Possible tornado damages Houston-area mall

January 9, 2012 - 8:08 PM
APTOPIX Texas Storms

A motorist makes her way to the service road after she was stranded in the Southbound lane of Loop 288 north of the I-610 exit Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, in Houston. City roads were flooded and thousands of Houston residents, including at least five schools, were without electricity Monday after powerful thunderstorms ploughed through the area prompting a tornado warning and dumping several inches of rain and hail on the drought-stricken region. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Cody Duty) MANDATORY CREDIT

HOUSTON (AP) — City roads were flooded and thousands of Houston residents lost power Monday after powerful thunderstorms plowed through the area, with a possible tornado damaging and shutting down a nearby mall.

The skies over Houston turned pitch black as the massive storms raced through the drought-stricken area, dropping several inches of rain over a two-hour period. Roads rapidly flooded and drivers became stranded on major arteries that connect the city's sprawling neighborhoods and suburbs.

In Texas City, a town about 40 miles southeast of Houston, a possible tornado damaged the roof and wall of the Mall of the Mainland, and Fire Chief Joe Gorman evacuated and shut down the building. In North and West Texas, meanwhile, the National Weather Service said a cold, steady downpour will drop an inch or two of much-needed rain.

The drought, however, is far from over.

"We're not going to end the drought this winter even if we have above-normal rainfall," said State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

According to preliminary data, Texas got about 14.89 inches of rain in 2011, compared to a normal average of 29.39 inches — levels that compare to 1917 and 1956, some of the driest years in recorded history, Nielsen-Gammon said. Recovering from that will take a wet winter, and a wetter-than-normal spring, he said.

By early Monday, up to 4 inches of rain had fallen on parts of Houston and neighboring areas. Some places were expected to end the day with more than that, said Don Oettinger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in League City, the office responsible for southeast Texas.

Oettinger said the National Weather Service will likely not know until Tuesday whether a tornado caused the damage at the mall in Texas City. A funnel cloud was seen southwest of Houston and heavy wind gusts were reported. Television images showed wind damage to some buildings.

Gorman said reports of a twister came in as wind and rain pounded the area. No injuries were reported at the mall, but the damage to the roof and wall prompted officials to evacuate the building and bring a structural engineer to investigate the stability of the structure.

Roads throughout downtown Houston flooded. Schools sent emails warning parents against trying to pick up their children before checking on road conditions. Flooding shut down major freeways. The municipal courts sent out advisories that while work would continue, people who could not make it to a hearing due to the weather would be excused.

Still, Oettinger agreed the rain was not nearly enough to end the drought.

"It certainly helps," he said. "But we need a number of days like this to have an effect on the overall drought."

In North and West Texas, Daniel Huckaby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said the "nice, steady rain" would help saturate the ground so that future rain would run off and help fill streams, lakes and reservoirs in drought-stricken areas. In the short-term, he said, the rain will help the growth of winter grass and reduce the danger of wildfires.

"But we're going to need a lot more rain before next summer comes around to avoid still talking about the drought," Huckaby said.

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