Beryl Batters Texas, Killing 4 along a Storm-weary and Water Logged Coast

Danielle Villasana for The Washington Post
A truck drives through floodwater as people attempt to retrieve a car that’s stuck along Allen Parkway in Houston on Monday.

LAKE JACKSON, Tex. – An unusually early-season hurricane, the latest in a recent spate of soaking and turbulent storms to hit the sprawling Houston metroplex, killed at least four people, trapped others on flooded roadways and knocked out power to nearly 3 million people Monday.

Beryl poured more than a foot of rain on stretches of flat, saturated ground and blew 80 mph wind gusts, swelling meandering bayous, turning highways into waterways and toppling massive oaks onto power lines and homes. Officials said it may take several days to restore power.

It was the latest stage of destruction for a storm that set records for its intensity so early in the hurricane season, fueled by extraordinarily hot Atlantic waters. And some feared it was a hint of more storms to come.

“To have a storm of this magnitude this early is not something that we would predict or expect,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, chief executive of the nation’s third-largest county by population, with 4.7 million residents. “There’s still the vast majority of hurricane season left. Our hope for the sake of our mental health and safety there’s not going to be another storm, but we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

For Gulf Coast residents like Mike Beggs, that was an overwhelming thought. He and his wife left the Austin area last year for a quiet retirement in an RV on land they own in the waterside town of Sargent, Tex. Just weeks before Beryl sent him fleeing inland, flooding from Tropical Storm Alberto inundated a small building on the property and destroyed his freezer.

Now, sitting in his black pickup, waiting for word of how Sargent might have fared, he was already debating whether it was worth it to go back.

“This is just the beginning of the season, and I’ve already had two floods,” he said. “I’m thinking of selling it and going somewhere higher.”

Along the coast, the landscape was one of trees snapped in half or pulled up by their roots, of mangled signs and roofs and fences, of flooded fields and drainage ditches full or overflowing. Storm surge, or the sudden rise in sea level above normal tide, reached 4 to 6 feet along portions of the middle Texas coast.

By midday Monday, the cleanup was already underway in a hard-hit neighborhood near downtown Lake Jackson, where trees had fallen on some houses, hundreds of limbs littered the street and the power remained out even as the sweltering sun reemerged. Heather Broussard and her relatives quickly amassed a 10-foot high pile of debris by the curb on Azalea Street, and there was plenty left to do.

“It was pretty bad,” the 48-year-old Lake Jackson native said. “Do I ever want to go through this again? No.”

At least four people died in the storm, according to authorities, including a man who drowned in Houston. A person in Houston was killed in a fire that was likely caused by lightning related to the storm, Mayor John Whitmire said. Two of the deaths confirmed by early Monday occurred under similar circumstances – people seeking shelter in the safety of their homes, only to be caught beneath falling trees. The victims were a 74-year-old grandmother on the north side of Houston, who was in her bedroom when the tree came crashing down, and a 53-year-old father crushed by debris from a falling oak in Atascocita, about 20 miles northeast of Houston. A woman and children were also in the home and unharmed, the Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said on X, formerly Twitter.

Across the Houston region, authorities searched flooded roadways for people stranded in their vehicles in rising floodwaters.

“It’s a huge city pretty much dependent on automobiles and people need to get to work and school and just flat didn’t stay at home,” Whitmire said.

The city has seen numerous storm events in recent years, and even just in recent months.

An exceptionally intense line of destructive storms known as a derecho brought wind gusts of more than 100 mph to the Houston area in mid-May, killing at least eight people, downing trees, blowing out skyscraper windows and cutting power to about a million people. Then, severe thunderstorms at the end of May brought blinding rain, impressive hail and winds over 70 mph to Houston. Around 300,000 people in Harris County lost power.

Now, local leaders said Beryl underscored the risks for the growing region, vulnerable for its place on flat and low-lying land on the Gulf.

Whitmire said the storm highlighted problems with the city’s drainage and generators. Generators failed at police and fire stations as well as the city animal shelter, he said. The downtown convention center – which served as a mass shelter during past storms – was also without power, as were city multiservice centers, almost all of which don’t have generators, he said.

“Even before the growth, we’ve always lived in a swamp. The folks that came before us knew we need to build this flood infrastructure and we don’t, by any stretch, have the infrastructure we need,” Hidalgo told The Washington Post on Monday afternoon. “This is another kick in the pants for everyone to really prioritize this.”

Beryl’s landfall in Texas was an endpoint of a remarkable and record-setting 5,000 mile path that left parts of Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Jamaica in disarray – and one that likely bears the fingerprints of climate change.

Along its way, Beryl became the Atlantic’s strongest June storm on record. Its intensification from tropical depression to a Category 4 storm within 48 hours was unprecedented for the time of year. When it gained Category 5 strength July 1, it did so earlier than any other Atlantic hurricane on record.

And when it struck Texas, it became just the 10th hurricane on record to make landfall there during the month of July, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Philip Klotzbach. No other Atlantic hurricane in the past decade has made landfall on U.S. shores so early in tropical cyclone season, which began in June.

Scientists say there is a clear link to human-caused global warming, which has raised average global temperatures by about 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 150 years.

“This type of incredible early-season activity is attributable to the record-warm water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic,” Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami, wrote in a blog post.

Texas is a part of the country that is used to hurricanes, to be sure. But planetary warming also likely strengthened the force and height of Beryl’s waves. The storm made landfall along a stretch of Gulf Coast that has experienced some of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the world since 2010, according to a Post analysis. In Galveston, sea levels have risen about 8.4 inches in the past 14 years.

At the Rose of Sharon Pentecostal Church in Bay City, as Pastor Janie Jo Lopez picked up debris and mopped water from the sanctuary floor, she thought of the fortitude of her parents, who came from Houston and started the church decades ago.

She talked of how the small congregation weathered the coronavirus pandemic, which claimed the lives of multiple members, including her husband. And she spoke of how the church had rebuilt once before after Hurricane Harvey and its relentless rains had destroyed the interior.

Now, Beryl ripped away metal roofing and plywood, flooded classrooms and the sanctuary.

“Our first words were, ‘We will rebuild,’” Lopez said. “We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again.”

In Surfside Beach, the debris that littered flooded roads offered a testament to the violence of the previous night: mattresses and nightstands, shingles and insulation, wooden staircases and trash cans, mangled and broken power lines, lumber with nails sticking out, even the odd vacuum cleaner. A strip of well-known A-frame houses were destroyed amid the pounding surf.

“My heart broke,” Alison Hester, 52, said of the sights she saw when she crossed the bridge to the town where she has spent most of her life.

Now, the risk of flooding rains from Beryl’s remnants shift to the north and east. Heavy rain was expected into Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri late Monday into early Tuesday, and then into portions of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan by Tuesday and Wednesday.

Meanwhile, forecasters were watching the possibility that Beryl increases the risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. On Tuesday, the severe risk could shift northeast into portions of western Tennessee and Kentucky and the southern portions of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.