Rio Grande turns into huge river after rains

LAREDO, Texas — The gentle stream that usually marks the Rio Grande bulged into a mighty river along much of its southern reach Thursday as a rain-packed tropical depression dumped on a Texas-Mexico border region already struggling with flooded homes and evacuations after last week's hurricane.

Authorities in Laredo evacuated several neighborhoods close to the river and a 16-story hotel on the banks as the river grew to 42 feet deep and water began to creep into some homes. The tropical depression-driven rains in Laredo and upstream were expected to keep the water level high for several days, said city spokeswoman Xochitl Mora Garcia.

"It's difficult to describe," said Jerry Archer, manager of Rio Grande Plaza Hotel. He estimated the river was about 15 times its usual size. "I was born and raised on the Mississippi River, but people here are used to just a small stream."

The muddy waters — driven by dam releases upstream and rain-swollen tributaries following last week's Hurricane Alex — submerged light poles and towering palm trees, leaving only a few fronds waving above the water line.

National Guard troops arrived Thursday to help with evacuations, and people in low-lying areas gathered sandbags to protect their homes before being forced to leave. But no major injuries had been reported in Laredo.

Nancy Castillo, 35, picked up sandbags while her sister prepared to evacuate from her home near a dry creek bed overflowing with water that normally would head into the Rio Grande.

"It's typically dry everywhere in Laredo — except now," she said.

Tens of thousands of people already had been forced from their homes in Mexican towns earlier in the week as dam releases dumped torrents of water into flood-swollen rivers to avoid the risk of out-of-control releases following Alex.

The tropical depression made landfall at South Padre Island late Thursday morning and was expected to dump four to eight inches of rain across the area, with as much as 10 inches in some parts, said the National Weather Service.