LAREDO, Texas - The gentle stream that usually marks the Rio Grande bulged into a mighty river along much of its southern reach Thursday as a rain-packed tropical depression dumped on a Texas-Mexico border region already struggling with flooded homes and evacuations after last week's hurricane.
Authorities in Laredo evacuated several neighborhoods close to the river and a 16-story hotel on the banks as the river grew to 42 feet deep and water began to creep into some homes. The tropical depression-driven rains in Laredo and upstream were expected to keep the water level high for several days, city spokeswoman Xochitl Mora Garcia said.
"It's difficult to describe," said Jerry W. Archer, manager of Rio Grande Plaza Hotel. He estimated the river was about 15 times its usual size. "I was born and raised on the Mississippi River, but people here are used to just a small stream."
The muddy waters - driven by dam releases upstream and rain-swollen tributaries after last week's Hurricane Alex - submerged light poles and towering palm trees, leaving only a few fronds waving above the water line.
National Guard troops arrived Thursday to help with evacuations, and people in low-lying areas gathered sandbags to protect their homes before being forced to leave. But no major injuries had been reported in Laredo.
Tens of thousands of people already had been forced from their homes in Mexican towns earlier in the week as dam releases dumped torrents of water into flood-swollen rivers to avoid the risk of out-of-control releases following Alex.
Access to the Coahuila city of Sabinas was largely blocked Thursday after several bridges on two main highways collapsed when the Rio Sabinas overflowed, said state interior minister Armando Luna.
The tropical depression made landfall at South Padre Island late Thursday morning and was expected to dump 4-8 inches of rain across the area, with as much as 10 inches in some parts, said the National Weather Service. That rain comes on top of the 5-7 inches Alex deposited.
In Laredo, where roughly half of all U.S.-Mexico trade crosses, authorities closed two bridges and severely limited traffic on a third. They also restricted traffic on the World Trade International Bridge to keep the weight load on the bridge at a minimum, but they did not have to close the connection.
The World Trade bridge carries roughly 8,000 18-wheelers a day, and closing it would have crippled the nation's busiest inland port.