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Texans face further deluge as Harvey batters US

Texans face further deluge as Harvey batters US

August 30
00:23 2017

Texas residents faced more flooding triggered by tropical storm Harvey as water levels surged in reservoirs in west Houston and a levee south of the city was breached, compounding the human and physical cost of one of the worst US disasters for decades.

Harvey, which started as a hurricane and developed into a tropical storm, is expected to dump yet more rain on eastern Texas and western Louisiana, having already set a mainland US record for a tropical cyclone by releasing almost 52 inches of rainfall in one area.

Residents were urged on social media to flee by authorities in Brazoria County, south of Houston, after a levee was breached, while authorities reported that water was spilling over at the Addicks Reservoir, in the west of the city. 

With search and rescue efforts continuing, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump flew to Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday to visit a state battered by an epochal storm that has submerged large parts of the country’s fourth-largest city and forced thousands to seek emergency shelter. Officials expect more than 450,000 people to seek federal aid. 

Major General James Witham, National Guard Bureau Director for Domestic Operations, told a Pentagon briefing that “life-saving and life-sustaining efforts” would be under way for days or weeks. Art Acevedo, police chief of Houston, said 3,500 people had been rescued so far, with federal authorities predicting tens of thousands would be driven into shelters. 

“It’s going to be a costly proposition,” Mr Trump told a group of disaster responders in Austin: “Probably there has never been anything so expensive in our country’s history, there’s never been anything so historic in terms of damage and in terms of ferocity as what we’ve witnessed with Harvey.”

The events could cost between $45bn and $65bn in property damage and temporarily lost economic output, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics. That would put the episode among the five worst disasters going back to the 1980s, ranking it behind events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Super Storm Sandy in 2012. 

“There are people in absolutely dire situations,” said Chris Beavers, a political strategist based in Hudson Forest, in the west of Houston. “It is complete and total loss of everything and nowhere to go.” 

Mr Beavers said he participated in rescue efforts in his area using a flat-bottomed airboat on Sunday, helping extract 50 people from their homes — some from second-floor balconies. Two-thirds of the houses in his area, which is near the Buffalo Bayou, the main river that flows through Houston, were flooded, said Mr Beavers, who is sheltering at a friend’s house. His own home is not flooded but is without power. 

The events present the first test of Mr Trump’s responsiveness to a big natural disaster. Such crises have proven perilous for previous presidents: George W Bush was lambasted over his response to Hurricane Katrina, when he lavished praise on Michal Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director at the time, for doing a “heckuva job” before the full devastation became apparent.

Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, said he wanted the president to “see and understand the enormous challenges Texas faces, and the need for the aid he is providing”. He added that the president was a “champion” of the state. 

Sitting beside Mr Abbott, Mr Trump praised the response to the storm, saying: “We want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years and 10 years from now as the way to do it.”

He cautioned against complacency, saying: “We won’t say congratulations, we don’t want to do that . . . We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”

Before travelling to Texas the president said the federal government would rise to the challenge, predicting Congress would pass billions of dollars of aid. He said on Monday that the event was a “terrible tragedy” and Texas faced a long road to recovery. 

He denied the work would be affected either by his proposed cuts to the Fema budget or his threats to shut down the government over disputed border-wall funding. The need to find funding for Texas comes as the US Congress already faces a procession of legislative challenges in September, including the need to lift the ceiling on the national debt. 

National guardsmen rescue a pensioner at Westlake after floods struck her neighbourhood © Getty

Maj-Gen Witham told reporters on Tuesday that most response efforts usually last no more than 72 to 96 hours, but in Harvey’s case it would be a sustained period that could last for “a period of days if not weeks before we’re into recovery mode”. 

He said 20,000-30,000 additional soldiers and airmen were on standby should Texas ask for them, and could be brought in for engineering, rotary-wing aircraft and other assistance. “Texas is planning for a phased approach [as people] get tired and burnt out,” he said, adding “the entire weight” of the US Department of Defense was available for the response. 

“Our response has been different to anything we’ve seen before,” Maj-Gen Witham said, because of Harvey’s dumping of historic amounts of rainfall. 

Impassable routes meant many areas were still beyond reach to both military and civilian first-responders, he said. “We are confident that more forces will be requested,” he said. “As far as I’m aware to date Texas has been given everything they’ve asked for.” 

Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston, said the city would be opening further shelters to cope not only with Houston residents displaced by the storm but people coming from elsewhere in the region. “We are opening the doors and shelters to get people out of inclement conditions but we expect everyone to be orderly and well behaved,” he said. 

Mr Acevedo said at a briefing that some looting and robberies had occurred in Houston overnight. He described the behaviour as “despicable”.

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