Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey, which has already killed at least seven people in Texas and was expected to drive tens of thousands from their homes, will likely rise in the coming days, officials warned on Monday as heavy rains continued to pound the US Gulf Coast.
National Guard troops, police officers, rescue workers and civilians raced in helicopters, boats and special high-water trucks to rescue the hundreds of people still stranded in and around Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
The storm was the most powerful hurricane to strike Texas in more than 50 years when it came ashore on Friday near Corpus Christi, 354km south of Houston, and the worst was far from over as the National Weather Service issued numerous flood warnings across the region.
US President Donald Trump plans to go to Texas on Tuesday to survey the damage and may in the future visit Louisiana where the storm is now dumping rain.
Trump, facing the biggest US natural disaster since he took office in January, has signed disaster proclamations for Texas and Louisiana, triggering federal relief efforts.
Harvey has killed at least six people in Harris County, where Houston is located, said Tricia Bentley, a spokeswoman for the county coroner’s office, including a man who died in a house fire on Friday night and an elderly woman driving through flooded streets on the city’s west side the next day.
A 60-year-old woman died in neighbouring Montgomery County when a tree fell on her trailer home while she slept, the local medical examiner said on Twitter. With other people missing, the death toll could rise.
Both of Houston’s major airports were shut down, along with most major highways, rail lines and a hospital, where patients were evacuated over the weekend. As of Monday evening 267,000 Texans were left without power in the southeast corner of the state.
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Residents wade through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston, Texas Reuters
One of three main rivers crossing Houston, the Brazos, was expected to crest sometime on Tuesday at 59 feet, the National Weather Service said. The San Jacinto River was expected to crest over Interstate 10, the major east-west artery through Houston.
The Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management issued a “shelter in place” warning to residents of La Porte and Shoreacres, about 40km east of Houston, after a chemical leak was caused by a ruptured pipeline.
As stunned families surveyed the wreckage of destroyed homes and roads flooded or clogged with debris, Texas Governor Greg Abbott warned Houstonians to brace for a long recovery.
“We need to recognise this is going to be a new and different normal for this entire region,” Abbott said.
Harvey was expected to linger over Texas’ Gulf Coast for the next few days, dropping another 25 to 51cm of rain, with threats of flooding extending into Louisiana.
In scenes evoking the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, police and Coast Guard teams have rescued at least 2,000 people so far, 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.
Harvey’s centre was about 160km south of Houston and forecast to arc slowly toward the city through Wednesday, with the worst floods expected later that day and on Thursday.
Schools and office buildings were closed throughout the metropolitan area, home to 6.8 million people, as chest-high water filled some neighbourhoods in the low-lying city.
The US Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that it was releasing water from the nearby Addicks and Barker reservoirs into Buffalo Bayou, the primary body of water running through Houston.
“The more they release it could go up and it could create even additional problems,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned. But the release was said to be necessary to prevent an uncontrolled surge of water, which Turner said “would be exponentially worse.”
Torrential rain also hit areas more than 240km away, swelling rivers and causing a surge that was heading toward the Houston area, where numerous rivers and streams already have been breached.
About 5,500 people were in shelters as of Monday morning, city officials said, with Federal Emergency Management Agency director Brock Long forecasting that 30,000 would eventually be housed temporarily in shelters.
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 large dog, who had been left behind because they did not fit into the boat.
“I’m not complaining; we’re alive,” said Costilla. “When I saw the forecast of the storm I said I’ll be happy if we get out with our lives.”
In Rockport, National Guard troops passed out water to residents as utility crews worked to restore power in the city, amid reports of sporadic looting.
Houston did not order an evacuation due to concerns about people being stranded on city highways now consumed by floods, Turner said.
Abbott, who had suggested on Friday that people leave the area, declined to second-guess the mayor on Monday, telling reporters, “Decisions about evacuations are something that are behind us.”
Gasoline futures hit their highest in two years as Harvey shut down multiple refiners, knocking out about 13% of total US refining capacity, based on company reports and Reuters estimates.
Almost half of the US refining capacity is in the Gulf region.
The nation's second-largest refinery was shutdown in Baytown, and the nation's largest refinery in Port Arthur was weighing shutting down with a final decision expected Tuesday, sources told Reuters.
The floods' path of destruction could destroy as much as $20 billion in insured property, making it one of the costliest storms in history for US insurers, according to Wall Street analysts.