Nicholas thrashes US Gulf Coast with heavy downpours

Tropical Storm Nicholas crawled across the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast on Tuesday, drenching the region with torrential downpours and leaving hundreds of thousands without power as flood waters and debris covered streets throughout the area.

It was the second major storm to hit the region in recent weeks after Hurricane Ida killed more than two dozen people in August and devastated communities in Louisiana near New Orleans.

Rainfall rates of 3 to 7 cm an hour were expected with totals possibly reaching more than 25 cm an hour in isolated areas in the Upper Texas Coast and southern Louisiana on Tuesday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

Nicholas was about 55 km southeast of Houston by 1 pm Central Time (1800 GMT), heading east-northeast with maximum sustained winds of 65 km per hour,the NHC said in a bulletin.

The storm, moving at 40 km per hour, was expected to progress slowly northeast throughout the day and then turn eastward, moving over Louisiana, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle through Thursday.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warned of flash floods triggered by the heavy rain as drainage systems were still clogged with debris from Ida and other storms.

The storm was expected to drop 10-25 cm of rain across the region and possibly 50 cm in isolated areas across southern Louisiana through Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

By midday, more than 94 000 customers in Louisiana and 422 000 in Texas did not have power, according to a Reuters tally, while in the Houston area alone, more than 288 000 customers faced outages, utility Center Point Energy said.

A Center Point official told local media crews were assessing power lines and isolating affected areas.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared states of emergency in 17 counties and three cities, with boat and helicopter rescue teams deployed or put on standby.

The storm, packing winds of 121 km, made landfall as a hurricane along the Texas Gulf Coast early on Tuesday.

Patrice Johnson, 70, who lives in Texas City, Texas, about 60 km southeast of Houston, was up all night worrying about trees in neighboring yards falling into her property.

“It was a little scary,” she told Reuters outside a local grocery store. “It was pretty windy. I was surprised how windy it was.”

Jeff Moore, 55, a homeowner in nearby Bayou Vista, said the water came up to his back deck, but he did not lose power. “If we had lost power, that would have been terrible,” he said.

About 35 cm of rain fell in Galveston, while Houston got almost six inches of rain overnight and into the morning, the National Weather Service reported.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said there were no injuries or fatalities reported in the city, where crews were cleaning up debris and restoring power. “It could have been a lot, a lot worse,” he said.

President Joe Biden declared an emergency for Louisiana and ordered federal assistance for local responders because of the effects of Nicholas, the White House said on Monday.

Although Hurricane Ida knocked a significant amount of refining capacity offline in the Gulf Coast earlier this month, Texas refineries remained operating as of early Tuesday.