Harvey’s wrath spreads to Louisiana
Dozens dead, tens of thousands in shelters as tropical storm begins weakening to depression
OUSTON — The storm once known as hurricane Harvey made its second landfall Wednesday, dumping record rains and spurring additional flooding in small Texas cities that lie east of now-devastated Houston.
Harvey, which had swung out into the Gulf of Mexico again, came ashore at dawn near the Texas-Louisiana border. Its rain bands preceded it, pounding Texas towns including Orange, Port Arthur and Beaumont with more than two feet of rain.
City officials said much of Port Arthur — a city of 55,000 — was underwater. A shelter for flood victims flooded. One official estimated water had entered one-third of the city’s buildings.
“We need boats. We need large trucks, and we need generators,” said Tiffany Hamilton, a former city councilwoman in Port Arthur who was helping co-ordinate relief efforts in a city that is also without electricity. “The entire city has been flooded.”
About 130 kilometres to the west, the Houston area was just beginning to recover from the biggest rainstorm in the recorded history of the continental United States.
Nearly 35,000 people were in shelters. Thousands of homes were still submerged. At least 37 people were dead, and that number was climbing as water receded, revealing the storm’s awful toll.
Harris County authorities finally located a van, containing six members of the same family, that had been washed off the road days earlier. All six were dead.
HA few miles away, authorities discovered the bodies of two friends who had gone out in a boat Monday, trying to rescue neighbours. They lost control in the current, and drifted toward the sparks of a downed power line. They fell in.
Three other men, including two journalists from a British newspaper, suffered electrical burns but survived by clinging to a tree above the water.
By Wednesday afternoon, the remnants of Harvey had moved into Louisiana, travelling at about 13 kilometres an hour to the northeast. Its peak winds decreased to around 60 km/h, and the storm was predicted to weaken to a tropical depression Wednesday night.
Louisiana officials, who had worried that Harvey might devastate their state as well, said the threat of flooding seemed to be lessening.
“Somewhere between being complacent and being panicked is the right place” to be, said Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). “That’s where we’re going to ask the people of Louisiana to settle.”
More than 50 inches of rain fell onto Houston over four days, turning the country’s fourth-largest city into a sea of muddy brown water, boats skimming along what had been neighbourhood streets in search of survivors.
At the height of the flooding, between 25 and 30 per cent of Harris County — home to 4.5 million people in Houston and its near suburbs — was flooded as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the county flood control district. That is an area as large as New York City and Chicago combined.
More than 195,000 people have registered for federal assistance, a number that is expected to go up, William “Brock” Long, the FEMA administrator, said during a news briefing. It will take “many, many years” before the full scope of Harvey’s impact is clear, Long said.
“We expect a many-year recovery in Texas, and the federal government is in this for the long haul,” Elaine Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary, said at the same briefing Wednesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged swift federal aid in response to Harvey’s devastation. On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said that given the sheer number of people and geographic area impacted, he expects the federal government’s aid package “should be far in excess” of the roughly US$120 billion in funds allotted for Gulf Coast recovery after Katrina.
Trump could request a package of emergency funding to deal with the damage caused by Harvey as soon as next week, a senior administration official said, reshuffling the political agenda as the White House scrambles to deal with devastation left by the storm.
The funding package is expected to only be a partial down payment and serve in part to backstop depleted reserves that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had on hand to respond to disasters.
No final decision on the funding request has been made, and it could fluctuate based on conversations with lawmakers.
Tens of thousands of Houston-area residents were living in shelters as they waited out the floodwaters. After the George R. Brown Convention Center took on nearly 10,000 evacuees, a county official asked to use the NRG Center south of downtown.
“They called up our CEO yesterday and said: ‘Hey, we need you to do the shelter,’” said Frederick Goodall, director of marketing for the non-profit Baker-Ripley, which is overseeing the new centre.
That call was Tuesday morning. By the same time Wednesday, the NRG Center was lined with cots and thousands of volunteers. By the afternoon, 900 people had been bused in from other shelters, and nearly twice that many were expected to arrive by the end of day. Six days after the storm made landfall, residents were still unsure how long they would be out of their homes or what they would find when the waters recede.
Some of Houston’s bayous began to retreat inside their banks — although Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river, was still rising in some sections because of the release of water from upstream reservoirs.
“The watersheds are falling, and while most of them remain well over their levels, and some remain at record levels, the water levels are going down,” Lindner said. But he cautioned that some homes already underwater may “degrade.”
Across Texas, the storm shut down 11 oil refineries and curtailed production at nine others, while causing damage leading to at least 45 releases of harmful chemicals. In Crosby, Texas, a chemical plant was in critical condition after flooding disabled its refrigeration system and two backup power generators, raising the likelihood that the volatile chemicals usually kept at cool temperatures on the site would warm up and catch fire or explode.
Arkema, a French-based maker of organic peroxides used in plastics, pharmaceuticals and construction materials, evacuated all the personnel from the plant. Harris County police were scrambling to keep people at a distance; local media said the evacuation zone had a 2.5-kilometre radius.
“We have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on-site that could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire,” said Richard Rowe, chief executive of the company’s North American unit. “The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it.”
Elsewhere, it was the first day of the rest of Houston’s history, where millions of lives had been reshaped and burdened by the flood’s destruction.
Cleanup doesn’t begin to describe what’s next.
Power was out. Debris littered the city. When a house caught fire in west Houston, firefighters couldn’t get water pressure to fill their hoses. Instead, they turned to the water around them and used a jet boat engine: they pointed the back of the boat toward the house, fired up the engine and sprayed a massive water stream toward the blaze.
On highways that allowed for some traffic, large pickup trucks — some outfitted with monster truck-style tires — hauling boats made up the majority of those who dared to travel. Grocery stores, doughnut shops and Mexican restaurants reopened.
For those lucky enough not to be in a shelter, it was a day to take stock of what Harvey left behind.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” said Julie Steptoe, who ventured Wednesday to an intersection in Kingwood, north of Houston. Never taking her eyes off the water that engulfed the area, she continued: “I don’t know what to think. I’m hoping it turns out OK for everyone.”
A man leads a boat through a neighbourhood inundated by floodwaters from tropical storm Harvey in Houston. The storm made its second landfall Wednesday, dumping more than 60 centimetres of rain on nearby cities.