HOUSTON -- Floodwaters reached the roofs of single-story homes Monday and people could be heard pleading for help from inside as Harvey poured rain on the Houston area for a fourth consecutive day after a chaotic weekend of rising water and rescues.
The nation's fourth-largest city was still largely paralyzed by one of the largest downpours in U.S. history. And there was no relief in sight from the storm that spun into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, then parked itself over the Gulf Coast. With nearly 2 more feet of rain expected on top of the 30-plus inches in some places, authorities worried about whether the worst was yet to come.
"It has to be categorized as one of the largest disasters America has ever faced," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters.
But the precise toll of the brutal storm remained unknown -- emergency officials had no way of knowing how many people may have died but not been found, and how many others were still trapped in their homes.
As the rain kept falling, as many as 13 million people, from Houston to New Orleans, were under flood watches and warnings.
Harvey has been blamed for at least three confirmed deaths, including a woman killed Monday in the town of Porter, northeast of Houston, when a large oak dislodged by heavy rains toppled onto her mobile home.
A Houston television station reported Monday that six family members were believed to have drowned when their van was swept away by floodwaters. Virginia Saldivar said she presumes her family members, including four of her grandchildren, died after their van sank into Greens Bayou in East Houston. Saldivar said, "I'm just hoping we find the bodies."
Police Chief Art Acevedo said he had no information about the report but said that he's "really worried about how many bodies we're going to find."
The disaster unfolded on an epic scale in one of America's most sprawling metropolitan centers. The Houston metro area covers about 10,000 square miles, an area slightly bigger than New Jersey. It's crisscrossed by about 1,700 miles of channels, creeks and bayous that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles southeast of downtown.
The storm was generating an amount of rain that would normally be seen only once in more than 1,000 years, said Edmond Russo, a deputy district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was concerned that floodwater would spill around a pair of 70-year-old reservoir dams that protect downtown Houston.
The flooding was so widespread that the levels of city waterways have either equaled or surpassed those of Tropical Storm Allison from 2001, and no major highway has been spared some overflow.
Rescuers continued plucking people from the floodwaters -- at least 2,000, according to Acevedo, with many more still awaiting rescue.
The head of Houston's 911 emergency system, Joe Laud, said the average number of people on hold Monday morning hoping to speak to an operator had dropped to just 10 after hitting 250 during the height of Sunday's flooding. He said the system had handled 75,000 calls. Don't hang up, he implored residents, stay on the line.
"We are processing the calls and hopefully help will be on the way," Laud said.
"It's still a very dangerous situation out there," Houston Fire Dept. Chief Samuel Pena said Monday, noting that there had been 290 water rescues since midnight and his department also had pending calls. "We're expecting more rain. We're expecting the demand for our services is going to increase."
Monday night, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said police had rescued 1,000 people in the previous eight hours, raising the total number of people rescued to 3,052.
At a news conference, Turner also said at least 150 critical rescue requests were still pending.
A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the low-lying Houston suburb of Dickinson, home to 20,000. Police cited concern about the weather forecast and flood damage to utilities and other infrastructure.
In Fort Bend County, home to nearly 600,000 people, County Judge Robert Hebert issued mandatory evacuation orders late Sunday for more districts as the Brazos River was predicted to crest at 59 feet -- topping its all-time record of 54.7 feet.
"Fifty-nine feet represents at least an 800-year flood event, and there's no levee designed to prevent an 800-year flood," he said at a news conference.
More than 100,000 residents were under voluntary and mandatory evacuations, he said.
In Houston, questions continued to swirl about why the mayor did not issue a similar evacuation order.
Turner has defended the decision and did so again Monday, insisting that a mass evacuation of millions of people by car was a greater risk than enduring the storm.
"Both the county judge and I sat down together and decided that we were not in direct path of the storm, of the hurricane, and the safest thing to do was for people to stay put, make the necessary preparations. I have no doubt that the decision we made was the right decision."
He added, "Can you imagine if millions of people had left the city of Houston and then tried to come back in right now?"
Harvey also has raised questions about how federal, state and local agencies should prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency pre-positioned many personnel in advance of the storm, as did the Red Cross and other organizations. But when the floodwaters rose, people were still largely on their own. Some rode to shelters or hospitals in the backs of city garbage trucks while others waded through chest-deep water on foot.
FEMA said Monday it already made major deployments of people and resources to Texas, including some 900 personnel in search-and-rescue teams, a 265,000 gallons of water, a million meals, 20,520 tarps and 70 generators. FEMA is coordinating a response that includes the National Emergency Medical Services, which is deploying 100 ambulances and 15 air ambulances out of San Antonio. FEMA has 1,800 personnel deployed in total along with 341 other employees from the Department of Homeland Security, its parent agency.
"Under the president's direction, we have made every resource available to respond to this historic storm," said Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who added that she will accompany President Donald Trump on a visit to Texas today, where he plans to tour flood-ravaged areas.
The White House announced late Monday that the president and first lady Melania Trump will depart this morning for Corpus Christi, where they'll receive a briefing on relief efforts by local leaders and relief organizations.
The couple will then head to Austin for a tour of the Texas Department of Public Safety's Emergency Operations Center and a briefing from state leaders.
Joining Duke at FEMA headquarters in Washington on Monday were William "Brock" Long, the FEMA administrator; Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service; Tom Price, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; and Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard.
Long, preparing to fly to Texas as soon as the news conference was over, said the situation in Texas was not yet a "recovery" operation but rather still a "life-safety" operation in which a primary focus will be taking care of what he estimates will be 30,000 people needing shelter.
"We gotta get them into shelters," he said. "This shelter mission is going to be a very heavy lift."
Long deflected questions about whether Houston should have been evacuated.
"It's not a time to start pointing blame," he said, noting that Houston is a city with millions of people and not a place easily evacuated. "Pulling the trigger on that's an incredibly difficult situation."
DAMS OPEN FLOODGATES
By Monday afternoon, nearly 7,000 people filled the two main Houston-area shelters, and local officials were looking for another major shelter to house the streams of displaced residents.
The Red Cross had set up the George R. Brown Convention Center and other venues as shelters. The center, which was also used to house Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans in 2005, can accommodate roughly 5,000 people. Red Cross officials said it exceeded its capacity Monday night, and more evacuees continued to arrive, leaving volunteers scrambling to find enough cots for everyone.
"Hurricane Harvey has effectively turned south and central Texas into a lake the size of Michigan," Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics for the Red Cross, told NPR. "This is as catastrophic as you could possibly imagine from a Category 4 storm."
Officials began to evacuate one of the nation's busiest trauma centers Monday as flooding threatened the hospital's supply of medicine and food.
A spokesman at Houston's Office of Emergency Management said all 350 patients at Ben Taub Hospital would be moved, hopefully within a day. Floodwater and sewage got into the basement of the hospital's main building and affected pharmacy, food service and other key operations.
Other hospitals also bore the brunt of the storm. As of Monday morning, San Antonio Fire Department firefighters had transferred about 800 hospital patients from Houston and other areas affected by Harvey, said department spokesman Woody Woodward. The city had an EMS convoy in Houston consisting of 12 workers, two ambulances and one am-bus -- a "gigantic" ambulance with multiple beds, he said.
Ben Taub, a large public hospital that cares for many of the city's poor and uninsured, asked authorities for evacuation help on Sunday but new locations for the patients had to be found, said Houston emergency management spokesman Gary Norman. High-clearance vehicles will take patients to other hospitals in the complex and elsewhere in Houston, he said.
No other Houston hospitals reported serious damage, but several canceled outpatient services because of the flooding.
At the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the Army Corps of Engineers started the water releases ahead of schedule early Monday because water levels were climbing at a rate of more than 6 inches per hour, Corps spokesman Jay Townsend said.
The move was supposed to help shield the Houston business district from floodwaters, but it also risked flooding thousands more homes in nearby subdivisions. Built after devastating floods in 1929 and 1935, the reservoirs were designed to hold water until it can be released downstream at a controlled rate.
"It could create additional problems, additional flooding," Turner, the mayor, said at a news conference Monday. "People who were not in a crisis state yesterday may find themselves in a crisis state today."
Strong currents proved a challenge Monday morning as half a dozen volunteers with a pontoon boat tried to save 20 people, including children and the elderly, trapped in a flooded neighborhood in Spring, Texas, at the northern edge of Houston.
People called out for help from the upper levels of two-story homes. Yet the 40-foot boat could save only a dozen at a time. After they launched to attempt the rescue, a Harris County deputy constable ran up to the crew, frantic. Authorities planned to release more water from Lake Conroe to the north that would overwhelm the creek, he said.
The boat retreated without saving anyone.
"We couldn't get them," Mandi Davis, 36, of Spring, said when she landed. "The current was too strong and the water was too deep. They're going to have to get airlifted out."
Genesis Rivas, 20, and her family were disappointed to see the volunteers return empty-handed. Seven of her relatives were stranded, including her grandmother and two children ages 4 and 2. She estimated that 200 people were trapped on their street.
Harvey strengthened slightly Monday as it drifted back over the warm Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters expect the system to stay over water and at 45 mph for 36 hours and then head back inland east of Houston sometime Wednesday. The storm is then expected to head north and lose its tropical strength.
Before then, up to 20 more inches of rain could fall, weather service chief Uccellini said Monday, although he cautioned that forecasting the storm is difficult.
That means the flooding will get worse in the days ahead and the floodwaters will be slow to recede once Harvey finally moves on, the weather service said.
Late Monday, homes in Lake Charles, La., began to flood from Harvey's heavy rain.
Sometime today or early Wednesday, parts of the Houston region will probably break the nearly 40-year-old U.S. record for the biggest rainfall from a tropical system, 48 inches, set by Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 in Texas, meteorologists said.
Water from the swollen Buffalo Bayou floods streets and buildings Monday in downtown Houston.
A Nacogdoches firefighter helps Sara Golden and her daughters Paisley, Poppy and Piper, of Dickinson, Texas, evacuate and board a Texas Air National Guard C-130 at Scholes International Airport in Galveston, Texas, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.
Paisley Golden comforts her sister, Poppy, on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, as they arrive at Scholes International Airport in Galveston, Texas, to be evacuated by the Texas Air National Guard to North Texas.
A pair of tents sit on the roof of a home in Dickinson, Texas, on Monday as flooding grows near.
Demetres Fair holds a towel over his 2-year-old daughter, Damouri, after they were picked up Monday in Houston by Houston firefighters and Louisiana wildlife officers.
Tina Cross cradles her dog Mitzy as they are rescued from her home Monday in Spring, Texas.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Graczyk, David Phillip, Juan Lozano, Nomaan Merchant, David Warren, Marilynn Marchione and Emily Schmall of The Associated Press; by Joel Achenbach and Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post; and by Matt Pearce, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Jenny Jarvie and Paul Duginski of the Los Angeles Times.
A Section on 08/29/2017
Print Headline: 13 million people in water-risk zone