Catastrophic flooding continued to wreak havoc in parts of Texas Tuesday as record rainfall from tropical storm Harvey spilled out of reservoirs, prompting at least one evacuation order, and leaving officials to worry just how bad the death toll will be.
Brazoria County, south of Houston, issued an urgent notice via Twitter: “The levee at Columbia Lakes has been breached!! GET OUT NOW!!”
Judge Matt Sebesta, the county’s top official, said residents had been warned about a possible levee breach two days ago, but he was concerned that some might have stayed behind.
“The biggest concern is the few folks that may have disregarded our warnings,” he said in an interview on CNN. “The worst of our flooding is still yet to come, and I don’t want to see anybody hurt or worse over the next several weeks that we have this event ongoing.”
In Houston, the Addicks and Barker reservoirs were overflowing, despite a controlled water release that aimed to prevent flooding downtown. They were both at record high levels after days of heavy rain.
Army Corps of Engineers officials have been releasing water from both, but the amount of water entering exceeds the amount being released, sending floodwaters over spillways.
Jeff Lindner, with the Harris County Flood Control District, said Tuesday that he’s certain that more homes and streets will flood as a result. Lindner says the county is trying to determine where the water will go, specifically from the north end of the Addicks reservoir.
He said some homes will be inundated “for up to a month.”
The flood gauge at the Barker reservoir was overwhelmed and disabled, and officials worried the Addicks gauge will also fail.
Looters, robbers ‘despicable’
Airports in Houston, the U.S.’s fourth largest city, remained closed for all but humanitarian flights and first responder support. About 100,000 customers were without power. And Houston’s police chief blasted looters and robbers, warning they will be caught and punished severely.
“You take advantage of people and prey on them in these circumstances — that’s despicable behaviour,” Chief Art Acevedo said at a news briefing Tuesday. He said a handful of suspects were in custody.
Emergency resources continued to be the focus, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. Police and the coast guard said they had plucked well over 6,000 people from Houston neighbourhoods inundated with floodwater.
The American Red Cross said there are more than 17,000 people in Texas seeking refuge in shelters.
Death toll unknown
Crews overwhelmed by thousands of rescue calls during one of the heaviest downpours in U.S. history have had little time to search for other potential victims, but officials acknowledge the grim reality that fatalities linked to Harvey could soar once the devastating floodwaters recede from one of the country’s most sprawling metropolitan centres.
More than three days after the storm ravaged the Texas coastline as a Category 4 hurricane, authorities had confirmed only three deaths — including a woman killed Monday when heavy rains dislodged a large oak tree onto her trailer home in the small town of Porter. But unconfirmed reports of others missing or presumed dead were growing.
“We know in these kind of events that, sadly, the death toll goes up historically,” Houston police Chief Art Acevedo told The Associated Press. “I’m really worried about how many bodies we’re going to find.”
The slow-moving storm has brought catastrophic flooding to Texas, led to mass evacuations and paralyzed Houston, the fourth most-populous U.S. city.
One Houston woman said Monday that she presumes six members of a family, including four of her grandchildren, died after their van sank into Greens Bayou in East Houston, though Houston emergency officials couldn’t confirm the deaths.
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.
More rain on the way
The storm has parked itself over the Gulf Coast. With nearly 61 centimetres more rain expected on top of the 76 centimetres in some places, authorities worried the worst might be yet to come.
Harvey’s relentless downpour continued to drench Houston and the surrounding area. Rain fell at a pace of about one centimetre per hour over Harris County — home to Houston — and up to five centimetres per hour to the east.
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.
The Army Corps had started releasing water Monday at the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, because levels were climbing at a rate of more than 15 centimetres an hour, corps spokesperson 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.
The impact of Harvey was also felt in Lake Charles, southwestern Louisiana, where emergency crews were rescuing residents from flooded homes after steady overnight rainfall.
Lake Charles fire department division Chief Lennie LaFleur said rescuers helped hundreds of people out of one neighbourhood, sometimes through chest-deep water.
In addition to National Guard trucks and wildlife agents’ boats, residents came out in jacked-up trucks and clinging to the cab of a semi-truck cab. They carried belongings in suitcases, trash bags or even soggy cardboard boxes.
“We all got stuck back there,” said Andrea Boutte, who rode out on the big rig. “Those boats took forever.”
Rescuers focused at first on people with medical problems or who were frail, but eventually offered to take everyone who wanted out. Most people went to homes of friends and relatives.
Officials fear additional precipitation.
“We just can’t take any more,” Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso said, urging residents to leave flood-prone homes Monday.
“Anything we get is going to be crucial at this point.”
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters Monday that he expects the threat to rise as outer rain bands sweep into Louisiana, adding, “This is going to play out over several days.”
Donald Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office that covers southwest Louisiana, said the area could get 25 to 38 centimetres more rain through Wednesday.
In southeast Louisiana, meteorologist Christopher Bannan said about 7 to 15 centimetres are possible through Tuesday, with about 12-25 centimetres through Thursday.
U.S. President Donald Trump visited Texas on Tuesday to survey the response to the devastating storm, the first major natural disaster of his White House tenure.
He arrived Tuesday morning in Corpus Christi, near where Harvey came ashore on Friday, and was due to go to the Texas capital of Austin to meet state officials, receive briefings and tour the emergency operation centre, the White House said.
“My administration is co-ordinating closely with state and local authorities in Texas and Louisiana to save lives, and we
thank our first responders and all of those involved in their efforts,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday.
Trump, moving to expedite federal disaster assistance, issued a federal emergency declaration Monday for five parishes in southwest Louisiana.
In Washington, Trump’s administration assured Congress that the $3-billion balance in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund would be enough to handle immediate needs, such as debris removal and temporary shelter for displaced residents.