East Texans brace for prolonged evacuation orders after rainfall drenches Polk County

Recent flooding in Polk County has led to evacuations. (Txdot Lufkin Social Media, Txdot Lufkin Social Media)

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LUFKIN — East Texans are bracing for an evacuation order in Polk County to stay in place for several days after heavy rainfall led the Trinity River to overflow, forcing operators at a nearby dam to release the floodgates.

Rainfall in the Polk County region and elsewhere in the state is expected to prolong the evacuation order, officials said.

In the two days leading up to Monday’s declaration, the north end of Polk County — Groveton — saw 10.92 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Further north, into Trinity County, that total rose to 11.8 inches of rain.

This is an unusual total for the region, which typically sees less than an inch of rain per day. But storms formed and reformed above Polk County and those north of it, leaving the county in a deluge over the weekend.

Also on Tuesdsay, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for a voluntary evacuation of the county's northeastern region, including the Idlewild and Idle Glen neighborhoods. She cited concerns with a fork of the San Jacinto River that was beginning to see the impact of heavy rainfall in the counties north of Harris County on Sunday. Montgomery County also issued a voluntary evacuation order for the same area earlier on Tuesday.

The Polk County flood is the latest in a torrent of storms that have drenched parts of the Piney Woods.

Many East Texas counties were already under a disaster declaration after storms throughout most of April led to flooding. Gov. Greg Abbott requested a disaster declaration for Jasper County and those surrounding it following storms that damaged personal property that began April 8. Polk and Jasper counties are separated by Tyler County and all are northeast of Houston.

Tim Cady, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Houston/Galveston office said the next potential threat will strike communities upriver of Polk County on the Trinity River Wednesday night into the early hours of Thursday. While Polk County itself may not see heavy rainfall, the Trinity River will likely take on additional water, Cady said.

“If we have a lot of rain here and we have a lot of rain in Dallas, well then the magnitude of the flooding is going to be much worse,” Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy said.

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Polk County is home to about 54,186 residents. Most of the county is rural and residents primarily live in the unincorporated areas. More than 800 households were asked to evacuate Monday.

Murphy, who also serves as the county’s emergency management coordinator, called for a voluntary evacuation leading up to Monday’s mandatory evacuation order. This was in hopes residents would leave the area before it became too dangerous, she said.

“We cannot risk sending people in [to help those who are stranded] when the conditions aren't safe either,” Murphy said. “So we needed people to come out while the conditions were still manageable.”

Murphy opened the Dunbar Gym as a shelter for those with nowhere to go and encouraged residents to get their families and pets out of harm's way. While residents haven’t fought the evacuation order, she also doesn’t believe they’re following it. She worries about those residents who choose not to leave their homes.

If someone suffers a severe health event at this time and they haven’t evacuated, it could be almost impossible for emergency responders to help them, Murphy said.

Flooded roadways present an increased risk for travelers. Six inches of water can sweep away someone who is walking. A foot of water can sweep away a car. Murphy said some roadways are covered by two to three feet of water, meaning drivers have no idea what to expect.

A list maintained by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office indicated nearly a dozen roadways were not passable or were completely washed out as of April 30.

Murphy, who has seen her fair share of historic weather events in her tenure as county judge, expects the evacuation order will stand for several more days.

“This isn't the first time we've seen flooding. And it won't be the last time we see flooding either,” she said.

Climate scientists predict these types of storms will become even more commonplace in East Texas in the coming years. They have already done so since the 20th century, said John Nielsen-Gammon, a climatologist at Texas A&M University.

In a report he released with Texas 2036, a think-tank focused on Texas’ growth, he predicts that while much of Texas will face severe drought moving forward, East Texas will instead see increased rainfall.

“Polk County experienced a large increase in extreme rainfall compared to last century,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “And a part of climate change is increased intensity in weather, or a very heavy rainfall across the southern United States.”

This is caused by higher temperatures which led to increased evaporation and more intense precipitation. In 2023, climate scientists said Texans lived through the second hottest summer on record. This trend is likely to continue.

Disclosure: Texas 2036 and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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