Authorities fear Harvey’s worst is yet to come
Houston — Floodwaters reached the rooflines 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.
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 tree dislodged by heavy rains toppled onto her trailer home.
A Houston television station reported Monday that six family members were believed to have drowned when their van was swept away by floodwaters. The KHOU report was attributed to three family members the station did not identify. No bodies have been recovered.
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 to the southeast from 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 muddy floodwaters now soaking through drywall, carpeting, mattresses and furniture in Houston will pose a massive cleanup challenge with potential public health consequences.
It’s not known yet what kinds or how much sewage, chemicals and waterborne germs are mixed in the water. For now, health officials are more concerned about drownings, carbon monoxide poisoning from generators and hygiene at shelters. In the months and years to come, their worries will turn to the effects of trauma from Hurricane Harvey on mental health.
At a shelter set up inside Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, Dr. David Persse is building a clinic of doctors and nurses and trying to prevent the spread of viruses or having to send people to hospitals already stretched thin.
Former Southfield resident Danny Gutman, who moved to Houston seven years ago, described surreal scenes happening outside his home: people walking in waist-high water, paddleboats going down the street, garbage cans floating by.
He said his in-laws had to be rescued from their home by a canoe.
“It’s catastrophic,” he said. “It’s just been a nightmare.”
Gutman is lucky, living on the second floor, but just 100 feet away, on the other side of a bayou, is a flooded neighborhood, he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin sampling the floodwaters as soon as possible, said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman in an email Monday. EPA teams will also be visiting water and sewage plants to offer help, she said.
Floodwater can be dangerous for people with open wounds, particularly if they have other health conditions. After Hurricane Katrina, five people with infected wounds died and health officials believe that exposure to brackish floodwater contributed to the deaths.
Katrina taught other lessons.
“In Katrina, a lot of people were concerned about illnesses from contact with the floodwater, but more infectious disease was associated with poor hygiene in overcrowded shelter facilities,” said Karen Levy, associate professor of environmental health at Emory University in Atlanta.
Houston’s normally bustling business district was virtually deserted Monday, with emergency vehicles making up most of the traffic. Most businesses were closed.
Rescuers continued plucking people from the floodwaters — more than 3,000 times by Monday evening, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
In Houston, questions continued to swirl about why the mayor did not issue a mandatory 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.”
Harvey increased slightly in strength 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 with 45 mph winds for 36 hours and then head back inland east of Houston sometime Wednesday. The system will then head north and lose its tropical strength.
Before then, up to 20 more inches of rain could fall, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said Monday.
That means the flooding will get worse in the days ahead, the weather service said.
Detroit News Staff Writer Francis X. Donnelly contributed.
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