HOUSTON/LAKE CHARLES: Tropical Storm Harvey bore down on eastern Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday, bringing the catastrophic downpours that paralysed the US energy hub of Houston, where record rainfall drove tens of thousands of people from their homes. The storm that first came ashore on Friday near Corpus Christi, Texas, as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years has killed at least 17 people and forced 30,000 people to flee to emergency shelters.
Damage has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars, making it one of the costliest US natural disasters.
Clear skies in Houston on Wednesday brought relief to the fourth-largest US city after five days of downpours, as Harvey headed northeast, drenching cities including Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Some Houston residents began to leave emergency shelters, apprehensive about discovering what remained of the flooded homes they had fled.
Handyman Mike Dickerson, 52, carried a grocery bag of his possessions through the city’s streets as he tried to figure out how to make it back to his home, which was waist-deep in water the last time he saw it.
“A lot of people are going back now because everything looks dry around here. But people who lost everything have nowhere to go and are still at the convention centre” Dickerson said. “They are just telling everyone to call FEMA, tell them about the damage. They put a number up.”
As Harvey churned out of the Houston area, it made landfall for a third time early on Wednesday, and was about 40 km west of Lake Charles, Louisiana, at 8 am EDT (1300 GMT) with winds up to 75 kmph. It was expected to bring an additional 3 to 6 inches of rain to an area about 80 miles east of Houston as well as southwestern Louisiana, where some areas have already had more than 18 inches of rain.
The Beaumont-Port Arthur area east of Houston received “an incredible amount of rain overnight,” said David Roth, meteorologist at the US Weather Prediction Centre.
He said the observation point at the regional airport showed the rain total over the past 24 hours that “appears to exceed anything reported around Houston within 24 hours during Harvey’s passage.”
Traffic on emergency dispatch radios used by rescuers described people climbing atop their cars and houses in Port Arthur, while photos shared on social media showed floodwaters covering the floor of a city shelter. City officials asked anyone near by with boats to help join the rescue effort.
Harvey is projected to weaken as it moves inland to the northeast, the National Hurricane Centre said.
It may take days for Houston’s flood waters, which have spilled over dams and pushed levees to their limits, to recede, local officials said.
As of Wednesday morning, Texas officials said close to 49,000 homes had suffered flood damage, with more than 1,000 destroyed. Some 195,000 people have begun the process of seeking federal help, FEMA said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner imposed a curfew from 12 am to 5 am amid reports of looting, armed robberies and people impersonating police officers.
Texas is investigating hundreds of complaints of price gouging involving loaves of bread offered for $15, fuel for $100 a gallon and hotels raising room rates, the state’s attorney general said on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump visited Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday to survey damage from the first major natural disaster to test his crisis leadership and discuss the response with state officials.
Moody’s Analytics is estimating the economic cost from Harvey for southeast Texas at $51 billion to $75 billion.
The nation’s largest refinery, Valero Energy Corp’s 335,000 barrel-per-day facility in Port Arthur was shut, said sources familiar with plant operations.
The unprecedented flooding has left scores of neighbourhoods in chest-deep water and badly strained the dams and drainage systems that protect the low-lying Houston metropolitan area, which is home to more than 6 million people and has an economy about as large as Argentina’s.
Harvey has drawn comparisons with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans 12 years ago, killing more than 1,800 people and causing an estimated $108 billion in damage.