January 25, 2012 / 2:55 PM / 6 years ago

Thunderstorms pound Texas; tornado hits Austin

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A tornado hit Austin, Texas, and thunderstorms pounded San Antonio, Dallas and Houston on Wednesday, bringing the parched Lone Star State drenching rains and destructive winds that knocked out power, flooded streets and kept emergency workers busy rescuing drivers stranded in high water.

The tornado touched down early Wednesday in northeast Austin, tearing across U.S. 290 and into a subdivision, damaging homes along a road called Happy Trail, according to the National Weather Service.

Springlike moisture from the Gulf of Mexico dropped the heaviest rainfall - 6-8 inches - on an area east of Austin and San Antonio and extending south into Houston, it added.

“That’s very unusual for this time of year,” NWS meteorologist Mark Wiley said. “It was just so much rain in such a short period of time. In so many areas, the ground is still fairly dry, but it was just so fast that it didn’t have anywhere to go, especially in the urban areas.”

There were no reports of injuries.

By Wednesday afternoon, the storms were pushing into Louisiana and were expected to head into Mississippi and Alabama on Thursday, the NWS said.

In Bastrop, an area east of Austin heavily damaged by Labor Day weekend wildfires, schools canceled classes on Wednesday. In Pflugerville, north of Austin, school buses were delayed Wednesday morning because the school district’s bus barn was damaged overnight, the district website said. And the Houston Independent School District canceled after-school activities.

Storm systems are seen over the eastern and central United States in a satellite image taken Jan 25, 2012. REUTERS/NOAA/Handout

Wind toppled an 18-wheeler in on IH-45 in Madison County, between Dallas and Houston, officials said. More than 30 flights were canceled at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Wednesday morning.

In San Antonio, lightning hit an apartment complex on the city’s north side as storms blew through, sparking a fire that forced people into the driving rain and destroyed four apartments, officials said.

Between Austin and Houston, in Brenham, high winds twisted trees and tore the roofs off a couple of buildings in the downtown area, said Ricky Boeker, fire chief and emergency management coordinator.

“It sounded like the world was coming apart -- I‘m not going to lie,” Boeker told Reuters.

The severe weather in Texas follows damaging storms and tornadoes that swept through Arkansas and Alabama earlier in the week.

In Texas, “while most of the region is still in the grips of a severe drought and very much needs the rain, too much rain too quickly can do more harm than good,” AccuWeather.com meteorologist Mark Miller said in a Wednesday report. “Still, the rain will go a long way in helping to reduce the severity of the drought in exceptionally dry locations.”

Last year was the driest year on record in Texas and the second-hottest, according to the NWS.

CPS Energy, the South Texas electric utility, reported more than 30,000 customers without power as wind snapped electric power lines and knocked out traffic signals during the morning rush hour in San Antonio. In Austin, some 5,000 customers of Austin Energy lost power, the company said. As many as 5,000 homes and businesses in the Dallas area also lost power, according to Oncor Delivery.

As San Antonio resident Johnny Grant surveyed damage to homes in his northwest San Antonio neighborhood on Wednesday, he said of the storm: “It sounded like a freight train to me. It was something terrible.”

Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth, Lauren Keiper, Deborah Quinn Hensel and Marice Richter. Editing by Paul Thomasch

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