Rescuing the living, recovering the dead: storm Harvey moves on, but ravaging floods left behind

on Aug31

With the weakened remnants of former Hurricane Harvey delivering drenching rainfall and yet more flooding Thursday, Houston and the vast area already hammered by the massive storm grappled with fresh perils as the waters began to recede, leaving behind a stew of toxic muck.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for a day of prayer across his stricken state, and rescuers continued to pluck victims from floods inundating small towns. A major hospital in Beaumont, east of Houston, was forced to call an evacuation after the municipal water supply failed.

The death toll from the storm — which roared ashore Friday as a hurricane and was downgraded first to a tropical storm, then overnight to a tropical depression — reached 31, but was expected to rise, perhaps sharply. The grim work of recovering the bodies of those who were trapped in homes or vehicles gathered speed in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Methodical block-by-block searches were underway in what had been some of the hardest-hit areas, said Houston’s assistant fire chief, Richard Mann.

In what could prove an ominous precursor in the Gulf Coast’s sprawling petrochemical hub, flames and plumes of smoke soared skyward early Thursday at a chemical plant on the city’s outskirts. Rising temperatures and a power cutoff had set off volatile chemical reactions inside the Arkema Inc. plant in Crosby, 30 miles northeast of downtown Houston, authorities said.

Ten Harris County sheriff’s deputies were treated for possible chemical inhalation after the emission of fumes, local law enforcement officials said Thursday morning. In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency said preliminary information suggested there were “no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time” from the emissions.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality concurred, describing the smoke and fumes as “acrid and irritating,” but apparently not toxic.

The Trump administration was maintaining a visible presence in the hurricane-hit zone. After a high-profile visit Tuesday by President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence flew in, accompanied by several Cabinet secretaries.

​​​​In the shattered town of Rockport, Pence told a crowd gathered in front of the badly damaged First Baptist Church: “We are with you, and we will stay with you” as the recovery progresses. Later, the vice president donned work gloves and helped clear downed tree branches.

The storm sent more than 30,000 people into shelters after making landfall Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in five decades. Even downgraded to a tropical depression, Harvey was drenching parts of Louisiana, with the National Weather Service warning that torrential rains could hit areas of Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. There were flash-flood warnings as far away as southern Ohio.

Military assistance to the hurricane-hit zone was ramping up. The Navy ordered the Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, and the Oak Hill, a dock landing ship, to sail from their home port in Norfolk, Va., to the hurricane-hit zone to provide medical and logistical support.

About 690 U.S. Marines were aboard the Kearsarge, along with more than a dozen helicopters.

The Marines were also bringing water purification systems and stood ready to help with aerial reconnaissance and aid distribution, the Pentagon said. Altogether, about 6,400 active-duty military personnel are deployed to the affected area, and military officials have deployed 73 helicopters, three C-130 transport planes and eight search-and-rescue teams.

High waters were expected to linger for a week in some areas, Abbott said. The storm-affected zone was larger than that surrounding New Orleans when it was pummeled a dozen years ago by Hurricane Katrina.

Even those who had managed to escape the floodwaters awakened to new woes Thursday. In Beaumont, 90 miles east of Houston, people turned on their water faucets, and nothing came out. The city of 118,299 people lost access to water after floods knocked out a pump station along the Neches River, along with its backup water supply from wells in Hardin County, municipal authorities said.

That prompted what medical officials described as the painful decision to halt emergency services and start evacuating.

“Due to the failure of the city’s water pump, it is in the best interest of our current patients to transfer to other acute care facilities,” Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas said in a statement.

The Beaumont municipality said earlier it did not know how long the repairs would take.

With new reports of damage pouring in daily and hourly, the disaster’s full scope and scale was still emerging. The statistics tell a grim story: More than 37,000 homes have sustained major damage, and nearly 7,000 have been destroyed, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported.

Amid the devastation, there were nascent signs of recovery. Houston’s two major airports were operating again, and services including trash pickup and limited bus and light rail were resuming. Just south of downtown, restaurants and grocery stores were doing brisk business.

But in parts of the city, receding waters gave way to a landscape that was sometimes hard to recognize. Moldy, soaked debris piles lined the streets of the Meyerland neighborhood, bisected by Brays Bayou, which also flooded the previous year.

While areas of downtown Houston buzzed with activity — morning rush hour, businesses reopening — work crews in the neighborhood set to the wearying task of removing soaked carpets and carting away debris, amid the hum of industrial fans and dehumidifiers. By Thursday, some residents had stripped their homes down to the studs and left, exhausted.

“It’s devastating to anyone who loses most of their possessions to go to work and try to make a living with this aggravation,” said Alan Ross, a photographer who lives in the neighborhood and was helping his son clean up.

Scott Ross, 33, a video producer, had seen his ranch house flood for the second time, with waters reaching 23 inches deep. His wife is seven months pregnant, so they planned to stay with his parents until their flood insurance kicks in.

After last year’s flood, some neighborhood residents elevated their houses by several feet, but that can be costly. Despite that, some of the raised homes still flooded this time.

“It will be interesting to see what happens with this area in the future. Will these older houses be knocked down? Will they do something about the flooding in this area? Will people stay?” he said as he stood outside the house volunteers had helped him strip.

“It’s unknown,” his father said.

Times staff writers Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston, Pearce from Beaumont, Texas, and King from Washington. Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan and David Lauter contributed from Washington.


12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with the governor calling a day of prayer, a hospital in Beaumont evacuating after water supply failure and the vice president commenting.

10:25 a.m.: This article was updated with the arrival of Vice President Mike Pence, additional comment from EPA on the chemical plant fire and the deployment of Navy warships.

This article was originally published at 8:10 a.m.

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