HOUSTON (AP) — Officials are closely monitoring the levels of rivers in Texas engorged by the deluge of last weekend.
The Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto Rivers near Houston were the focus of attention as floodwaters from North and Central Texas moved downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, the death toll continued to rise as search teams hunted through debris piles along rivers that raged through Central Texas and the Houston area. Bodies found in Hays and Blanco counties raised the confirmed death toll Thursday to at least 24, with 20 in Texas alone, and at least 14 more missing.
The flood threat appeared to have eased along the Brazos River in North Texas, where it fell below flood stage Thursday night at Horseshoe Bend, some 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
But officials were watching for any effects from Thursday night rains further north in the vicinity of Possum Kingdom Lake, said Parker County Emergency Management spokesman Joel Kertok.
The river level at Horseshoe Bend fell below the 21-foot flood stage to 20.9 feet Thursday night after the Brazos River Authority closed the floodgates on the Possum Kingdom dam dozens of miles upstream, Kertok said. The river crested at 23.6 feet about noon Thursday, almost 3 feet above flood stage, and Kertok said floodwaters lapped at the foundations of 11 homes but rose no further before beginning to recede.
But the worst is yet to come downstream on the Brazos. At Richmond, 30 miles southwest of Houston, where flood stage is 48 feet, the National Weather Service expected the river to top flood stage Friday morning and rise to 50 feet by late Friday night or Saturday. That would cause major flooding in Simonton, upstream from Richmond, and Thompsons downstream. Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls says some residents of Simonton have been asked to leave.
The Colorado River at Wharton, where voluntary evacuations were underway in the city's low-lying west side, was at 39.5 feet Thursday night, a half-foot over flood stage. Forecasters say it could crest at 44 to 45 feet Saturday morning, causing major flooding. Wharton is 60 miles southwest of Houston.
The West Fork of the San Jacinto River was at 32 feet Thursday night, 8 feet above flood stage and was expected to remain in major flood for several days.
Late Thursday, emergency personnel rescued a dozen people from flooded homes and stranded vehicles in Johnson County south of Dallas. Early Friday, crews retrieved the 21 occupants of a houseboat that had gone adrift in Lake Travis in Austin.
This week's record rainfall in Texas eased the state's drought and swelled rivers and lakes to the point that they may not return to normal levels until July, scientists said Thursday.
Just weeks ago, much of the state was parched with varying levels of drought. But the same drenching rainfall that paralyzed parts of Houston and swept away a vacation home with eight people inside also offered relief from a long dry spell.
Many cities were still in danger of flooding as heavy rain from earlier in the week poured downstream, pushing rivers over their banks.
"There's so much water in Texas and Oklahoma that it's going to take quite a while for those rivers to recede," said Mark Wiley, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fort Worth, Texas.
If normal amounts of precipitation return, rivers will probably drop to average levels by the Fourth of July, he said.
"Six months ago, we were dying for this stuff," he said. "And now we're saying, 'Please, please stop.'"