The fate of thousand of trapped Texans lay in the hands of an increasingly desperate rescue operation today as Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath refused to let up.
On the 12th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest natural disasters to strike the United States, southern Texas and parts of Louisiana faced a chillingly similar crisis, with the city of Houston under water and hundreds of communities around the region inundated by floods.
“This is Katrina all over again, maybe just without as many deaths,” said Ryan Croft, standing beside a raging flooded creek on Houston’s northern edge, where nearby trees and road signs were submerged.
Water was pouring from swollen creeks beside the I-45 highway and deluging the traffic lanes. From all directions, volunteers towing boats converged on the area, trying to find a way in to lend help.
Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast last Friday night but its soaking aftermath has refused to dissipate, alternately moving out into the Gulf of Mexico and back over land three times and delivering record rainfall that has left much of Houston under water along with increasing numbers of surrounding neighbourhoods.
Kevin Rieathbaum drove from Arkansas to link up with the Cajun Navy, a rapidly expanding volunteer force attempting to reach those still stranded. Many had heeded advice to shelter in place when the storm first hit, only to be forced from their homes now by torrents of water or by lack of food and water.
“It’s desperate in there man,” said Mr Rieathbaum, who was visiting Houston on Friday on a work assignment as the storm approached. He said he felt compelled to return today to help save lives.
He added: “It’s crazy. The fate of so many of these people is in our hands. The authorities are doing what they can but they can’t do it alone.”
Art Acevedo, the chief of the Houston police department, tweeted earlier today that his rescue crews had taken 3,400 people to safety. “They will not stop until this threat ends. Stay strong Houston!” he wrote.
President Donald Trump and his wife Melania, the First Lady, were on their way to Corpus Christi, Texas, today to thank first responders but were not visiting the hardest hit areas, where life-saving rescue operations were continuing.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross reported that 17,000 people were in shelters across Texas, and that the convention centre in Houston, where 9,000 sought refuge, had run out of temporary beds.
Authorities said the death toll from Harvey had risen to nine, and authorities in Brazoria County, south of Houston, issued an urgent “get out” alert to residents mid-morningtoday [TUES] after the Columbia Lakes levee wall was breached by rising floodwaters.
Overnight rescues also took place in Louisiana as Harvey’s rainy wrath spread east, with at least 500 plucked to safety by helicopters and boat crews.
The deluge has been so unprecedented that the National Weather Service has had to add two new colours to the charts that it uses to illustrate rain levels.
It previously used a 13-colour scale to indicate the intensity of rainfall recorded in a 24-hour period, area by area. Dark purple represented the top level – 15 inches – a record never broken previously. Now the NWC has added two paler hues of purple to highlight areas that exceeded 30 inches in a day.
In Cleveland, cowboys rode out to flooded rural properties to rescue livestock for others. In Baytown, fleets of boats shuttled workers from the Chevron oil refinery to dry land. Around two million barrels a day of oil have been lost a day due to refinery closures since the storm hit.
In Houston, the mayor, Sylvester Turner, tried to assuage concerns that some residents may be refusing to leave their homes because they are undocumented immigrants who fear arrest under President Donald Trump’s crackdown on so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ that harbor them.
“If you are in a stressful situation I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what your status is. I don’t want you to run the risk of putting yourself and your family in danger…It’s as simple as that. Non-negotiable,” he said.
The recovery from Hurricane Harvey would be long and challenging, he said. “We’re not taking about a few days. We’re frankly not talking about a few weeks. We’re talking about months,” he added.
Butch Wetz left his home in Wharton to attend a family wedding on Friday but never went home again because his community has been blocked by flods. The same goes for 29 other family members. They now take up the entire fifth floor of a hotel in Conroe.
“There’s that anxiety, that ‘what am I going to find when I get back’ feeling,” he said/
Daniel Uribe’s family group is even bigger, totalling around 50, including his two foster children. The 55-year-old father of five, who works for a gas company, lived in a mobile home in Freeport, but does not now if it even exists any more. “I don’t know what I’m going back to, but I do know it won’t be nice” he said.
“We’ll just go back, pick up the pieces, and start again. Back to robbing Peter to pay Paul and struggling to make ends meet – only now, probably even more so. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance when that storm came – I needed to get out for those kids, keep them safe. Even if I’ve got nothing else left, I’ve got them.”