WIMBERLEY, Texas (AP) — A handful of volunteers trudged along the muddy and brush-filled banks of the Blanco River in Central Texas, searching for a group of people still missing days after the vacation house where they were staying was swept away in a massive flood.
A soggy teddy bear caught in a tree provided a stark reminder that children were among the missing. The volunteers, led by Toby Baker, a commissioner with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, marked where the bear was found. They talked about the pajamas the children were wearing the night the river crested.
Baker had come in an unofficial capacity, as a childhood friend of one of the missing. “I’ve got a young family,” he said Friday. “I’d like to think someone would come out and do the same for us.”
At least 28 people have been killed in storms that began pummeling Texas and Oklahoma over Memorial Day weekend. Twenty-four of the deaths have been in Texas alone, and 11 people were still missing early Saturday. Rivers and lakes around Houston, San Antonio and Dallas have all swelled — and the flooding may not let up, with forecasters predicting more rain this weekend.
A church in Wimberly, a small tourist town about 20 miles northwest from where Baker’s group was working, has become a meeting spot for volunteers who’ve come to help look for the missing in that area.
About 2,000 volunteers have come through this week, and 100 members of an elite search and rescue team have been deployed to the area. Rescue dog teams walked about and a helicopter used the church lawn to take off and land.
Some volunteers have personal connections to the missing; others just want to help. Using rakes and pitchforks, they sift through dense debris along miles of river.
Volunteer Terry Arnold, 59, from Corpus Christi, said he knew some of the missing. But “in Texas we are all family,” he added. “And we’ve got find those babies.”
Curtis Jinkins, a local graphic designer, carried a burnt-orange plank, a piece of the vacation home found about 40 miles downstream from Wimberly. “The kids are what are tugging at me to do this,” he said.
Among the missing is 6-year-old William Charba, the son of Randy Charba, 42, and Michelle Charba, 43. Michelle’s body was found Wednesday. Michelle’s mother Sue Carey, 71, is still missing, but officials said late Friday they had identified the remains of her father, retired dentist Ralph Carey, 73.
The vacation home that was ripped from its moors by floodwaters last weekend belonged to the Careys.
Jonathan McComb, the lone survivor from the house, and his family had joined the Charbas and the Careys for the holiday weekend, all coming from Corpus Christi. McComb’s wife, Laura, 33, and 4-year-old daughter, Leighton, are still unaccounted for. The body of their 6-year-old son, Andrew, was found Wednesday in the river.
Storms this weekend could hamper search efforts and prompt more evacuations.
The Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto rivers near Houston were the main areas of concern as floodwaters moved from North and Central Texas downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico.
On Friday, floodwater was creeping into neighborhoods in the Houston suburb of Kingwood near the swollen San Jacinto River, where residents were keeping a close eye on water levels.
“Everybody’s worried about it,” James Simms said from his second-story balcony, looking down at a flood that had reached his garage. “Those people who are going to leave are already gone. There’s others like us who are going to wait until it’s mandatory.”
The Brazos River, which had been receding, rose above flood stage again Friday in Parker County, west of Fort Worth, and was expected to climb higher with the planned opening of the flood gates at Possum Kingdom Lake upstream. People in about 250 homes near the river were asked to evacuate.
Forecasters said the Colorado River at Wharton could crest on Saturday, causing major flooding in the community 60 miles southwest of Houston. Voluntary evacuations were underway in low-lying west side.
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.