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Gilbert Down To Tropical Depression But Spawns Tornadoes And Heavy Rains

September 18, 1988

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Hurricane Gilbert spun off dozens of tornadoes in Texas that killed at least two people as the nearly spent storm steamed inland Saturday, a ″huge rain-making machine″ with potential for deadly flooding.

Thousands of Gulf Coast residents from Louisiana to Texas began returning home to areas struck only a glancing blow by the main storm, at one time the most powerful on record in the Western Hemisphere.

″What could have been one of the most deadly storms in history appears to have missed us,″ said Betty Turner, mayor of Corpus Christi.

Texans inland braced for more twisters and flash flooding, with as much as 20 inches of rain expected.

A tornado Saturday evening damaged 50 homes and destroyed 15 in Del Rio, 150 miles west of San Antonio and just northwest of the Mexican border, officials said. Two people were treated for minor injuries and released, but scores of others spent the night with relatives or stayed in shelters set up in the city, said police dispatcher Don Weaver.

Gilbert was downgraded early Saturday to a tropical storm. At midday, its top sustained winds were 35 mph and it was downgraded to a tropical depression.

A woman was killed Saturday when a tornado hit her mobile home south of San Antonio, some 300 miles north of Brownsville. A man died in San Antonio when a tree toppled onto his house during a thunderstorm Friday.

In Alabama, a man trying to cross a rain-swollen creek in Tallapoosa County southeast of Birmingham was swept to his death early Saturday, officials said.

A tornado heavily damaged a San Antonio apartment complex just after sunrise. ″I just heard a loud, loud roar, like the wind blowing through the broken patio door in my living room,″ said Wes Spencer, whose apartment was hit.

″I just looked out, I freaked out. The roofs were gone on the buildings. Cars were tossed all over the parking lot.″

San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros also signed a disaster declaration for his city so Air National Guard personnel could fly in parts needed to repair air conditioning at two hospitals hit by tornadoes earlier Saturday.

At least 98 deaths and billions of dollars in damage were blamed on the storm in the Caribbean and Mexico. An additional 200 people were feared drowned after a river swollen by rain from the hurricane jumped its banks and overturned four buses Saturday in Monterrey, Mexico.

The storm never made an expected turn to the north and spared the Texas coast, where thousands had fled to shelters after boarding up homes and businesses along the entire length of the state’s 370-mile coastline.

Gilbert rolled ashore late Friday afternoon in northeastern Mexico with 120 mph wind about 150 miles south of Brownsville, where gusts of 82 mph were recorded at South Padre Island.

Laurie Swayze Miller, owner of a Harlingen jewelry store, picked up the pieces after a twister hit her shop.

″A policeman found a diamond ring out in the parking lot,″ she said.

Wind gusted to nearly 40 mph at midday at Brownsville, but coastal residents were allowed to return to their boarded-up homes to begin cleaning up. Damage from the hurricane itself appeared to be minor.

South Padre Island and Port Isabel, which had expected to receive the brunt of the once-fierce storm when it roared ashore, reopened to the public at noon. Other coastal cities began closing emergency shelters.

″I was surprised because I was expecting a lot of water,″ Eduardo Campiran, South Padre Island city manager, said Saturday. ″We have no knowledge of significant damage. Most of the damage is like roofs, windows, awnings, this kinds of stuff.″

South Padre Island Mayor Bob Pinkerton Jr. estimated the storm would cost local businesses $3 million to $5 million in lost tourist revenue but said he expected business to be back to normal by next weekend.

Only a few low-lying coastal roads remained closed because of flooding.

The greatest damage appeared to be to trees, with many uprooted or missing branches.

″It just trimmed the trees a little and that’s about it,″ Ron Reynolds, 31, said as he cleaned up around his home. ″My neighbor back there had a tree go through a fence. We came through it real lucky.″

At 11 a.m., the National Hurricane Center put the storm center 220 miles west-southwest of Brownsville and 45 miles southwest of Monterrey, Mexico, moving toward the west-northwest at 12 mph.

Tornado and flash flood watches and warnings were posted for a 26-county area of southern Texas.

Inland rainfall of 10-15 inches was likely with up to 20 inches possible, forecasters said.

Gilbert’s remnants should bring very heavy rain to the Rio Grande Valley before heading north up the Mississippi Valley as a ″huge rain-making machine,″ said Mark Zimmer, meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center.

In the 24 hours up to 7 a.m., Brownsville received 4.53 inches of rain. In Louisiana, Reserve reported 5.7 inches in 24 hours.

By midweek, the storm should be in the lower Ohio River Valley and end up in the Great Lakes as nothing more than foul weather, forecasters said.

″The people in the Midwest better dust off their umbrellas,″ Zimmer said.

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