Hurricane Harvey lashes Texas

People view the flooded highways in Houston as the city battles with tropical storm Harvey and resulting floods. Photograph: Thomas B. Shea/AFP/Getty Images
People view the flooded highways in Houston as the city battles with tropical storm Harvey and resulting floods. Photograph: Thomas B. Shea/AFP/Getty Images
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Harvey lashes Texas and Louisiana as officials warn 30,000 people will need shelter” was written by Tom Dart in Houston, Rory Carroll in Conroe, Texas and Ed Pilkington in New York, for The Guardian on Monday 28th August 2017 21.39 UTC

The full scale of the disaster unfolding in Houston and across large parts of Texas and Louisiana was emerging on Monday, as authorities warned that 30,000 people would be forced to seek shelter from an epic deluge of historic proportions.

The official death toll from the catastrophe now stands at eight, though the figure could rise substantially as flooded neighborhoods are cleared. KHOU reported that six of the dead were believed to have come from a single family, after an elderly couple and their four great-grandchildren aged six to 16 were trapped inside a white van that was engulfed in the flood waters.

Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief, told reporters that 2,000 people had been rescued from flooding in the city, with 185 distress calls still waiting for help. The goal was to rescue those people by the end of the day, he said.

Even as Houston was grappling with catastrophe, with 5,500 people already in city shelters and their ranks rising steadily along with the water levels, concern began to switch to a neighbouring territory. Donald Trump issued a federal state of emergency for Louisiana, as fears of destructive flooding grew in the south-west of the state.

At a White House press conference on Monday afternoon, Trump said that though the road to recovery would be long, “we will get through this, we will come out stronger. We will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before. The rebuilding will begin, and in the end, it will be something very special.”

The president praised the authorities in Texas and predicted the state would be “up and running very quickly”. He said: “Tragic times such as these bring out the best in America’s character – strength, charity and resilience … We are one American family. We hurt together, we struggle together and believe me, we endure together.”

The combination of a tropical storm dumping more rain than any previous event on record and its location over Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city and one particularly vulnerable to flooding, left rescue services overwhelmed. By Monday morning more than 30in of rain had fallen in parts of the city, while the region overall had been pummelled by up to 9tn gallons – as much in two days as it normally receives in a year.

The flooding left millions of Texans stranded in their homes and sent thousands on to rooftops, with rescue efforts still under way by helicopter, boat and improvised raft on Monday. With entire multi-lane freeways submerged, people took to kayaks and blow-up floats or swam to reach safety.

“There’s water everywhere. Please help. I’m scared,” one resident of downtown Houston, Aisha Nelson, told ABC News from atop her two-storey building.

Dawn broke on Monday with the city heaving a sigh of relief amid a pause in the punishing rain. But the lull was all too brief – by late morning heavy downfall had started up again, and emergency services cautioned that the peak of the flooding might not be reached until Thursday.

“We are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot,” said Elaine Duke, the acting US homeland security secretary.

With up to 20in of predicted rain yet to fall, the total deluge could reach up to 50in within five days, breaking all records in Texas. Such quantities had officials reaching for hyperbole: Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), called the disaster a “landmark” while Robert Herbert, a judge in Fort Bend, said the flood was an “800-year event”.

Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, described Hurricane Harvey as “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced”.

The Brazos river that runs through Fort Bend could reach 59ft by Thursday, 4ft above the previous record set last year, forcing thousands more locals to flee under mandatory evacuation order. Further misery was added to the picture by the conscious design of the US army corps of engineers, which began releasing water from two major reservoirs, Addicks and Barker, into the Buffalo bayou that runs through Houston.

‘There’s water up to your shoulder’: Harvey hurls record rainfall

The controlled release was certain to flood thousands more homes in surrounding communities, but it was deemed necessary to prevent dams and levees being destroyed with far more severe consequences.

Amid all the visible signs of distress, one overriding element remained unknown: the death toll. Unofficial tallies put the number of dead at six, but that figure could rise substantially as a long and arduous clean-up begins.

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall late on Friday it was the most powerful hurricane to strike the US in 13 years. It morphed into a tropical storm and lingered over Houston, bombarding the city with vast quantities of rain.

The local newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, summed up the human tragedy with a list of numbers: 18 US coast guard helicopters used for rooftop rescues; 56,000 calls to 911 just in the first 15 hours; 2,500 evacuees being accommodated at the city’s George R Brown convention center, in a grim echo of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans exactly 12 years ago. The center can hold 5,000 people; on Monday a Red Cross organiser said it had temporarily run out of cots.

Images on social media conveyed the agony; above all, a photograph of a group of six older people and their cat sitting in the communal room of La Vita Bella assisted-living home in Dickinson, green-grey water lapping at their waists. All the residents were rescued by national guard troops. On Monday the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, activated all 12,000 such troops in the state.

Amid extreme hardship there were flashes of bizarre levity. A woman in Missouri County filmed two alligators popping their heads up above the flood waters in her backyard.

The 24-hour news was also interrupted by moments of exceptional drama. A TV reporter and photographer for the local station KHOU took time out from broadcasting to rescue a truck driver trapped in his vehicle by 10ft of rising water.

‘Absolutely no regrets’: Houston mayor defiant over not calling evacuation

Aisha Nelson’s interview with ABC News, transmitted from her cellphone from a rooftop in downtown Houston, captured the terror of the moment. She explained that she and about 30 neighbours were caught on top of a two-storey building, having broken a window to get out of her apartment that was rapidly flooding.

“There’s water everywhere,” she said, swinging her phone to reveal the street below entirely flooded. “I have nothing but the clothes on my back. We’ve been calling [emergency services] but they say they can’t help. The water is moving fast and it’s coming up real, real fast.”

Nelson added that she had moved to Houston from Louisiana after 2005, having been caught up in the disaster of Katrina.

In the immediate aftermath, the political toll was already being felt both at local and national level. In Houston, Sylvester Turner, the city’s mayor, was facing questions about why he chose not to order an evacuation of the city’s 2.3 million residents in advance of Harvey, telling them to stay at home.

Turner said an evacuation of so many people in so concentrated an urban area would merely have compounded the crisis. “If you think the situation right now is bad, and you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare,” he said.

The political ripples from Harvey were also starting to reach the White House, where Donald Trump was facing the biggest challenge to his young presidency from a disaster not of his own making.

Trump was scheduled to visit Texas on Tuesday, flying with his wife, Melania, into Corpus Christi where the hurricane landed. He is expected to avoid the Houston area given its ongoing disaster status. At the White House press conference, the president indicated he would make a second visit to the region on Saturday.

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Myrddin Gwynedd

Myrddin Gwynedd

Journalism Tutor at NZ Radio Training School
Myrddin Gwynedd is an award-winning writer who hails from Wales. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with his partner and an army of felines.
Myrddin Gwynedd

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