Thousands rescued, more trapped in homes as rising Houston floods overwhelm emergency services, reservoirs

AP, Reuters

Floodwaters reached the roof lines of single-story homes Monday, and people could be heard pleading for help from inside as Harvey kept pouring rain on the Houston area after a chaotic weekend of rising water and rescues.

The nation’s fourth-largest city was still largely paralyzed, and there was no relief in sight from the storm that spun into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, then parked itself over the Gulf Coast. Floodwaters are likely to rise as more torrential rain pounds the coast, where at least eight people have already been killed in Texas and tens of thousands driven from their homes, officials said on Monday.

The disaster unfolded on an epic scale in one of America’s most sprawling metropolitan centers. The Houston metro area covers about 25,900 sq. kilometers (10,000 sq. miles), an area slightly bigger than New Jersey. It’s crisscrossed by about 2,736 kilometers (1,700 miles) of channels, creeks and bayous that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the southeast from downtown.

The flooding was so widespread that the levels of city waterways have either equaled or surpassed those of Tropical Storm Allison from 2001. The storm was the most powerful hurricane to strike Texas in more than 50 years when it hit land on Friday near Corpus Christi, 354 km (220 miles) southwest of Houston.

The worst is far from over because the slow-moving storm will continue to dump rain over the next few days in an area hit by “unprecedented” flooding, the National Weather Service said.

“Additional heavy rainfall overnight is expected to worsen the flood situation in southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana,” the National Hurricane Center said.

Forecasts show that some spots in and around Houston could see an additional 30 cm (12 inches) of rain on Tuesday, bringing the total rainfall from Harvey to about 127 cm (50 inches) in parts of the city’s metro area.

On Monday, the city’s normally bustling business district was virtually deserted, with emergency vehicles making up most of the traffic. Most traffic signals were out. Schools and office buildings were closed throughout the metropolitan area, home to 6.8 million people, as chest-high water filled some neighborhoods in the low-lying city.

Elsewhere, water gushed from two reservoirs overwhelmed by Harvey as officials sought to release pressure on a pair of dams where floodwaters were at risk of spilling uncontrolled from around the sides of the barriers. The move aimed at protecting the downtown business district risked flooding even more homes.

Thousands of National Guard troops, police officers, rescue workers and civilians raced in in helicopters, boats and special high-water trucks to rescue the hundreds stranded by the storm.

At least 185 critical rescue requests were still pending on Monday morning. The goal is to rescue those people by the end of the day, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

With rain falling unabated, he said there was nowhere left for the water to drain.

“I’m not sure where the water is going because it’s just so much that we can’t really absorb more in the ground at this point,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

U.S. President Donald Trump plans to go to Texas on Tuesday to survey the damage and may also visit Louisiana, where the storm is now dumping rain.

Trump, facing the biggest U.S. natural disaster since he took office in January, has signed disaster proclamations for Texas and Louisiana, triggering federal relief efforts.

In scenes evoking the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, police and Coast Guard teams have each rescued more than 3,000 people, plucking many from rooftops by helicopter, as they urged the hundreds more believed to be marooned in flooded houses to hang towels or sheets outside to alert rescuers.

Regina Costilla, 48, said she and her 16-year-old son had been rescued from their home by a good Samaritan with a boat. She worried until she was reunited with her husband and dog, who had been left behind because they did not fit into the boat.

“I’m not complaining, we’re alive,” she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency director Brock Long estimated that 30,000 people would eventually be housed temporarily in shelters.

The rising water forced a mass evacuation of parts of the city Sunday and rescuers who could not keep up with constant calls for help.

The Red Cross quickly set up Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center and other venues as shelters. The convention center, which was also used as a shelter for Katrina refugees in 2005, can accommodate roughly 5,000 people. By Monday morning, it had already reached half its capacity, the Red Cross said.

Residents living near the Addicks and Barker reservoirs — which were created to prevent flooding in downtown Houston — were warned Sunday that a controlled release would cause additional street flooding that could spill into their homes. The Army Corps of Engineers started the reservoir releases before 2 a.m. Monday — ahead of schedule — because water levels were increasing at a rate of more than 15 cm (6 inches) per hour, Corps spokesman Jay Townsend said.

Both of Houston’s major airports were shut, along with most major highways, rail lines and several hospitals, where patients were evacuated over the weekend. More than a quarter of a million customers in the region were without power by Monday evening, utilities said.

The Brazos River was forecast to crest at a record high in the next two days about 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Houston, forcing the mandatory evacuation of about 50,000 people in Fort Bend County, where officials described the predicted deluge as the worst in at least eight centuries.

Rising river and reservoir levels also forced evacuations in the counties of Brazoria and Galveston, near Houston.

As stunned families surveyed destroyed homes and roads flooded or clogged with debris, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned Houstonians to brace for a long recovery.

“We need to recognize this is going to be a new and different normal for this entire region,” Abbott said.

Volunteers joined emergency teams in pulling people from their homes or from the water. Rescuers were giving priority to life-and-death situations, leaving many affected families to fend for themselves.

Some people used inflatable beach toys, rubber rafts and even air mattresses to get through the water to safety. Others waded while carrying trash bags stuffed with their belongings and small animals in picnic coolers.

The deteriorating situation was bound to provoke questions about the conflicting advice given by the governor and Houston leaders before the hurricane. Abbott urged people to flee from Harvey’s path, but the Houston mayor issued no evacuation orders and told everyone to stay home.

The governor refused to point fingers on Sunday.

“Now is not the time to second-guess the decisions that were made,” Abbott, a Republican, said at a news conference in Austin. “What’s important is that everybody work together to ensure that we are going to, first, save lives and, second, help people across the state rebuild.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, defended his decision, citing the risk of sending the city’s 2.3 million inhabitants onto the highways at the same time.

“If you think the situation right now is bad, and you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare,” Turner said.

The floods could destroy as much as $20 billion in insured property, making the storm one of the costliest in history for U.S. insurers, Wall Street analysts say.