Texas is halfway through what the newly appointed FEMA director called “probably the worst disaster” in the state’s history — and flooding is expected to worsen before Hurricane Harvey loosens its deadly grip.
About 30 inches of rain have fallen since the Category 4 hurricane hit land late Friday night, and experts predict another 20 inches across Texas, adding to the “catastrophic flooding,” as Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, described it. The storm, which was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday, will likely peak on Wednesday or Thursday, although in the worst-case scenario Harvey could pick up more power on the coast before returning to land.
Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city with 6.5 million people, has weathered the worst of Harvey’s beating. The city’s streets have turned into free-flowing rivers, fully submerging cars, leveling businesses and homes, and stranding thousands of people while reportedly killing at least five others.
Emergency services are already stretched to their breaking point. But up to 30,000 people will still need shelter, according to FEMA director Brock Long.
The human toll
Officials have been slow to comment on the number of fatalities, since the final toll won’t be known until Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters recede. While five deaths have been reported, only two have been confirmed. There has also been a number of unconfirmed reports of people dying while trying to escape the flooding.
Police recovered the body of a homeless man from a Walmart parking lot on Sunday; Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted Sunday that a woman and child were found dead inside a submerged vehicle; Houston officials confirmed a woman died when trying to escape from her submerged vehicle; and in Rockport Saturday, one person died in a fire caused by the storm.
Thousands of people have already been evacuated, and new mandatory orders were issued on Monday for several areas across Texas. Residents of Fort Bend County, southwest of downtown Houston, were ordered to leave their homes after the water levels in the Brazos River reached dangerous levels. The City of Conroe also called for mass evacuations of a dozen communities as authorities say flooding is imminent.
Emergency services respond
Houston’s Office of Emergency Management said it received 56,000 calls between 10 p.m. CT Saturday and 1 p.m. CT Sunday — roughly 48,000 more than they handle on an average day. Some localities don’t even have enough equipment to handle the crisis. In Harris County, for example, authorities have put a call out for as many boats as possible to aid the rescue efforts.
Authorities in Dallas, for example, have turned the city’s main convention center into a “mega-shelter” to host up to 5,000 evacuees as they struggle to cope with the high level of calls to their emergency services from people still trapped in their homes or vehicles.
Several states — including New York, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia — plus the U.S. military and federal agencies have sent emergency workers and equipment to Texas. Federal agencies have more than 5,000 employees working in Texas and Long expects FEMA “to be there for years.” The Red Cross is also serving 130,000 meals per day as part of the rescue effort.
About 3,000 national and state guard troops have already been deployed to the region, and another 1,000 National Guard members will be sent to Houston on Monday.
In a bid to protect Houston, the U.S. military released water from two major reservoirs earlier than planned, but that, in turn, could cause several thousand homes to flood. The extra water could also make matters worse in the Buffalo Bayou — one of Houston’s major waterways — which has already risen seven feet above flooding levels in the west of the city.
Across the state, more than 300,000 people don’t have electricity, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, who also declared 19 counties federal disaster areas and 50 counties state disaster areas. Several airports in Texas, including both of Houston’s main airports, have been closed. The Houston Independent School District has already announced it will not reopen schools until after Labor Day, while hospitals across the city have begun to evacuate their patients after rising floodwaters interrupted their power supplies.
Hurricane Harvey is currently heading back offshore and toward the Gulf of Mexico, where it will drift along the north Texas coast and bring even more rain to the Houston area. While Harvey could gain more power along the coast, the National Hurricane Center doesn’t expect a significant strengthening at the current time.
The National Weather Service, which on Sunday afternoon called Harvey “beyond anything experienced,” issued an advisory early Monday that the heavy rainfall would continue until the end of the week at least, and that flooding could become even more severe.
By midday Sunday, 9 trillion gallons of water had pounded the Greater Houston and Southeast Texas regions. Now, the threat of flooding also spreads east to Louisiana, where the National Hurricane Center warned that up to 25 inches of rain are expected. Tornadoes are also expected from Galveston, Texas, to New Orleans.
President Donald Trump will travel to Texas on Tuesday, despite forecasts predicting continued heavy rainfall. The White House, however, said the plans were not set in stone and could change depending on how the storm develops. Facilitating a presidential visit in the middle of an unfolding crisis would likely add a significant workload to already overstretched authorities.
In addition to praising the work of the emergency services over the weekend, Trump took the opportunity to remind people of one of his election victories. “I will also be going to a wonderful state, Missouri, that I won by a lot in ’16. Dem C.M. is opposed to big tax cuts. Republicans will win S!” the president tweeted.