Monday, July 28, 2008

Tarantulas, fire ants lurk in Texas floodwaters

A tarantula clings to a fence to escape the flood waters from Hurricane Dolly, Thursday, July 24, 2008, in San Benito, Texas. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)


EDINBURG, Texas (AP) — South Texans eager to salvage what they can from waterlogged homes struck by Hurricane Dolly have another problem: The floodwaters they're slogging through are laced with stinging fire ants, snakes and tarantulas.

"You don't want to wade in this water," state Health Services Commissioner David Lakey said during a visit to the Rio Grande Valley Friday. "You don't want to play in this water. You want to stay out of this water."

It was timely advice, but residents in many neighborhoods with waist-deep water had little choice as they sifted through the mess left by the Category 2 storm that hit the eastern Texas and Mexico coasts Wednesday. In eastern Hidalgo County, as much as 12 inches of rain fell in six hours, turning neighborhoods into coffee-colored lakes.

Officials estimated it could take six weeks for the low-lying region to completely dry out and 118,000 people still had no electricity Friday morning. Emergency managers tried to assure people that they would come to help and begged for patience. They said they were beginning to pump water from some of the worst hit areas and working to move water into floodways.

Residents were using backhoes to dig their own drainage canals and clear water off their property. But the water simply flowed into the neighbors' yards. Tempers among longtime neighbors were becoming strained.

Iliana Reyna, 34, was monitoring the floodwater's rise to the second step of her front porch in Edinburg.

Reyna, her husband and three children waded into the water Friday to gather a few belongings and what dry goods they could.

Suddenly, 4-year-old Adolfo, standing on the shoulder of the road in bare feet, screamed and began hopping. The other children scooped up water in their shoes and splashed it on his feet, while his father lifted him and brushed away the attacking ant.

"This is just too much for us," said neighbor Arnold Silva, whose yard was flooded when another neighbor dumped water into it. It rose throughout the night carrying runoff from a cow pasture and "worms, spiders and ants."

Fire ants and tarantulas — hairy spiders sometimes the size of a dinner plate — can deliver stinging, painful bites but are not deadly.

The National Weather Service said the remnants of Dolly could still add a few inches of rain to some areas, and the forecast called for isolated showers in the Rio Grande Valley.

But water wasn't the only danger. Illness also lurked in refrigerators, health officials said.

"If it doesn't look right, doesn't smell right, don't eat it," said Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County health administrator. He said inspectors were fanning out to restaurants to make sure they disposed of food properly as well.

Fewer than 200 people remained in shelters in Hidalgo County, down from a peak of nearly 3,300. But rescue crews in boats were still searching flooded neighborhoods and plucking people from homes.

Still, officials were relieved it wasn't worse that no one died in the first hurricane of the season to hit the U.S. mainland.

The clean up will be substantial: President Bush declared 15 counties in south Texas disaster areas to release federal funding to them, and insurance estimators put the losses at $750 million.

The storm brought 100 mph winds and broke all-time July rainfall records in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, dumping a foot of rain in some spots.

Steve McCraw, the state's homeland security director, said about 1,500 workers were on hand to help restore power and seven stations were distributing water, ice, food and hygiene kits.

Gov. Rick Perry, who flew over the area Thursday with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, cautioned residents not to rest easy just yet.

"It appears that we have handled it as well as it can be handled. But it is far from over," Perry said, noting possible flooding over the next five days from runoff as the storm moves northward.

After crashing ashore on South Padre Island, Dolly meandered north, leaving towns on the northern tip of the Rio Grande Valley with a surprise. Officials had feared the levees would breach, but the storm veered from its predicted path and they held strong.

"We're glad it didn't make a direct hit, but it just refocuses on the issues we have," said Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos. "The levees are suspect. Nothing's changed in my opinion."

On South Padre Island, which bore the brunt of the winds, officials said no buildings were in danger of collapse, but damage was widespread to hotels and other businesses.

Avi Fima was mourning the damage to "my baby" — his Surf Stop store on Padre Boulevard. Windows were blown out, half the roof was torn away and water bubbled up the carpeting inside.

"This is going to hit us good," Fima said. "We actually started summer really good. ... To rebuild it — the season will be over. We have a month left."

Shell Oil announced that it had restarted production at its natural gas operations in the Valley and was redeploying workers to rigs in the western Gulf of Mexico.

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