SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - At least one tornado southwest of San Antonio caused widespread damage as a line of thunderstorms flooded streets across the region and left thousands without power, officials said Tuesday.
The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado touched down late Monday about 25 miles southwest of San Antonio and moved toward the city. The presence of three separate "tracks" indicates there could have been more than one tornado, said Joe Arellano, chief meteorologist with the weather service in New Braunfels.
Two dozen homes, a handful of businesses and a church were damaged in Medina County, with the worst damage in the town of Devine. Five people were injured, none of them seriously, according to Medina County Sheriff's deputies. "It was really scary," Devine Mayor Bill Herring said. "We really dodged the bullet. Another mile inside and it would have hit a very populated area."
Tree limbs were blown down, and debris covered the roads. Metal and shingle roofs that were ripped off buildings lay tangled against fences and trees.
The Red Cross opened a shelter for families in Devine whose homes were damaged.
In the town of Natalia, just northeast of Devine along IH-35, Amanda Gallegos watched as a tornado touched down near her home.
"You could clearly see the funnel cloud; it was huge," she said. "We heard a real huge rumbling."
In San Antonio, about 25 miles further northeast, winds ripped the roofs off homes and brought down power lines. CPS Energy, the region's electric utility, reported about 35,000 customers without power at the height of the storm. That number dwindled by midday Tuesday as sunny weather allowed crews to repair downed power lines.
Strong winds blew out several windows at San Antonio's sprawling main post office, and overturned at least one postal vehicle. Not far from the post office, a truck driver was stuck in his cab for several hours after a power line collapsed on the cab of his 18-wheeler.
Several dozen San Antonio streets were flooded, prompting officials to post barricades to prevent motorists from driving into flood water. High water also closed dozens of streets in the Austin area, where thousands of homes and businesses lost power.
Lightning strikes were suspected in three fires in San Antonio early Tuesday, fire officials said.
Several dozen people took refuge in a community center set up in the town of Somerset, southwest of San Antonio, officials said.
The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. By midday, up to 5 inches of rain was recorded along wide swaths of eastern Oklahoma, with more rain possible, the weather service said.
In Arkansas, high winds extensively damaged the roof of the Green Bay Packaging plant northwest of Little Rock in Morrilton. The storm also destroyed two buildings at the Conway County fair grounds and sent a tree through a house in the town, according to county emergency management officials.
In southwestern Louisiana, some 5 inches of rain had fallen by Tuesday afternoon, adding to problems created during heavy rains in the region late last week, according to the National Weather Service. In New Orleans, the Corps of Engineers began preparing for the storm system by closing a floodgate on a canal on the west side of the Mississippi River.
Monday's tornado strikes in Texas followed two confirmed twisters in Nebraska on Sunday that destroyed homes, toppled train cars and injured two people.
The flooding rains come at a time when south and central Texas are still in the grips of a drought that began early in 2011. It developed into the state's worst one-year drought ever.
"The more water we can get now the better off we'll be down the road, later on this year," said Roland Ruiz, Assistant General Manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which manages the region's water supply.
Additional reporting by Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City, Kathy Finn in New Orleans and Suzi Parker in Little Rock. Editing by Paul Thomasch, Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune.