More chaos in Houston as floodwaters rise to roof lines
HOUSTON — 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. With nearly 2 more feet of rain expected, authorities worried whether the worst was yet to come.
The disaster 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 flooding was so widespread that the levels of city waterways have either equaled or surpassed those of Tropical Storm Allison from 2001, and no major highway has been spared some overflow.
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 and most businesses closed.
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 thousands more homes.
Meanwhile, rescuers continued plucking people from the floodwaters — at least 2,000 so far, according to Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.
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, 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.”
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 storm has been blamed for at least two deaths.
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 homes. The rising water and ongoing rain put pressure on the dams, which could allow water to spill outside them if the pressure is not relieved.
Harris and Fort Bend county officials advised residents to pack their cars Sunday night and leave in the morning.
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 6 inches (15 centimeters) per hour, Corps spokesman Jay Townsend said.
Officials in suburban Fort Bend County issued mandatory evacuation orders late Sunday along the Brazos River levee districts as the river rose to major flood stage. The National Weather Service predicted that the water could rise to 59 feet (18 meters). That much water would top the levees and carries a threat of levee failure, County Judge Robert Herbert said.
In the Cypress Forest Estates neighborhood in northern Harris County, people called for help from inside their homes as water from a nearby creek climbed to the same level as their eaves. A steady procession of rescue boats floated into the area.
One man, Joe Garcia, carried his German shepherd in the chest-deep water before being picked up by a boat. Garcia said he floated out a tub of his belongings, then went back in for the dog.
On Sunday, incessant rain covered much of Houston in turbid, gray-green water and turned streets into rivers navigable only by boat. In a rescue effort that recalled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, helicopters landed near flooded freeways, airboats buzzed across submerged neighborhoods and high-water vehicles plowed through water-logged intersections. Some people managed with kayaks or canoes or swam.
Volunteers joined emergency teams in pulling people from their homes or from the water. Authorities urged people to get on top of their houses to avoid becoming trapped in attics and to wave sheets or towels to draw attention to their location.
The weather service warned that the flooding will get worse in the days ahead and that the floodwaters will be slow to recede once Harvey finally moves on.
Up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain could fall in the coming days, on top of the more than 30 inches (76 centimeters) some places have already seen, weather service Director Louis Uccellini said Monday.
Rescuers were giving priority to life-and-death situations, leaving many affected families to fend for themselves. Several hospitals in the Houston area were evacuated due to the rising waters.
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. Gov. Greg 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 White House said President Donald Trump would visit Texas on Tuesday, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump.
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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