BEAUMONT, Tex. — A week after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas as a Category 4 monster, millions of people across the Gulf Coast struggled Friday with the unfathomable misery left behind as tens of thousands were left without drinking water, forced from homes or trapped in cities transformed into islands.
Federal officials kept up a tense watch at a storm-ravaged chemical plant east of Houston, where some of the volatile organic peroxides stored there had ignited a day earlier. Officials with Arkema, the France-based company operating the plant, said Friday that neighbors had reported hearing additional blasts at the plant, though those reports remained unconfirmed. Still, the company said they are expecting the remaining containers of peroxides to burn in the coming days.
In Houston, officials urged people living in a swath of the western part of the city to evacuate due to flooding. First responders in that city and across Texas continued the grueling work of searching home after home, while state authorities warned that numerous rivers and basins, swollen after Harvey’s rainfall, continue to pose risks of “life-threatening” flooding. As of midday Friday, officials across Texas had recorded at least 45 deaths confirmed or suspected of being stormed related, a tally that may grow as recovery efforts unfold.
“This is going to be a massive, massive cleanup process,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “This is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multiyear project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe.”
In the city of Beaumont, about 100 miles east of Houston, residents and officials faced crises on multiple fronts. The city lost its drinking water supply during wind-whipped floods. First the main pump station was knocked out, then a secondary source. And it was not clear when the network would turn back on.
“We will have to wait until the water levels from this historical flood recede before we can determine the extent of damage and make any needed repairs,” the city said in a statement early Thursday. “There is no way to determine how long this will take at this time.”
The situation persisted Friday, as officials still scrambled to figure out a way to restore the city’s access to water in the low-lying city. For a second day, those stranded in Beaumont had no way to drink, flush their toilets or even bathe after wading into murky flood waters in search of safety or to rescue others.
On Friday, the city police department had launched a water distribution point near the city center, not far from the still rising and fast-moving Neches River. Each vehicle to visit the distribution point “will receive bottled water,” the police department said in a statement on its Facebook page. “The water will be distributed until just before dark OR until supplies are diminished. If more supplies arrive to the city, we hope to set up additional Points of Distribution.”
Carol Riley, a spokeswoman for the Beaumont police department, said that “private industry and different entities that have been working with our city workers” in an effort to restore the city’s pumps. Riley said she heard that a National Guard unit had left Baton Rouge and was en route to Beaumont Friday with more water and pumping supplies, but that so far most of the help had come from private industry in Beaumont.
Beaumont had issued a voluntary evacuation order for its 118,000 residents. But for many of those still in the city, there was no way out with murky floodwaters blocking roads in every direction. Police said some people tried to leave anyway, only to discover that this was impossible and turn back, driving the wrong way on Highway 90.
“When you take water out of the picture, people start to panic a bit,” said Halley Morrow, a police spokeswoman.
Water rescues in the Beaumont area continued Friday, although the number of requests had subsided somewhat since Thursday, Morrow said.
“The amount has come down, but we are still getting calls,” Morrow said. “The areas of our city that are close to the main waterways like Neches, the village creek, some bayous, are not receding.”
At Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas on College Street, a parking lot became a helipad on Thursday for a stream of medical helicopters. Spokeswoman Mary Poole said the hospital was in the process of transferring patients to other local facilities after the city’s loss of water.
“That’s a game changer for us,” she said. “We have medical supplies, we had food, we had staff. But we never dreamed we would lose water supply.”
About 20 miles south of Beaumont, the city of Port Arthur, Tex., saw no respite even as the sun came out and the immediate threat of rain was over. Much of the city near the Louisiana border remained underwater as Harvey’s rainfall continued lapping at the massive oil refineries and natural gas facilities that ring it. And water still covered many of the highways connecting this Gulf Coast community with the wider world.
Sgt. Lam Nguyen of the Port Arthur police estimated that 75 percent of residents there lost their homes — including him. He and nine members of his extended family had to be rescued as floodwaters rushed in late Tuesday and early Wednesday, and Nguyen worried about what was to come.
“We’re running low on water and on food,” said Nguyen, who was wearing a red polo shirt instead of his usual police uniform, which was lost in the floods. “Our shelters are filling up. We are getting them food, for now, but we are running out of food. We’re doing all we can now.”
Nguyen stood in a parking lot outside a Walmart that had been turned into an operations command center for local police and Natural Guard troops. He was in charge. The Walmart was still open, but there was line of more than 100 people waiting patiently with carts to get in before the shelves were stripped bare.
“We are in trouble,” Nguyen said.
More than 42,000 people were housed at hundreds of shelters across Texas on Thursday night, Abbott, the governor, said at a briefing Friday afternoon. He also said another 3,000 people from Texas were in Louisiana shelters.
In some cases, the storm was chasing people from shelter to shelter. The Jasper County judge said that about 350 people were being housed at Buna High School, which opened Wednesday as a makeshift shelter for people from other counties — mainly Orange County, after its own shelters became flooded. It’s safe, but as of Thursday night, they had no power at the school.
In Crosby, Tex., northeast of Houston, wary eyes remained on an evacuated Arkema chemical plant that housed nearly 20 tons of organic peroxides. Early Thursday morning, loud pops signaled a blast in one of the refrigerated trucks housing the chemicals.
Authorities initially reported explosions, then pulled back from that description; they also initially described a danger from the resulting smoke, then said later they did not believe it to be toxic. Police had reported a series of pops and “intermittent smoke” coming from the compound. It was not immediately unclear whether that was the worst of it, or just the start.
“We didn’t anticipate having six feet of water in our plant,” Richard Rennard, president of Arkema’s acrylic monomers division, had told reporters on Thursday.
The loss of control of dangerous materials, coupled with the ignition of these chemicals, have spread anxiety beyond the area around the plant, which has been evacuated. The remaining trucks are expected to burn, and the company operating the plant warned that explosions are possible. In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Arkema executives said neighbors had heard more pops — and that the company expects still more to follow.
Daryl Roberts, Arkema’s vice president of manufacturing, told reporters on Friday that “the water has begun to recede at the site.” But he said that even if more parts of the site become accessible in coming days, company officials don’t believe it will give them the ability to restart refrigeration. For starters, the electrical infrastructure on the site has been underwater for more than a week, he said, he will likely need extensive work.
“We’re not in a position to quickly establish cooling,” he said.
He said the company also does not want to put its employees or emergency officials in harms way, when the remaining containers of volatile chemicals on the site could ignite at any time. “We believe that right now, the scenario that is available to us is to let that material burn out,” Roberts said.
The Environmental Protection Agency dispatched aircraft to soar above and test the smoke for potentially toxic chemical releases, while other officials responded to the scene. Several Harris County Sheriff’s deputies were taken to the hospital after the initial chemical ignition as a precaution, officials said.
The soggy remains of Harvey, meanwhile, spilled farther to the northeast — still carrying fearsome rain a week after surging ashore in Texas. Flash-flood warnings were posted for mountainous central Kentucky, and nearly all the state and neighboring Tennessee were advised by the National Weather Service to be on the watch for possible flooding.
President Trump tweeted that “Texas is healing fast” due to the response from people there, and repeated that he would visit the state again Saturday, his second trip there this week. During the White House briefing on Friday afternoon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his spokeswoman, said Trump would visit Houston during the trip, which will also include a stop in Louisiana.
As the storm tumbled northward, so did the scramble to get out of its way.
In Nashville, more than 50 people were evacuated from flood-swamped streets. In northwest Alabama, residents were on watch for possible tornadoes after high winds damaged several homes near Reform.
Before noon Friday, the core of Harvey’s storm clouds was located about 30 miles northwest of Nashville and was not expected to dissipate until late Saturday over Ohio, the National Hurricane Center reported.
There was little need for authorities elsewhere to stress the risks posed by what is left of Harvey — now a tropical depression. The world had watched the storm swallow the Houston area day after day, inundating it with seemingly endless flooding.
Most of the confirmed deaths linked to the storm occurred in Harris County, home to Houston. The National Weather Service reported that Houston’s total rainfall in August — just over 39 inches — was more than double its previous record for rainfall in a single month.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday called on some people who live not far from the city’s reservoirs and have water in their homes to evacuate, describing this as a “strong” voluntary request — and warning that a mandatory order could follow.
Turner’s comments at a news briefing Friday came after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said a day earlier that it expects to continue releasing water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, both located west of downtown Houston, for the next 10 to 15 days.
“If you are living in a home where there’s water in your home, I’m going to ask you in the strongest of terms,” Turner said. “Because to remain in your homes for the next 10 or 15 days is simply not in your best interests and neither is it in the best interests of our first responders.”
Turner called on people across part of western Houston to leave their homes if water has already gotten in, saying “if you have water in your home today, the odds are you’re going to continue to have water in your home over the next 10 to 15 days.”
The Houston fire chief said at the same briefing Friday that there could be between 15,000 and 20,000 homes in the area where they are urging people to evacuate, though he noted that most people have already fled that area.
People carry supplies through floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Tex., on Thursday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Jeff Lindner with the Harris County Flood Control District put it into staggering perspective: At the height of the flooding, 70 percent of the county’s 1,800 square miles were covered with at least 1.5 feet of water. That is an area larger than all of Rhode Island. An estimate released by the National Weather Service said that more than 28,000 square miles were covered in at least 20 inches of rain.
Next comes the reckoning. People now have begun to return to their homes to get a first, sobering view of what was lost and what can be saved.
Authorities were still trying to tally the number of homes damaged or destroyed in the disaster. Texas localities had reported that as of late Thursday, more than 185,000 homes had suffered damage due to Harvey, including more than 9,000 that were destroyed, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety report.
But that figure is a preliminary estimate and does not include figures from heavily populated Houston, which suffered intense flooding. The real number is likely to be far higher once authorities are able to assess areas that are currently unreachable.
On Thursday, thousands of people — the luckier ones — went back to homes that were waterlogged but salvageable.
“We raised up everything,” said Susan Rath, who had returned to a home in south Houston where she and her husband, Jim, had tried to place valuables higher before evacuating. The water got higher still. They returned to sodden drywall, destroyed furniture and a closet full of blouses soaked up to the elbow.
“It didn’t matter,” she said.
The Raths had just rebuilt this house, after it was destroyed in a 2015 flood. Now, they will have to decide whether to rebuild again.
“The main thing is: This is just stuff,” Jim Rath said. “And the more stuff you have, the more you’re controlled by it.”
There were early indications that yet another tropical storm may form in the western Gulf of Mexico next week. On Friday, the National Hurricane Center described it as a tropical wave that had the potential to strengthen as it drew moisture from the Gulf.
“If this system does develop, it could bring additional rainfall to portions of the Texas and Louisiana coasts,” the National Hurricane Center said.
Berman reported from Washington. Todd C. Frankel and Lee Powell in Port Arthur, Tex.; Jorge Ribas in Beaumont, Tex.: Arelis R. Hernandez and Avi Selk in Houston; Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin; and Brian Murphy, Wesley Lowery, Lindsey Bever, Steven Mufson, Brady Dennis, David Fahrenthold and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.