3 confirmed dead as Houston floodwaters continue to rise

Updated August 28, 2017 - 9:58 pm

HOUSTON — Floodwaters reached the rooflines of single-story homes Monday and people could be heard pleading for help from inside as Harvey poured rain on the Houston area for a fourth consecutive day after a chaotic weekend of rising water and rescues.

The nation’s fourth-largest city remained mostly paralyzed by one of the largest downpours in U.S. history. And there was no relief in sight from the storm that spun into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, then parked over the Gulf Coast. With nearly 2 more feet (61 centimeters) of rain expected on top of the 30-plus inches (76 centimeters) in some places, authorities worried that the worst might be yet to come.

Harvey has been blamed for at least three confirmed deaths, including a woman killed Monday in the town of Porter, northeast of Houston, when a large oak tree dislodged by heavy rains toppled onto her trailer home.

A Houston woman also said she presumes six members of a family, including four of her grandchildren, died after their van sank into Greens Bayou in East Houston.

Virginia Saldivar told The Associated Press her brother-in-law was driving the van Sunday when a strong current took the vehicle over a bridge and into the bayou. The driver was able to get out and urged the children to escape through the back door, Saldivar said, but they could not.


 

“I’m just hoping we find the bodies,” Saldivar said.

Houston emergency officials couldn’t confirm the deaths. But Police Chief Art Acevedo said he’s “really worried about how many bodies we’re going to find” amid the disaster, which unfolded on an epic scale in one of America’s most sprawling metropolitan centers.

The Houston metro area covers about 10,000 square miles, an area slightly bigger than New Jersey. It’s crisscrossed by about 1,700 miles of channels, creeks and bayous that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles to the southeast from downtown.

The storm is generating an amount of rain that would normally be seen only once in more than 1,000 years, said Edmond Russo, a deputy district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, which was concerned that floodwater would spill around a pair of 70-year-old reservoir dams that protect downtown Houston.

The flooding was so widespread that the levels of city waterways have equaled or surpassed those of Tropical Storm Allison from 2001, and no major highway has been spared some overflow.

The city’s normally bustling business district was virtually deserted Monday, with emergency vehicles making up most of the traffic.

Rescuers continued plucking people from the floodwaters. Mayor Sylvester Turner put the number by police at more than 3,000. The Coast Guard said it also had rescued more than 3,000 by boat and air and was taking more than 1,000 calls her hour.

Chris Thorn was among the many volunteers still helping with the mass evacuation that began Sunday. He drove with a buddy from the Dallas area with their flat-bottom hunting boat to pull strangers out of the water.

“I couldn’t sit at home and watch it on TV and do nothing since I have a boat and all the tools to help,” he said.

They got to Spring, Texas, where Cypress Creek had breached Interstate 45 and went to work, helping people out of a gated community near the creek.

“It’s never flooded here,” Lane Cross said from the front of Thorn’s boat, holding his brown dog, Max. “I don’t even have flood insurance.”

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the low-lying Houston suburb of Dickinson, home to 20,000. Police cited the city’s fragile infrastructure in the floods, limited working utilities and concern about the weather forecast.

In Houston, questions continued to swirl about why the mayor did not issue a similar evacuation order.

Turner has repeatedly defended the decision and did so again Monday, insisting that a mass evacuation of millions of people by car was a greater risk than enduring the storm.

“Both the county judge and I sat down together and decided that we were not in direct path of the storm, of the hurricane, and the safest thing to do was for people to stay put, make the necessary preparations. I have no doubt that the decision we made was the right decision.”

He added, “Can you imagine if millions of people had left the city of Houston and then tried to come back in right now?”

The Red Cross quickly set up the George R. Brown Convention Center and other venues as shelters.

By Monday night, 7,000 people have arrived at the shelter set up inside the George R. Brown Convention Center — which originally had an estimated capacity of 5,000.

Red Cross spokesman Lloyd Ziel said that volunteers made more space inside the center, which also was used to house Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans in 2005, in part by pushing some cots closer together. A shortage of cots means some people will have to sleep on chairs or the floor.

The center settled down at night, after an occasionally chaotic day that saw thousands of evacuees arrive in the pouring rain. Officers and volunteers at times rushed to attend to those with medical needs, including two people who were on the ground, unresponsive, near the exit.

Houston’s emergency operations center said Monday night it still was gathering information about what had happened.

At the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the Army Corps started releasing water Monday because water levels were climbing at a rate of more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) per hour, Corps spokesman Jay Townsend said.

The move was supposed to help shield the business district from floodwaters, but it also risked flooding thousands more homes in nearby subdivisions. Built after devastating floods in 1929 and 1935, the reservoirs were designed to hold water until it can be released downstream at a controlled rate.

In the Cypress Forest Estates neighborhood in northern Harris County, people called for help from inside homes as water from a nearby creek rose to their eaves. A steady procession of rescue boats floated into the area.

Harvey increased slightly in strength Monday as it drifted back over the warm Gulf, according to the National Hurricane Center.


 

Forecasters expect the system to stay over water with 45 mph (72 kph) winds for 36 hours and then head back inland east of Houston sometime Wednesday. The system will then head north and lose its tropical strength.

Before then, up to 20 more inches (51 centimeters) of rain could fall, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said Monday.

That means the flooding will get worse in the days ahead and the floodwaters will be slow to recede once Harvey finally moves on, the weather service said.

Sometime Tuesday or early Wednesday, parts of the Houston region will probably break the nearly 40-year-old U.S. record for the biggest rainfall from a tropical system — 48 inches, set by Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 in Texas, meteorologists said.

The amount of water in Houston was so unprecedented that the weather service on Wednesday had to update the color charts on its official rainfall maps to indicate the heavier totals.

In Louisiana, the images of the devastation in Houston stirred up painful memories for many Hurricane Katrina survivors.

“It really evoked a lot of emotions and heartbreak for the people who are going through that now in Houston,” Ray Gratia said as he picked up sandbags for his New Orleans home, which flooded during the 2005 hurricane.

In Washington, President Donald Trump’s administration assured Congress that the $3 billion balance in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund was enough to handle immediate needs, such as debris removal and temporary shelter for displaced residents.

The White House said Monday night that the president and first lady will visit Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday. They will receive briefings on the relief efforts by local leaders and organizations.

Harvey was the fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since 1961’s Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record.

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