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Texas Comforts Flood Victims

October 23, 1998

CUERO, Texas (AP) _ Venus Pena celebrated her 17th birthday at school _ her temporary home after the raging Guadalupe River destroyed her family’s house.

``I never thought I’d have to say I’m homeless,″ she told Gov. George W. Bush on Friday, as he wrapped his arms around her and promised brighter days were ahead.

``We’re going to do the best we can,″ Bush said.

This town of 7,000 people, 80 miles southeast of San Antonio, was among the hardest hit after torrential rains last weekend triggered record flooding on Texas rivers.

The storms and floods left at least 29 people dead and thousands homeless. Some 60 counties experienced flooding, and preliminary damage estimates reached nearly $500 million.

About 14,000 people statewide were evacuated from their homes, state officials said. Some 1,500 remain in shelters, including several hundred people in Wharton, 70 miles east of Cuero, who were forced from their homes by the rising Colorado River.

After two days of flooding that submerged Wharton’s west side and damaged as many as 800 homes, the river crested at 48.5 feet early Friday.

``It’s going to stay around this level for at least 12 hours,″ Wharton County Emergency Management Coordinator Andy Kirkland said. ``It’ll be days before they get back into some of their houses _ at least.″

Five more counties, all in Southeast Texas, will be added to the 20 already declared federal disaster areas, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt said. FEMA so far has received 6,000 applications for aid.

Bush and Witt met with people at Cuero High School shelter after viewing their flood-ravaged town by air.

``It just breaks your heart,″ Bush said. ``I hope our visit here starts the process of hope, that there is a tomorrow.″

Assistance checks should be coming in one to two weeks but could be available in as little as three days, Witt said.

``We want to do more than help,″ he said. ``We want to get their hope back.″

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