With Thousands in Shelters and Thousands Without Water, Houston Begins Slow Crawl to Recovery
By Tony Freemantle St. John Barned-Smith and Mihir Zaveri
The Houston area continued its slow crawl out of crisis Thursday as swollen waterways began to drain and hundreds of thousand of victims of the flood started looking toward a recovery that could last for months, if not years.
Great swaths of the area remained under water, the Brazos and other area rivers continued to rise -- threatening still more flooding in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties -- and thousands of displaced citizens remained in shelters.
Flood control officials struggled to balance the urgent need to lower the water levels in the swollen Addicks and Barker reservoirs against the fear of inundating more homes by doing so. To the east, the city of Beaumont lay devastated, it's 120,000 residents without water, and across the region the death toll continued to climb.
But under sunny skies Thursday, the signs of a city pulsing back to life grew stronger as local and federal officials actively began taking stock of what was lost and what will be needed to recover.
"For most of the county and most of the area, we're getting beyond the rescue stage," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. "In order for people to get their lives back together, there's got to be a great deal of help coming from the federal government and federal emergency management, FEMA, is already on scene."
According to FEMA, at least 364,000 people had signed up for federal aid as of Thursday afternoon, and that number is expected to rise considerably as the flood waters recede, allowing homeowners to return to their properties and assess the damage.
Tom Frangione, FEMA's branch director for Harris County, said the agency will shortly be opening disaster recovery centers and dispatching mobile units across the region where people can sign up for aid.
Officials are still in the process of assessing the damage to the area, and what it will cost. Given the fact that the storm was unprecedented in terms of the amount of rain and the size of the area over which it fell, it will likely be staggering.
And as the unofficial damage estimates from Hurricane Harvey continued to grow, state officials acknowledged Thursday for the first time that another special legislative session could be necessary next year to address the state's growing tab.
"This storm is going to cost more than (hurricanes) Katrina and Sandy put together, and I'm thinking we'll be breaking the $200 billion mark before this over," said Senate Republican Caucus Chair Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.
Harris County officials said an estimated 10 percent of all structures in the county appraisal district database -- or 136,000 -- had been affect in various degrees by the flooding, more than twice the number from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
Statewide, an estimated 500,000 vehicles were damaged or destroyed by the flood waters, according to technology company Solera Holdings.
In the Houston region, the storm is believed to have killed 39 people. Of the 30 people reported missing to authorities since the storm began Aug. 25, 11 have been located and 19 are still missing. On Thursday, officials reported just 18 water rescues, down considerably from the thousands at the peak of the storm and its immediate aftermath.
Area school districts that saw the start of the school year either suspended or delayed by the storm were still assessing damage to their campuses and deciding when to resume or start classes. The Houston Independent School District, which reported that 190 of its more than 280 schools had sustained some water damage, announced that the school year would begin Sept. 11, as did Fort Bend ISD.
Most of the region's major freeways had reopened by Thursday afternoon, except for I-69 northbound at the San Jacinto River, I-10 east near Channelview and U.S. 59 south at Wharton. But numerous secondary roads -- 100 in Brazoria County alone -- remain closed because of high water.
For many of the storm's victims, the enormity of the task ahead was daunting and exhausting.
Cleanup crews finally arrived at Poppie Elliott's 1950s-era home on Mimosa Drive in Bellaire on Thursday morning and began helping her rip up carpet and carry out ruined furniture. A retiree, Elliott was flooded out Saturday night and thus far had shouldered the burden herself.
"I'm no spring chicken," she said. "I just had a breakdown this morning. My flood insurance is the kind that will pay off the mortgage if it's too damaged."
And what then?
"I can't even think that far ahead right now," she said.
Meanwhile, as other parts of the region began drying out, the Brazos River continued its inexorable rise. Thursday, it hit a record-breaking 55 feet in Richmond, as worried officials downstream in Brazoria County disseminated an "inundation map" that shows enormous swaths of the county are expected to be under a significant amount of water. The entire western half of Brazoria County has been under a mandatory evacuation order since Sunday.
"It's nip and tuck," said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta about the possibility of more houses taking on water. "With what we've seen from Hurricane Harvey, anything is possible."
On the western end of Brazoria County, the city of Sweeny, home to about 3,700 people, warned residents Thursday morning to leave immediately due to imminent flooding of the San Bernard River.
"This is an event that will be a catastrophic event for our city and the surrounding areas," said Dale Lemon, the city manager.
James Boudreaux, 55, had watched waters from the San Bernard swallow his house, rising more than 10 feet up its walls.
"I've lost everything," he said.
In Columbia Lakes, residents were watching the levee they had shored up days before when it started to fail. It had held so far, said Keith Bailey, one of the residents, but "it's going to keep coming up," Bailey said.
Flooding along Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which was the cause of much concern Wednesday night, began draining Thursday in what officials predicted would be a months-long process before they would be completely dry again. The reservoirs reached record levels Wednesday night, flooding thousands of homes as the water backed up behind the dams.
Even with the reservoir levels stabilizing, said Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner, homes behind the dams will remain flooded for weeks.
"There's not going to be a lot of change there," Lindner said.
Below the dams, thousands of houses were flooded as a combination of spill-overs and controlled releases sent torrents of water into already swollen Buffalo Bayou.
At the corner of Kirkwood and Memorial Drive, anxious residents who had hurriedly fled their homes waited for a chance to be ferried into their neighborhoods by a fleet of private boats to see what belongings they could retrieve.
Among them was Michael Lowe, an engineer from England who works as a project manager for a Houston oil company. He was holding an empty cardboard box, hoping to reach his home and bring back Felix, the family cat.
At first, the small amount of water that entered the home was manageable, and Lowe and his wife planned to clean it up and stay in the house. Then, huge releases from the reservoirs put six feet of water in the first floor of the three-story home on Heatherfield Drive.
"From our perspective, obviously you can't understand why they would do it now," Lowe said of the releases. "I guess if it's for the greater good, and if things are messed up (in his home) a bit more it won't make a lot of difference. But to those people who were fine and then all of a sudden they got flooded, they're not happy at all."
The population of the city's emergency shelters, beset at the beginning with limited supplies and disorganization, began dwindling Thursday as those displaced by flood waters began finding alternative housing or returned to their homes.
As of midday Thursday, more than 2,100 people had taken shelter at NRG Park and the population at the George R. Brown Convention Center stood at about 8,000, down from 10,000 a day earlier.
Vicki Morse was watching for her ride outside the NRG shelter as she prepared to leave, eager to take her family to a friend's house on Hillcroft to stay for a while.
"We're blessed enough to have somewhere to go," said Morse, whose neighborhood in Coldspring, north of Houston, is known as "The Bottoms" because it's below the Lake Livingston dam. "Where we live, you can't even see the roof of the house."
In Crosby, northeast of Houston, city officials were bracing for more explosions at the Arkema chemical plant, where floodwater knocked out the primary power source, back-up generators and a liquid nitrogen system designed to keep volatile organic peroxides cool. The chemicals explode if they get too warm,
The first of nine failing freezer trailers filled with volatile chemicals exploded early Thursday sending a plume of black smoke into the community. Eight other trailers are at imminent risk of exploding.
Plant employees were evacuated late Tuesday, and residents from about 300 homes within a 1.5 mile radius of the plant remain out of their homes. The Federal Aviation Administration barred flights over the area.
East of Houston, Beaumont and the surrounding area were pummeled by Harvey's rains as it pulled away from the Texas coast, leaving the city without a water supply after floodwaters knocked out both its primary and secondary water pumping stations.
The city plans to set up water stations like it did after Hurricane Rita in 2005. So far, the city has been able to get one truckload of water in because roads are flooded.
"Beaumont is basically an island," said Mayor Becky Ames.
The city is not expected to restore water service until Monday.
Mihir Zaveri, Jaimy Jones, Shelby Webb, Beaumont Enterprise, Nancy Sarnoff, Colin Eaton, Mike Morris, Rebecca Elliott, St. John Barned-Smith, Jacob Carpenter, Emily Foxhall, Jim Pinkerton, Robert Downen
(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle