Texans Face Mess Left in Claudette's Wake

VICTORIA, Texas July 16

Claudette began dissipating over South Texas on Wednesday morning after walloping the coastline with sustained winds of more than 85 mph, killing at least two people inland and littering its path with damage.

The peeled roofs, flattened trailers, collapsed facades and twisted gas station canopies Claudette left behind had the markings of a much stronger storm than the minimal Category 1 hurricane that arrived Tuesday, the first to hit Texas in four years.

The storm caught many residents off-guard by foiling forecasters with its changing speed and direction. Many residents spent the night in the dark and without air conditioning after power lines were downed in several communities.

In Victoria, Bertha Ramirez said her 74-year-old aunt might not have known to batten down the hatches by midday had she not called her earlier in the morning to warn that the storm unexpectedly accelerated overnight and was headed toward the city 40 miles inland from Port O'Connor.

"She didn't think it was coming until this evening," said Ramirez, who listened to Claudette howl and wail outside the generator-powered Target store where she worked.

Residents along the affected area from swamped beach house owners and vacationers on Galveston Island to the northeast down to the strike zone around Port O'Connor and Palacios on the mid-Texas coast complained forecasters didn't allow enough time to prepare.

"It's called the unpredictability of tropical storms," said Gene Hafele, a Houston-based National Weather Service meteorologist.

According to the National Hurricane Center, which as late as Sunday was predicting landfall near the mouth of the Rio Grande, the storm packed sustained winds of more than 85 mph when it came ashore. Gusts were reported to approach triple digits, and flooding was reported in low-lying areas where the storm dumped several inches of rain.

In Jourdanton, about 35 miles south of San Antonio, 13-year-old Clayton Dojahn was killed when a mesquite tree fell on him in his front yard, police said. A 33-year-old woman was killed in Victoria by a limb from one of the many storm-damaged trees, authorities said.

Claudette toppled radio and television towers in Victoria, knocking stations off the air, and continued to cause problems later Tuesday as it moved westward.

Stacy Martin, a dispatcher with the Karnes County sheriff's office, said Claudette continued its legacy of damaged shingles and downed power lines in the area south of San Antonio.

"We've had a small twister in Kenedy, but it just knocked down a couple of buildings. There's no injuries to report of so far," Martin said.

By late Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center canceled all Claudette-related warnings and officially stopped tracking the storm as it became just another low pressure system.

In Austin, Gov. Rick Perry signed a disaster relief proclamation to help speed state and federal response and authorized use of Texas National Guard soldiers and equipment to assist in rescue and recovery.

He also asked President Bush for a federal disaster declaration for 15 counties.

Despite a lack of power in Port Lavaca, Gary Weaver had reopened his small grocery by early afternoon, accepting only cash and totaling bills on the back of scrap paper.

"This building is solid concrete, reinforced with I-beams," Weaver said of the relatively undamaged business, which his father started in 1959. "And the beer cooler is like a building within a building, so if things really get bad we can get in there with some Vienna sausages and ride it out."

Claudette packed relentless winds and punishing tides that likely caused severe beach erosion in the counties in its path and to the east. The first row of beach houses in Galveston and Brazoria counties could face condemnation by the state.

It was first hurricane to strike Texas since 1999, when Bret slammed into a largely unpopulated stretch between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. The last major hurricane to hit Texas was Alicia, which decimated the Houston-Galveston area in 1983.