At least eight people have died and tens of thousands more remain stranded as floodwaters continue to rise in Houston, with officials admitting that they have been overwhelmed by Hurricane Harvey’s 11 trillion-gallon downpour.
Army engineers, concerned that two big dams might fail, opened the floodgates to relieve the pressure, potentially sacrificing thousands of homes to save the city’s business district. The entire Texas Army National Guard, totalling 12,000 personnel, was mobilised.
“The word catastrophic does not describe what we’re facing. We just don’t know when it’s going to end,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, one of Houston’s congressional representatives.
Six members of one family were feared dead last night after their van was swept away by the floodwaters. The driver of the vehicle, the children’s great-uncle, reportedly escaped before the van was submerged and grabbed on to a tree limb as the van sunk. He told the children inside to try to escape through the back door but they were unable to get out.
Around Texas 13 million people were put under flood watches or warnings, with many communities hemmed in by overflowing rivers and bayous. Houston’s main thoroughfares were mostly impassable and escape routes out of the city were beginning to flood. Residents drove from one petrol station to the next, desperate to fill up their vehicles before trying to find a way out of the city.
“We’re just praying at this point,” said Judy Pevehouse, 56, as floodwater washed up the road towards her neighbourhood of Cypresswood, in northeast Houston, blocking the route and submerging the woodland on both sides.
“I live about five streets that way,” she said, pointing behind her. “My daughter lives in Dallas and she’s calling me saying ‘please leave’. It’s scary because the water’s supposed to keep rising. How much longer can it go? How much deeper? Can I even get out of here? I think the roads are probably all blocked by now.”
The ferocious 130mph winds of Hurricane Harvey, which came ashore over the fishing community of Rockport, Texas, on Friday night, have dropped off but the remnants of the tropical storm stalled over the region for much of the weekend and yesterday, dumping record levels of rainfall. It will continue until at least Friday, also spreading into neighbouring Louisiana. The National Hurricane Centre said that Harvey was drifting erratically back towards the Gulf Coast and could hit Texas a second time later this week.
About 50 Texas counties have declared a state of emergency. “When the sun comes up, get out,” Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist for the Harris county flood control district, told residents on Sunday night.
In the George R Brown Convention Centre, Houston, 2,600 people were given shelter. US coastguard helicopters airlifted residents in remote communities from their roofs while boats were sent to cut-off neighbourhoods and rural areas from which residents had no way out.
Volunteer rescuers travelled from all across the US to help. Jason Abney took a day off from his job as a physiotherapist in Dallas to drive his pick-up truck 280 miles to Houston, towing his 12ft airboat behind him. “They were saying people with boats could be of use and I just didn’t feel right staying at home doing nothing,” he said, standing in the water with his dog, Jackson.
“The problem is all the roads are blocked and I can’t get where I’m needed the most, because I don’t know where that is. It’s kind of chaos. On Facebook there was a single mother with three kids in need of help and this was my chance of getting to them but I went as far as I could down the road in my little boat. I wasn’t going to make it. I could feel the current pick up around me. I’m just really sad I couldn’t do more.”
One family who stayed in their Texas home called a radio station saying they were catching fish that were swimming around their living room. Photographs emerged from a care home of elderly residents still sitting in their wheelchairs and armchairs as the water swirled chest-high around them. All were rescued.
Outside Houston a television reporter was filmed by her crew hailing help for a man trapped in the cab of a waterlogged lorry. Minutes later an airboat arrived, the driver was rescued and he was able to describe the ordeal in an interview to the same reporter.
Rockport, a community of about 10,000 people, was a ghost town after the authorities ordered everybody to leave on buses owing to the lack of power, fresh water and sewage disposal facilities. Much of the town is in ruins.
More than 2,000 Houston residents have been rescued by emergency crews but officials said that hundreds more remained in peril. Art Acevedo, the police chief, said that there were 185 “critical rescue requests” pending and that boat crews went out at first light.
He said that four people had been arrested for looting. “After these events, folks move in to loot and create problems. One thing you can be sure, if you try to take advantage of our citizens who have been victimised enough by Mother Nature, you’ll be arrested.”
Sylvester Turner, the Houston mayor, said: “Our major focus for the day is getting people out of their homes or whatever their stressful situation may be.”
He said that by yesterday morning there were 5,500 people in shelters around the city operated by the Red Cross and businesses. “I suspect by the end of the day that number is going to rise exponentially,” he said. “Some people are just needing to come in from their homes for the night and get back to their homes or other places with their relatives. We’re working to make sure we have the supplies, the food. People are needing clothing.
Officials were preparing last night to evacuate one of the country’s busiest trauma centres as flooding threatened the hospital’s supply of medicine and food. A spokesman at Houston’s Office of Emergency Management said that all 350 patients at Ben Taub Hospital would be moved, hopefully within a day. Floodwater and sewage got into the basement and affected pharmacy, food service and other key operations. Patients will be sent to other hospitals.