Tales of drama, heartbreak as waters recede
SKIES CLEARING, BUT HOUSTON AWAKENS TO A DARK REALITY IN STORM’S AFTERMATH
As Harvey’s floodwaters started dropping across much of the Houston area Wednesday, the storm began to give up its dead. Authorities confirmed the deaths of six members of the Saldivar family — Manuel and Belia Saldivar, both in their 80s, teenagers Devy and Dominic, eight-year-old Xavier and six-yearold Daisy — who were attempting to flee a flash flood when the van they were riding in was submerged in water, according to Ric Saldivar, who is one of the elder Saldivars’ sons.
The group had piled into a van being driven by Sammy Saldivar, 56, one of Ric’s brothers, on Saturday night as the nearby Halls Bayou began to flood.
As they approached a bridge, Sammy saw that it was covered in water. However, according to Ric Saldivar, they kept driving, because the guardrails were still showing.
But the road dipped sharply on the other side of the bridge, he said. Suddenly, the van was floating and taking on water. Sammy Saldivar, the driver, squeezed out of a window and clung to a tree branch. No one else made it out of the van.
“He was yelling at the kids to climb out of the back of the van; I’m sure they couldn’t reach it,” said Ric, relaying the narrative provided to him by Sammy. “He could hear the kids screaming, but couldn’t push the doors open. That’s what he keeps hearing in his head. And the van just went underwater and was gone.”
On Saturday, Alexander Sung, 64, was busy racing around his clock repair store, laying down newspaper and lifting the most valuable timepieces to the highest shelves he could reach.
“Sweetie, I have to call you back!” he frantically told his 20-year-old daughter, Alicia Contreras.
Later she received a text. “I love you sweetie,” Sung assured his daughter. “You guys are all I have.”
He promised he would call soon. The call never came.
His body was recovered from his shop on Sunday.
In a rain-swollen canal in Beaumont, Texas, authorities found a shivering toddler clinging to the body of her drowned mother after the woman tried to carry her child to safety from Harvey’s floods.
Capt. Brad Penisson of the fire-rescue department in Beaumont said the woman’s vehicle got stuck Tuesday afternoon in the flooded parking lot of an office park just off Interstate 10. Squalls from Harvey were pounding Beaumont with up to five centimetres of rain an hour at the time with 60 km/h gusts.
Penisson said a witness saw the woman take her 18-month-old daughter and try to walk to safety when the swift current of a flooded drainage canal next to the parking lot swept them both away.
The child was holding onto the floating woman when a police and fire-rescue team in a boat caught up to them downstream, he said. Rescuers pulled them into the boat just before they would have gone under a railroad trestle where the water was so high that the boat could not have followed.
First responders lifted the child from her mother’s body and tried to revive the woman, but she never regained consciousness.
Penisson said the child was in stable condition in hospital.
Ruaridh Connellan, 26, a London-born freelance photographer who lives in New York but was covering the Houston hurricane, suffered a 12-hour ordeal that also left four men missing.
Connellan, and an American colleague, had found a group of five men preparing to launch their boat into flood waters that had stranded one of the men’s grandmothers in her house.
“We got in the boat with them and began heading toward her house to rescue her,” said Connellan. “We thought it would be a good story; good pics.”
But he said as soon as the boat entered the water it veered out of control and immediately started heading toward some low-hanging power lines.
“Everyone jumped ship but we got zapped. I was in the water right by these power lines and I just felt this electric current go through my body. I thought I was done for. Then it stopped but it started again. I could see four of the men lying in the water — one of them, floating on his back in his life-jacket.”
Connellan, his colleague Alan Butterfield and one other man were pulled along by the current. The three clung on to the upturned hull of the motorboat. “Eventually there was this tree approaching out in the middle of the water and Alan said to grab hold and ditch the boat. We were hanging on to a branch with this mad flood water rushing past.”
Butterfield and the other man managed to climb the tree, but Connellan said the flood waters were too strong.
“I tried a couple of times but fell back in the water and thought I was going to drift off again, but I managed to hold on to the branch.”
It was late afternoon and Connellan would cling on until the early hours of the morning while the other men sat in the limbs of the tree above him.
“I’d pretty much convinced myself I was going to die at this point,” he said. “The only thing that kept me going was thinking about my girlfriend and my dog. That’s what gave me these scars, because I was gripping so hard.”
His hands are scarred red. He has additional scarring on his head, legs and feet. “It got really rough because it kept raining and the pressure just increased,” he said. While it was still dark, and the only sound was the water rushing across his body, the branch Connellan was clinging to snapped.
Thinking there was nothing left he could do to save himself, he reached for a bush and held on, managing to kick his legs in the water to propel himself forward enough to bury himself inside its branches.
Once dawn broke, he realized the bush he’d been holding on to was close to some other trees, so he moved across and managed to climb on to one. He spent another four hours in the tree, before rescuers finally arrived.
Connellan said he was too weak to pull himself into the rescue boat. “I just broke down and cried. I thought that was it; that I wouldn’t make it out alive.”
While conditions in Houston appeared to improve, the disaster took a turn for the worse near the Texas-Louisiana state line.
The Texas communities of Beaumont and Port Arthur struggled with rising flood waters and worked to evacuate residents after Harvey rolled ashore early Wednesday for the second time in six days, hitting southwestern Louisiana as a tropical storm.
For much of the rest of the Houston area, forecasters said the rain is pretty much over and the water is already back within its channels in some places. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city’s two major airports would reopen late in the afternoon.
“We have good news,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District. “The water levels are going down. And that’s for the first time in several days.”
Emergency authorities said more than 1,000 homes were destroyed and close to 50,000 damaged, and over 32,000 people were in shelters across the state.
Authorities expect the death toll to rise as the waters recede and bodies are found in cars and homes. Harris County officials said they are investigating 17 deaths — on top of an official death toll of 21 — to determine whether they were storm-related.
Emergency responders from Louisiana and Florida help transport an elderly woman from the Golden Years Assisted Living home, which was flooded Wednesday from Tropical Storm Harvey, in Orange, Tex.