‘You don't want to wade in this water'

South Texans eager to salvage what they can from waterlogged homes struck by Hurricane Dolly have another problem: The floodwaters they're slogging through are laced with stinging fire ants, snakes and tarantulas.

“You don't want to wade in this water,” state Health Services Commissioner David Lakey said during a visit Friday to the Rio Grande Valley. “You don't want to play in this water.”

It was timely advice, but residents in many neighborhoods with waist-deep water had little choice as they sifted through the mess left by the Category 2 storm that hit the eastern Texas and Mexico coasts Wednesday. In eastern Hidalgo County, as much as 12 inches of rain fell in six hours, turning neighborhoods into coffee-colored lakes.

Officials estimated it could take six weeks for the low-lying region to dry out and 118,000 people still had no electricity Friday morning. Emergency managers tried to assure people that they would come to help and begged for patience. They said they were beginning to pump water from some of the worst hit areas.

Residents were using backhoes to dig their own drainage canals and clear water. But the water simply flowed into the neighbors' yards. Tempers among longtime neighbors were becoming strained.

The National Weather Service said the remnants of Dolly could still add a few inches of rain to some areas.

Fewer than 200 people remained in shelters in Hidalgo County, down from a peak of nearly 3,300. But rescue crews in boats were still searching flooded neighborhoods and plucking people from homes.

Still, officials were relieved it wasn't worse and that no one died in the first hurricane of the season to hit the U.S. mainland.

The cleanup will be substantial: President Bush declared 15 counties disaster areas to release federal funding to them, and insurance estimators put the losses at $750 million.