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Harvey Floods Houston, Strands Thousands -- 2nd Update

27 Aug 2017 7:23 pm
By Bradley Olson, Arian Campo-Flores and Miguel Bustillo 

HOUSTON -- Tropical storm Harvey flooded the nation's fourth-largest city overnight, turning roads into rivers, inundating homes and forcing authorities to rescue hundreds of stranded people.

Five fatalities have been reported in the Houston area, according to the National Weather Service, after bands of the storm repeatedly lashed the flood-prone city, spawning numerous tornadoes and pouring as much as 24 inches of rain in 24 hours onto areas that had already been soaked the previous day. However, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Sunday that only one was confirmed so far as storm-related. He said a woman drove into high water in southwest Houston and drowned while trying to escape.

Local officials said they have made between 1,500 and 2,000 rescues, most of which were from vehicles that got stranded after driving into floodwaters, with responders assisting on foot, in large vehicles, by boat and via helicopters in the air. By Sunday morning, officials warned that 911 services were at capacity and urged people to take whatever steps they could to find safety.

The U.S. Coast Guard said its Houston sector had received more than 300 requests for urban search and rescue and was asking for additional HH-60 Jayhawk Helicopters from New Orleans and Air National Guard support to assist its current five MH-65 Dolphin Helicopters conducting rescues in the area.

"This is historic, devastating rainfall," said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District who is working with emergency personnel. "There is water in homes that have never flooded before, and we've received reports of water going into the second story of homes."

Mr. Turner, the mayor, defended the decision not to order a mandatory evacuation of the city, saying it would have been more dangerous for thousands of residents to try to travel through the heavy rains. Harvey was also pummeling San Antonio and Austin, the logical locations for fleeing Houstonians.

"You cannot put, in the city of Houston, 2.3 million people on the road, " said Mr. Turner, a Democrat. "You give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare."

Mr. Turner said the city was opening libraries, community centers and other locations as "lily pads" to provide safe harbor from the waters in neighborhoods, and opening the George R. Brown Convention Center in the city's downtown as a large shelter.

"This is a storm that is testing the city of Houston," he said. "If we remain calm and everybody does his or her part, we will get through this with minimum loss of life."

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the area's top emergency official, asked citizens with boats to help rescue people who are trapped by rising water in their neighborhoods.

Boats and other vehicles the city hoped to receive from the state cannot arrive due to roads blocked by flooding, said Mr. Emmett, a Republican, prompting his plea for help for Houstonians to rescue their neighbors.

He also said that Ben Taub Hospital, Houston's main public hospital, was being evacuated due to flooding in its basement, with patients in need being the priority, followed by others in the hospital.

Forecasters said Sunday that the storm might drop even more rain than initially expected over Texas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Prediction Center is now projecting that some areas could see up to 50 inches of rain, up from an earlier estimate of up to 40 inches. It forecast that areas that have already seen 20 to 25 inches of rain could receive another 15 to 25 inches as the storm continues to move through Texas this week.

That means that parts of Houston, which has averaged 47 inches in annual rainfall according to the National Weather Service, could see similar amounts in a span of just a few days.

NOAA forecast that areas that have already seen as much as 20 to 25 inches of rain could receive another 15 to 25 inches as the storm continues to move through Texas this week.

More than 150 roadways were flooded throughout Houston on Sunday. William P. Hobby Airport, the city's second largest, said it was canceling all flights due to high standing water on runways.

Some residents expressed a sense of helplessness as they watched waters rising around them. In the sixth Ward neighborhood, Chris Lum was scouting higher ground to move his car, worried that rapidly approaching floodwaters could damage it or flood his house.

"I wasn't worried" initially, he said, but after watching water coming up the street, "I am now."

Waters from the Buffalo Bayou, south of the neighborhood, Sunday morning had flooded Memorial Drive, a large thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood, and were gradually engulfing some of the neighborhood's streets.

James Gloria and his wife Margeaux Trejo, who have lived in the sixth Ward for five years, said they were going to ride the storm out for now. If they did have to evacuate, they were unsure what they would do.

"There's, like, no escape at this point," Ms. Trejo said.

Tristan Berlanga was preparing to move his family to another home they own on higher ground in the neighborhood. He said with another two feet of floodwater the first house would begin taking it on. Mr. Berlanga was also concerned about a natural gas leak in the neighborhood, where the smell of gas was noticeable.

"I've lived in Houston for 30 years and I've never seen anything like this," Mr. Berlanga said.

The mass flooding was reminiscent of tropical storm Allison, a 2001 storm that hung over Houston and dropped as much as 40 inches of rain in areas, killing more than 20 people in the region, destroying over 2,700 homes and causing billions of dollars in damage.

It was the latest blow dealt by Harvey, which hit the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane near Corpus Christi on Friday, killing at least one person in the coastal town of Rockport before losing power and becoming a tropical storm on Saturday.

Authorities warned that the situation could worsen Sunday as the storm continued to drop large amounts of rain on a soaked Houston. Many of the most flooded areas are near the city's bayous and creeks, which are meant to act as a bulwark against flooding.

Yet as has occurred two other times in recent years, including during the Memorial Day holiday in 2015, they failed to withstand the onslaught from a tremendous downpour.

The impending danger from continued rainfall will be made worse by several factors that have contributed to major flooding events in recent years in the city. While excessive rainfall has been a primary trigger, some of the challenge, as with flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, is of the man-made variety.

The city has experienced massive growth -- adding an average of more than 30,000 people a year since 2010 -- which has brought about a building boom. That boom has covered previous flood-absorbing land with concrete for apartment buildings and other developments.

Flood protections have also failed to keep pace with the construction. The city's regulations aren't in line with the kinds of storms it has seen of late, according to experts such as Samuel Brody, director of Texas A&M University's Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities in Galveston.

As flash flooding began to cause street flooding Saturday and Sunday morning, and some people started fleeing to their attics, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo warned them not to do so unless they were equipped with axes, because they might otherwise find themselves trapped if waters rise further.

"Unfortunately, we have more days of rain to come," he said in a video posted on Twitter after firefighters and police had rescued people in a flooded apartment complex North of the city. "It's sad. It breaks your heart for our city."

The National Hurricane Center said the storm could linger around the city through as late as Thursday, suggesting that danger from flooding in Houston and in many areas of Texas could intensify.

The catastrophic rainfall came only a day after Harvey battered Texas' southern coastline, after making landfall with wind speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour. It was the most powerful storm to hit Texas in more than 50 years.

Harvey has led to the shutdown of refineries that account for roughly 8% of nation's fuel-making capacity, including a major Exxon facility in the Houston area on Sunday and refineries near Corpus Christi, hit by the hurricane overnight Friday. That is compounding concerns about fuel shortages in the coming days and weeks as rains continue. The Texas coast is home to nearly 30% of U.S. refining capacity and Houston-area plants account for roughly half of that.

Dan Frosch, Erin Ailworth, Christopher M. Matthews and Russell Gold contributed to this article

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com and Miguel Bustillo at miguel.bustillo@wsj.com
 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 27, 2017 15:23 ET (19:23 GMT)

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