As Houston Begins to Assess Harvey's Damage, Storm Pummels Small Towns

by | August 31, 2017

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Matt Pearce

REPORTING FROM PORT ARTHUR, Texas -- The biggest rainstorm in U.S. mainland history made a second landfall on the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, cutting a devastating path across southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana -- even as the sun began to emerge in Houston and some residents returned to their waterlogged homes.

A string of coastal Texas cities were engulfed in water as Harvey came ashore once again at 5 a.m. Wednesday just west of Cameron, La., with heavy rain and winds near 45 mph.

"Yep, we got some water, y'all," Port Arthur, Texas, Mayor Derrick Freeman of said in a live Facebook video Wednesday morning as he sloshed through knee-deep water inside his home. "Harvey wasn't playing."

Mayor Pro Tem Cal Jones estimated that at least 80% of the city, 90 miles east of Houston on the Gulf Coast, was underwater.

"I'm helpless as the rest of them," said Jones, who was trying to get to a store to pick up supplies for several residents with diabetes. "We got caught by surprise. We weren't expecting this kind of flood. We didn't even get a command center because we weren't expecting this kind of outcome."

"Right now, we're at God's mercy," he said.

Fields and roads were flooded around nearby Beaumont, Texas, and heavy rains continued to douse the region.

Colette Sulcer, 41, and her 3-year-old daughter were swept away by high floodwaters there Tuesday after getting out of their car near a flooded freeway. The girl clung to her mother for half a mile before police officers and fire rescue divers spotted them in a canal and plucked them out of the water just before they went under a trestle. The mother died, but the child was in stable condition.

The storm produced at least one tornado, which touched down Wednesday in the southern Mississippi town of Petal, near Hattiesburg. Local news outlets broadcast images of knocked-down trees and damaged roofs, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

"We can't rule out the potential for more brief tornadoes the rest of this afternoon and maybe tonight, and then the threat will be there again tomorrow," said Thomas Winesett, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Jackson, Miss.

Harvey no longer has the power of the Category 4 hurricane that slammed the Gulf Coast late Friday -- it was weakening as it moved north toward Mississippi and Tennessee and was downgraded Wednesday evening from a tropical storm to a tropical depression. But the National Hurricane Center warned of continued "catastrophic and life-threatening" flooding.

Over the last five days, tens of thousands of people in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, and across southeast Louisiana have had to evacuate their homes. More than 30 people are believed dead, including a Houston police officer who drowned in his car while driving to work.

The Texas National Guard has made more than 8,500 rescues and 26,000 evacuations, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday. He announced he was seeking an additional 10,000 National Guard members from other states to help the 14,000 members of the Texas Guard who have been activated.

"The worst is not yet over for southeast Texas," the Republican governor said.

The Navy said it had ordered the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and dock landing ship Oak Hill to get underway from their home port in Norfolk, Va., on Thursday to support the relief efforts. The ships are capable of providing medical support, maritime civil affairs, logistics support, medium- and heavy-lift air support and security.

Houston officials imposed a midnight-to-5-a.m. curfew for a second night Wednesday after police arrested a crew of armed robbers who were hijacking vehicles, and officials warned residents of people impersonating Homeland Security investigators. There also were fears of looting as thousands of houses were left partially submerged.

A white van containing the bodies of four children and their great-grandparents was found Wednesday in Greens Bayou in East Houston. Virginia Saldivar, 59, said her brother-in-law, Sam, was driving her grandchildren and her husband's parents to higher ground Sunday when the current swept up the van.

In Montgomery County, Texas, 33-year-old Joshua Feuerstein of Conroe died when he drove his pickup through a barricade into standing water Monday, sheriff's Capt. Bryan Carlisle reported Wednesday.

The Sheriff's Office in Harris County, which includes Houston, said Wednesday morning that the Coast Guard was leading a search in the northeast part of the city for two civilian rescuers missing after a boat crash.

Since Harvey made initial landfall Friday, some areas around Houston have seen more than of 50 inches of rain -- about what they usually receive in a year.

As the rain let up in Houston, restaurants and shops began to reopen. In the Montrose neighborhood west of downtown, small groups of neighbors took to rain-slicked streets in boots and sneakers to survey the damage.

With its app working again Wednesday, Uber was offering free rides to shelters in Houston, according to a tweet from Mayor Sylvester Turner. "Thank you!" the mayor wrote.

Houston's two main airports reopened Wednesday afternoon with limited service. Some bus and rail service was expected to resume Thursday along with regular trash pickup.

Even warnings from the National Weather Service in Houston and Galveston became less dire: "Improving weather conditions to come," it announced after canceling its tropical storm warning and storm surge watch.

But many areas still remained impassable. Main highways and other roads were washed out, and about 8,000 people were temporarily homeless at the main shelter in the city's downtown George R. Brown Convention Center.

City officials asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for cots and food for an additional 10,000 people, and opened additional shelters at the Toyota Center, a downtown Houston arena, and the NRG Center, a convention hall.

Early Wednesday, Harris County officials warned that a levee protecting the Inverness Forest subdivision in the north part of the county could fail after a portion of its base eroded. A mandatory evacuation of part of the area was in place until 6 p.m. while crews attempted to shore up the levee, said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District.

Thousands of homes west of downtown, upstream from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs, flooded after dams backed up from heavy rainfall.

With some homes filled with up to 6 feet of water, residents would not be able to return for several weeks, Lindner said at a morning news conference. He was not sure whether the homes would be rebuilt.

"When water sits in a house for weeks, the house begins to degrade, and so we're not sure what the condition of those homes will be when residents return in a few weeks," Lindner said. "Will these homes be allowed to be rebuilt or will they be rebuilt? That's a question that we'll have to look at going forward."

Lindner said he did not expect additional homes to flood.

"The watersheds are falling, and while most of them remain well over their banks, and some of them remain at record levels, the water levels are going down," he said. "And that's for the first time in several days."

Centerpoint Energy was working to restore electricity to about 100,000 homes and businesses. By Wednesday evening, the number of customers without electrical service had been reduced to 75,000, including 32,000 in areas that remained inaccessible to work crews, officials said.

While conditions were beginning to improve in parts of Houston, a new threat emerged at a chemical plant in the small town of Crosby, about 25 miles to the northeast. Flooding knocked out the electricity supply at the facility owned by Arkema Inc., meaning that chemicals stored on-site cannot be refrigerated and will probably explode, the company's chief executive, Rich Rowe, said in a statement.

The company evacuated its workers, and Harris County ordered evacuations in a 1.5-mile radius of the plant.

In Port Arthur, Motiva Enterprises began a controlled shutdown of its massive plant, the nation's largest oil refinery. Employees won't go back to work until floodwaters recede.

Five miles across town, floodwater began to spill into a shelter for displaced residents. At the Robert A. "Bob" Bowers Civic Center, residents perched on cots standing in murky brown water.

And the death toll kept rising. On Wednesday, Beaumont officials said a second woman's body was found on the north side at 7:25 a.m.

Tuesday night, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences updated its storm-related deaths to include that of an 89-year-old woman, Agnes Stanley, whose body was found floating in 4 feet of floodwater in a home. The body of another woman, 76, was discovered floating in water near a vehicle. Her name was not released. A 45-year-old man, Travis Lynn Callihan, left his vehicle and fell into floodwater. He was taken to a hospital, where he died Monday.

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston, Pearce from Port Arthur and special correspondent Jarvie from Atlanta. Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Laura J. Nelson in Los Angeles contributed to this report along with W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

(c)2017 the Los Angeles Times