tale will begin.

"We've had floods, we've had fire. What's tomorrow going to bring? Famine?" Arlene Dunning, 33, asked after her Channelview neighborhood was shaken last week, first by the threat of flooding on the San Jacinto River, then jolted a second time when pipelines in the river exploded Friday, igniting the waterway with streams of leaking fuel into miles-long serpents of flame.

"It felt biblical," said Mike Norman, 34, who was on the river when the blast occurred. "It was like hell opening up on the planet. . . . I was literally running for my life. I was one step ahead of the explosions."

"You know they say "Up the river without a paddle'? That's us," said James Awbrey, whose home was swallowed by the raging San Jacinto. "I've got two babies, my wife and me. We've lost everything."

Others will remember the loss of loved ones. At least 18 deaths were blamed on unprecedented flooding in some areas.

"There's a long-term effect that life is out of control," said Mary Armsworth, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Houston. "What was predictable is not predictable."

For those who lost friends and relatives, "everything is magnified. They feel the world is not a kind place, a safe place," she said.

About 11,500 people were evacuated. Twenty-eight inches of rain fell over three days in Liberty, about 35 miles east of Houston.

Officials at the Harris County Flood Control District aren't even certain how high the water got on the San Jacinto along U.S. Highway 59 because the river topped the bridge and was so deep they couldn't measure it.

"We want to go out there and see what this thing did," spokesman Frank Gutierrez said. "We've never seen this kind of water before."

State officials, cautioning that their preliminary numbers are modest, estimated more than 1,600 homes and 240 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

And that was before all the water had subsided.

OIL CLEANUP: Gooey crude oil and gasoline, some of it burning, stretched 20 miles down the San Jacinto River, keeping cleanup crews busy Saturday but hopeful of avoiding serious environmental damage.

"This black oil, while it looks bad, has a very, very high evaporation rate. A lot of it has evaporated," said Coast Guard Capt. Richard Ford, coordinator of the cleanup. He estimated the job would take at least a week if conditions remain favorable. The oil is easier to clean up when it clumps.

The continued burning of oil and other fuel leaking into the river from punctured pipelines also aided cleanup since less had to be contained and vacuumed. Officials reported a fifth broken pipeline. They initially believed it was leaking jet fuel but Saturday night said they were not sure.