Harvey flooding in Texas batters chemical plant, transforms a city into an island – Washington Post
BEAUMONT, Tex. — A week after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas as a Category 4 monster, millions of people across the Gulf Coast struggled Friday with the unfathomable misery left behind as scores were left without drinking water, forced from homes or trapped in cities transformed into islands.
Federal officials kept up a tense watch at a storm-ravaged chemical plant east of Houston, waiting to see whether more of its volatile stores could ignite following fires a day earlier. New reports Friday morning suggested additional blasts at the plant.
First responders throughout Texas continued the grueling work of searching home after home, while state authorities warned that numerous rivers and basins, swollen after Harvey’s rainfall, continue to pose risks of “life-threatening” flooding. As of Friday morning, officials across Texas had recorded at least 45 deaths confirmed or suspected of being stormed related, a tally that may grow as recovery efforts continue.
“This is going to be a massive, massive cleanup process,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Friday morning on “Good Morning America.” “This is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multi-year project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe.”
In the city of Beaumont, about 100 miles east of Houston, residents and officials faced crises on multiple fronts. The city lost its drinking water supply due to Harvey’s flooding. First the main pump station was knocked out, then a secondary source. And it was not clear when the water would turn back on.
“We will have to wait until the water levels from this historical flood recede before we can determine the extent of damage and make any needed repairs,” the city said in a statement early Thursday. “There is no way to determine how long this will take at this time.”
Officials in Beaumont were still scrambling Friday morning to figure out a way to restore the city’s access to water, as the community entered their second day with no way to drink, flush their toilets or even bathe after wading into murky flood waters in search of safety or to rescue others.
On Friday morning, the city police department had launched a water distribution point near the city center, not far from the still rising and fast-moving Neches River. Each vehicle to visit the distribution point “will receive bottled water,” the police department said in a statement on its Facebook page. “The water will be distributed until just before dark OR until supplies are diminished. If more supplies arrive to the city, we hope to set up additional Points of Distribution (P.O.Ds).”
Carol Riley, a spokeswoman for the Beaumont police department, said that “private industry and different entities that have been working with our city workers,” in an effort to restore the city’s pumps, which have been inundated by the floodwaters, halting the city’s ability to draw water from the Neches into its treatment facilities. Riley said she heard that a National Guard unit had left Baton Rouge and was en route to Beaumont Friday with more water and pumping supplies, but that so far most of the help had come from private industry in Beaumont.
Beaumont had issued a voluntary evacuation order for its 118,000 residents. But for many of those still in the city, there was no way out. The rain had turned it into an island in a sea of murky water. Police said some people tried to leave anyway, only to discover that this was impossible and turn back, driving the wrong way on Highway 90.
“When you take water out of the picture, people start to panic a bit,” said Halley Morrow, a police spokeswoman.
Water rescues in the Beaumont area continued Friday, although the number of requests had subsided somewhat since Thursday, Morrow said.
“The amount has come down, but we are still getting calls,” Morrow said. “The areas of our city that are close to the main waterways like Neches, the village creek, some bayous, are not receding.”
At Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas on College Street, a parking lot became a helipad on Thursday for a stream of medical helicopters. Spokeswoman Mary Poole said the hospital was in the process of transferring patients to other local facilities after the city’s loss of water.
“That’s a game changer for us,” she said. “We have medical supplies, we had food, we had staff. But we never dreamed we would lose water supply.”
About 20 miles south of Beaumont, the city of Port Arthur, Tex., saw no respite even as the sun came out and the immediate threat of rain was over. Much of the city near the Louisiana border remained underwater as Harvey’s rainfall continued lapping at the massive oil refineries and natural gas facilities that ring it. And water still covered many of the highways connecting this Gulf Coast community with the wider world.
Sgt. Lam Nguyen of the Port Arthur police estimated that 75 percent of residents there lost their homes — including him. He and nine members of his extended family had to be rescued as floodwaters rushed in late Tuesday and early Wednesday, and Nguyen worried about what was to come.
“We’re running low on water and on food,” said Nguyen, who was wearing a red polo shirt instead of his usual police uniform, which was lost in the floods. “Our shelters are filling up. We are getting them food, for now, but we are running out of food. We’re doing all we can now.”
Nguyen stood in a parking lot outside a Walmart that had been turned into an operations command center for local police and Natural Guard troops. He was in charge. The Walmart was still open, but there was line of more than 100 people waiting patiently with carts to get in before the shelves were stripped bare.
“We are in trouble,” Nguyen said.
More than 32,000 people were in shelters across Texas, state officials reported Friday. In some cases, the storm was chasing people from shelter to shelter. The Jasper County judge said that about 350 people were being housed at Buna High School, which opened Wednesday as a makeshift shelter for people from other counties — mainly Orange County, after its own shelters became flooded. It’s safe, but as of Thursday night, they had no power at the school.
In Crosby, Tex., northeast of Houston, wary eyes remained on an evacuated Arkema chemical plant that housed nearly 20 tons of organic peroxides. Early Thursday morning, loud pops signaled a blast in one of the refrigerated trucks housing the chemicals.
Authorities initially reported explosions, then pulled back from that description; they also initially described a danger from the resulting smoke, then said later they did not believe it to be toxic. Police had reported a series of pops and “intermittent smoke” coming from the compound. It was unclear whether that was the worst of it, or just the start.
“We didn’t anticipate having six feet of water in our plant,” Richard Rennard, president of Arkema’s acrylic monomers division, told reporters on Thursday.
Still, the remaining trucks are expected to burn, and the French company operating the plant has warned that explosions are possible. The Houston Chronicle reported Friday that more “pops” were heard late Thursday night.
The loss of control of dangerous materials, coupled with the ignition of these chemicals, have spread anxiety beyond the area around the plant, which has been evacuated.
The Environmental Protection Agency dispatched aircraft to soar above and test the smoke for potentially toxic chemical releases, while other officials responded to the scene. Several Harris County Sheriff’s deputies were taken to the hospital after the initial chemical ignition as a precaution, officials said.
The soggy remains of Harvey, meanwhile, spilled farther to the northeast — still carrying fearsome rain a week after surging ashore in Texas. Flash-flood warnings were posted for mountainous central Kentucky, and nearly all the state and neighboring Tennessee were advised by the National Weather Service to be on the watch for possible flooding.
President Trump tweeted that “Texas is healing fast” due to the response from people there, and repeated that he would visit the state again Saturday, his second trip there this week.
As the storm tumbled northward, so did the scramble to get out of its way.
In Nashville, more than 50 people were evacuated from flood-swamped streets. In northwest Alabama, residents were on watch for possible tornadoes after high winds damaged several homes near Reform.
Before dawn Friday, the core of Harvey’s storm clouds was located about 40 miles southwest of Nashville and was not expected to dissipate until late Saturday over Ohio, the National Hurricane Center reported.
There was little need for authorities elsewhere to stress the risks posed by what is left of Harvey — now a tropical depression. The world had watched the storm swallow the Houston area day after day, inundating it with seemingly endless flooding.
Most of the confirmed deaths linked to the storm occurred in Harris County, home to Houston. The National Weather Service reported that Houston’s total rainfall in August — just over 39 inches — was more than double its previous record for rainfall in a single month.
People carry supplies through floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Tex., on Thursday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Jeff Lindner with the Harris County Flood Control District put it into staggering perspective: At the height of the flooding, 70 percent of the county’s 1,800 square miles were covered with at least 1.5 feet of water. That is an area larger than all of Rhode Island. An estimate released by the National Weather Service said that more than 28,000 square miles were covered in at least 20 inches of rain.
Next comes the reckoning. People now have begun to return to their homes to get a first, sobering view of what was lost and what can be saved.
Authorities were still trying to tally the number of homes damaged or destroyed in the disaster. Texas localities had reported that as of late Thursday, more than 185,000 homes had suffered damage due to Harvey, including more than 9,000 that were destroyed, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety report.
But that figure is a preliminary estimate and does not include figures from heavily populated Houston, which suffered intense flooding. The real number is likely to be far higher once authorities are able to assess areas that are currently unreachable.
On Thursday, thousands of people — the luckier ones — went back to homes that were waterlogged but salvageable.
“We raised up everything,” said Susan Rath, who had returned to a home in south Houston where she and her husband, Jim, had tried to place valuables higher before evacuating. The water got higher still. They returned to sodden drywall, destroyed furniture and a closet full of blouses soaked up to the elbow.
“It didn’t matter,” she said.
The Raths had just rebuilt this house, after it was destroyed in a 2015 flood. Now, they will have to decide whether to rebuild again.
“The main thing is: This is just stuff,” Jim Rath said. “And the more stuff you have, the more you’re controlled by it.”
There were early indications that yet another tropical storm may form in the western Gulf of Mexico next week. On Friday, the National Hurricane Center described it as a tropical wave that had the potential to strengthen as it drew moisture from the Gulf.
“If this system does develop, it could bring additional rainfall to portions of the Texas and Louisiana coasts,” the National Hurricane Center said.
Frankel reported from Port Arthur, Tex., and Berman reported from Washington. Lee Powell in Port Arthur, Tex.; Jorge Ribas in Beaumont, Tex.: Arelis R. Hernandez and Avi Selk in Houston; Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin; and Brian Murphy, Wesley Lowery, Lindsey Bever, Steven Mufson, David Fahrenthold and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.
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