HOUSTON – The devastating storm once known as Hurricane Harvey, already the biggest rainstorm in the history of the continental United States, made landfall again Wednesday morning to bring another punishing wave of rain into Texas and Louisiana.
Five days after roaring ashore near Houston – leaving behind disastrous flooding and a mounting death toll that had reached at least 22 people – Harvey made landfall before dawn near tiny Cameron, Louisiana, after drifting back out into the Gulf of Mexico as it churned up the coast.
Now a tropical storm and expected to weaken over land, Harvey’s immediate impact is not expected to pack the same destructive power as when it slammed into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane last week and dropped foot after foot of rain.
But forecasters said the danger was far from over. The National Weather Service warned Wednesday that “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding will continue in and around Houston eastward into southwest Louisiana for the rest of the week.” The service also warned that “expected heavy rains spreading northeastward from Louisiana into western Kentucky may also lead to flash flooding” across those areas, imperiling a new swath of the population.
As Harvey approached, storm-battered Louisiana – where memories of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in the state 12 years ago this week, are still fresh – hunkered down, evacuating hundreds of people and deploying the Louisiana National Guard.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, D, in a news conference Tuesday, urged people to “prepare and pray.” Flash flood warnings were issued across eastern Texas and western Louisiana, areas facing mounting rainfall totals as Harvey continued its onslaught.
Beaumont, Texas, about 80 miles east of Houston, had seen more than 32 inches of rain by Wednesday morning, according to reports released by the National Weather Service. Parts of Interstate 10 near Beaumont were left swallowed by floodwaters – with road signs poking above the wind-driven chop.
About 60 miles to the east, Lake Charles, Louisiana, had seen more than a foot of rain, and forecasts say the downpours are expected to continue. A storm surge warning was posted across the coast of southern Louisiana, from Holly Beach to Morgan City.
Between 400 and 50 people were evacuated from Calcasieu Parish, Dick Gremillion, director of the parish’s office of homeland security and emergency preparedness, said at a briefing Tuesday night.
“There is high water just about every section of the parish,” he said. “If we get 3 [inches] to 5 [inches] of rain, it’s probably going to be in the entire parish.”
The storm’s path at least appeared to offer a break to New Orleans, which this week postponed Katrina remembrance events due to Harvey. “By the grace of God, this is going to miss us,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told CNN on Wednesday.
Harvey’s movements up the coast also gave Houston a respite from the heavy rains that have pelted the city since the weekend, even as the storm’s true toll remained unknown. More than 50 inches of rain over four days had turned the country’s fourth-largest city into a sea of muddy brown water, as boats skimmed along what had been neighborhood streets in search of survivors.
The impact in the Houston area was staggering. Between 25 and 30 percent of Harris County – home to 4.5 million people in Houston and its near suburbs – was flooded as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the county flood control district. That is an area potentially as large as New York City and Chicago combined.
Even though the heavy rain had departed and glimmers of hope – along with glimpses of the sun – had returned to Houston, officials were still struggling to define the enormity of what had happened.
At least 22 deaths were blamed on the storm, a number expected to rise as authorities are able to enter flooded homes and cars. The toll includes Sgt. Steve Perez with the Houston Police Department. The 60-year-old veteran officer’s body was found early Tuesday morning, officials said, after he drowned while driving in to work early Sunday morning during the storm’s peak.
“He laid down his life,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said during an emotional news briefing Tuesday.
Other stories of loss, grief and agony began to emerge. Six family members were apparently swept away while trying to escape the storm. Police in Beaumont, Texas, said Tuesday that a woman and her young child had gotten out of their car on a flooded road and were swept into a canal. When authorities found them, the young girl was clinging to her mother and about to go under a trestle, where they would have been lost for good, police said. The mother died, while the young girl is in stable condition.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner imposed a curfew in the city starting Tuesday from midnight to 5 a.m. local time to deter looting of abandoned homes.
“There are some who might want to take advantage of this situation, so even before it gets a foothold in the city, we just need to hold things in check,” Turner said at a news conference.
It was still too early to assess the total number of homes and other buildings damaged, in part because rescue crews were still having trouble even reaching some areas because of flooded or flood-damaged roads, said Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“We’re still in the middle of the response,” he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that it had more than 230 shelters in Texas housing more than 30,000 people, a number that is expected to change. More than 195,000 people have registered asking for federal assistance, a number that is expected to go up, William “Brock” Long, the FEMA administrator, said during a news briefing.
It will take “many, many years” before the full scope of Harvey’s impact is clear, Long said.
“We expect a many year recovery in Texas and the federal government is in this for the long haul,” Elaine Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary, said at the same briefing Wednesday.
Duke said she had no answer Wednesday regarding whether the Trump administration would accept the Mexican government’s offer to help.
About half a million people will have their homes “impacted in some way” by the storm, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. “500,000 individuals will have to be cared for in some way,” he said Wednesday morning on Fox News.
Thousands have been rescued amid the churning waters, authorities said. These official tallies of rescues are likely low, leaving out the scores of civilians who took to boats in an effort to rescue neighbors, friends and strangers alike.
Carol Headrick said that when waters began to rise to the height of the front desk lobby of her nursing home in Kingwood, Texas, outside of Houston, rescue crews told her to leave and took her out on a pontoon boat before she had time to grab much of anything.
“I never was scared,” said Headrick, 83, as her face shifted from one of feigned outrage at the question to a mischievous smile. Referring to a previous storm, she added: “I’ve got my Bible. And God promised he never was going to do this again.”
Headrick betrayed no sign of worrying about the storm, because she was too busy deciphering the crackle of her old handheld AM-FM radio to be bothered with worry. She had to keep her nursing home mates informed as they sat in a U-shaped group in the Kingwood Bible Church’s multipurpose room, discussing the Louisiana State University Tigers, her favorite team.
She was happy with the sandwiches she was given and grateful for the care from volunteers and to still be among her friends.
“Last week they gave us these special glasses to watch the eclipse and who would have thought we’d be here now,” she said.
Around Houston and beyond, schools and universities were closed, with some unable to say when they would reopen. The storm pushed water to spill over in reservoirs west of downtown Houston.
Across Texas, the storm has shut down 14 oil refineries, causing damage at some that released harmful chemicals. In Crosby, Texas, a fertilizer plant 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.
Arkema, a maker of organic peroxides, evacuated all the personnel from the plant and was attempting to operate the facility remotely. The material must be kept at low temperatures to avoid combustion.
As scores were forced from their homes, massive venues opened their doors to house people. The George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, which next month was scheduled to host a concert as well as a “High Caliber Gun & Knife Show,” had taken 10,000 people as of Tuesday morning, double the expected capacity. Houston then opened what the mayor had called other “mega shelters,” turning to the NRG Center, a convention center near the old Astrodome, and the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets basketball team.
About 250 miles to the north, the city of Dallas was preparing to take at least 6,000 evacuees from the Houston area, according to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county’s top official. There were showers. Phone-charging stations. There was a dining hall manned by volunteers, including the Texas Baptist Men and local Israeli-American and Muslim-American groups.
The Dallas shelter was still mostly empty on Tuesday because the storm was too bad to get evacuees out of Houston.
“The planes are grounded, so we can’t get C-130s in” with evacuees, said Jenkins, D. “The roads are covered with water, so we can’t get buses in.”
Dallas housed 28,000 evacuees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Jenkins said. He said he’s not sure if that many will come this time.
“We don’t know what we’ll get,” he said, “until the water recedes.”