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Houston tries to determine extent of ‘epic’ destruction

Crews overwhelmed by thousands of rescue calls during one of the heaviest downpours in U.S. history have had little time to search for other potential victims, but officials acknowledge the grim reality.
Crews overwhelmed by thousands of rescue calls during one of the heaviest downpours in U.S. history have had little time to search for other potential victims, but officials acknowledge the grim reality.

Five days after the pummeling began — a time when big storms have usually blown through, the sun has come out, and evacuees have returned home — Tropical Storm Harvey refused to go away, continuing to batter southeast Texas on Tuesday, spreading the destruction into Louisiana, and shattering records for rainfall and flooding.

Along 300 miles of Gulf Coast, people poured into shelters by the thousands, straining their capacity; as heavy rain kept falling, some rivers were still rising and floodwater in some areas had not crested yet; and with whole neighborhoods flooded, others were covered in water for the first time. Officials cautioned that the full-fledged rescue-and-escape phase of the crisis, usually finished by now, would continue, and that they still had no way to gauge the scale of the catastrophe — how many dead, how many survivors taking shelter inland or still hunkered down in flooded communities, and how many homes destroyed.

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For everybody, it was another head-shaking day.

Local officials in Texas said 19 deaths were believed to have been caused by the storm through Tuesday, up from eight a day earlier. The dead included a Houston police officer, Sergeant Steve Perez, 60, who was caught in flooding on Sunday while trying to report for duty. “I expect that number to be significantly higher once the roads become passable,” said Erin Barnhart, the chief medical examiner for Galveston County.

Parts of the Houston area broke the record for rainfall from a single storm anywhere in the continental United States, with a top reading on Tuesday afternoon, since the storm began, of 51.88 inches in Cedar Bayou, east of Houston, the National Weather Service reported. The previous record was 48 inches in Medina, Texas, from Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978, and with the rain still falling along the Gulf Coast, Harvey could top the 52 inches recorded in Kauai, Hawaii, in 1950 from Hurricane Hiki.

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Houston officials had at first limited the city’s main shelter, the George R. Brown Convention Center, to 5,000 evacuees, but by Tuesday morning it had swelled to more than 9,000, with more arriving by the hour, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. By the evening, evacuated residents were setting up cots in corridors because they said the main dormitories were uncomfortably crowded.

One of the people bunking at the convention center, Keimaine Percel, a mechanic, had not seen his home since it flooded, but he was trying not to think about it. “I heard it was real bad,” said Percel, 35. “I don’t know unless I get back.”

The Red Cross said that in Houston alone, 17,000 people began their day Tuesday in shelters, and the numbers were rising there and in inland cities that had taken evacuees such as Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. Turner said Houston would create new shelters, Dallas opened its convention center on Tuesday as a shelter for 5,000 people, and Fort Worth said it would open shelters, as well.

‘‘We are not turning anyone away. But it does mean we need to expand our capabilities and our capacity,’’ Mayor Turner said. ‘‘Relief is coming.’’

In the Kingwood neighborhood of Houston, people waved towels from apartment windows and yelled “we’re here” and “family of three needs help,” hoping to draw one of the volunteers piloting fishing boats, inflatable rafts, and kayaks. Seeming shellshocked, evacuees climbed into boats clutching plastic bags of clothes, cat carriers, and children. Kyle Hawthorne of Baton Rouge, at the helm of his fishing boat, said he and his friends had pulled three people from a tree, and transported a 6-year-old separated from his parents.

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Bennie Hooper, 20, and his dog sat on a curb, both shivering, as he searched for a sign of his husband, Cody Cress-Likes, who was left behind in their apartment by the boat that rescued Hooper. “I’m waiting for him,” he said.

Dan Diaz, 84, was rescued from his girlfriend’s house, which normally sits 30 feet above Buffalo Bayou in Houston. On Tuesday morning, water was approaching the front door, and on the other side of the house, Memorial Drive was a raging river.

“I used to worry about fire,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Houston Police chief confirmed that police Sgt. Steve Perez has died after he became trapped in his patrol car as he was driving to work.
Houston Police chief confirmed that police Sgt. Steve Perez has died after he became trapped in his patrol car as he was driving to work.

Two flood control basins on the western edge of Houston, Addicks and Barker reservoirs, reached their capacity on Tuesday, and spilled into adjoining neighborhoods that had not previously been under water, flooding more than 3,000 homes. Water also began pouring over Addicks Reservoir’s emergency spillway, a flow that will increase to 4,500 cubic feet per second by Thursday, flooding streets in another neighborhood, said Edmond Russo Jr., deputy district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Engineers did a controlled release of 8,000 cubic feet of water per second through the dams that hold back the reservoirs, but it was not enough to keep up with the rainfall and runoff pouring in. The reservoirs are intended to prevent flooding on the Buffalo Bayou, which runs through central Houston, but the bayou has spread far above and beyond its banks.

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The Houston police and fire departments, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, reported that they have rescued about 7,000 people since the storm began.

President Trump visited the southern edge of the storm-affected area, arriving at a Corpus Christi firehouse and then traveling to Austin for a meeting with officials involved in the disaster response.

“It’s a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before,” Trump said to state and federal officials in Corpus Christi. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it.”

The severity and scope of the emergency daunted aid efforts. Houston’s fire chief, Samuel Peña, said Tuesday that the water was so high around some fire stations that firefighters had been unable to leave for days. Federal Emergency Management Agency trucks full of supplies and provisions left from a staging area near San Antonio, but some of the hardest-hit areas remained unreachable, their roads under water, washed-out, or blocked by abandoned vehicles.

“Normally we plan response for that first 72 hours, 96 hours,” Major General James C. Witham, director of domestic operations for the federal National Guard Bureau, said at a news conference. But because of the rare intensity and duration of Harvey, “we will be doing lifesaving, life-support efforts for a much longer period,” he said, and it will be “days, if not weeks, before we’re into the recovery mode.”

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Governor Greg Abbott has mobilized Texas’s entire available National Guard force, some 12,000 people, for storm response.

Houston set a curfew to run from midnight to 5 a.m. Wednesday. Police Chief Art Acevedo said violators will be stopped, questioned, searched, and arrested.

Northeast of Houston, a heavily flooded chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, was in critical condition Tuesday night after its refrigeration system and inundated backup power generators failed, raising the possibility that the volatile chemicals on the site would explode.

Late Tuesday, the storm was centered about 30 miles east-southeast of Galveston, with sustained winds of 50 miles per hour and heading north.

The storm was projected to make a second landfall, in the region of Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., on Wednesday. The National Weather Service said late Tuesday that Harvey would hit that area with an additional 6 to 12 inches of rain and a storm surge along the coast.

The National Weather Service predicted less than an inch of rain for Houston on Wednesday and only a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms for Thursday. Friday’s forecast called for mostly sunny skies with a high near 94.

Eager to show he’s on the job and taking action, President Donald Trump offered up in-person reassurances Tuesday to Texans who felt the wrath of Harvey, promising local residents: ‘‘We are going to get you back and operating immediately.’’
Eager to show he’s on the job and taking action, President Donald Trump offered up in-person reassurances Tuesday to Texans who felt the wrath of Harvey, promising local residents: ‘‘We are going to get you back and operating immediately.’’

Material from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.