In a glimmer of hope for the hurricane’s victims, Harvey’s floodwaters are beginning to drop across much of the Houston area, officials said on Wednesday. But as the crisis eases, the storm could begin to give up its dead.
“We have good news,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District. “The water levels are going down. And that’s for the first time in several days.”
The number of confirmed deaths rose to 20 when authorities reported that two men drowned on Monday. One of them drove around a barricade and into standing water, while the other tried to swim across a flooded road.
Authorities expect the toll to rise as the waters recede and they are able to take full stock of the death and destruction wrought by the catastrophic storm.
Some neighbourhoods were still in danger of more flooding. Linder said a levee along Cypress Creek in the northern part of the county could fail and swamp a subdivision where some residents ignored a mandatory evacuation order.
The water in two reservoirs that protect downtown Houston from flooding was likely to crest on Wednesday at levels slightly below those that were forecast, officials said.
Meanwhile, the Texas community of Port Arthur found itself increasingly isolated Wednesday as Harvey’s rains flooded most major roads out of the city and swamped a shelter for victims fleeing the storm that ravaged the Houston area.
The crisis deepened in the coastal city after Harvey rolled ashore overnight for the second time in six days, this time hitting southwestern Louisiana, about 45 miles from Port Arthur.
Jefferson County sheriff’s Deputy Marcus McLellan said he wasn’t sure where the 100 or so evacuees at the civic centre in Port Arthur would be sent. Most were perched on bleacher seats to stay dry, their belongings left mostly on the floor under about a foot (30 centimetres) of water, he said.
“People started coming to the shelter on Monday,” McLellan said. “And now it’s just all the rainfall that’s coming in, and there’s a canal by there also that’s overflowing.”
In the Houston area, meanwhile, some sunshine was finally in the forecast after five straight days of rain that totalled close to 52 inches, the heaviest tropical downpour ever recorded in the continental United States.
The dead include a former American football and track coach in suburban Houston and a woman who died after she and her young daughter were swept into a rain-swollen drainage canal in Beaumont. The child was rescued clinging to her dead mother, authorities said.
Some 13,000 people have been rescued in the Houston area, and more than 17,000 have sought refuge in Texas shelters. With the water still high in places and many hard-hit areas still inaccessible, those numbers seemed certain to increase.
Harvey initially came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane in Texas on Friday, then executed a U-turn and lingered off the coast as a tropical storm for days, inundating flood-prone Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
Early on Wednesday, Harvey paid a return visit, coming ashore near Cameron, Louisiana, and bringing with it 45mph winds and a heavy dose of rain.
Houston’s largest shelter housed 10,000 of the displaced, twice its initial intended capacity, and two additional mega-shelters opened Tuesday.
Louisiana’s governor offered to take in Harvey victims from Texas, returning a favour done by Houston after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And televangelist Joel Osteen opened his 16,000-seat Houston megachurch to victims after he was blasted on social media.
In an apparent response to scattered reports of looting, Houston imposed a midnight-to-5am curfew, with police saying violators would be arrested.
Houston has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for more supplies, including cots and food, for an additional 10,000 people, said Mayor Sylvester Turner.
In Port Arthur, Sheriff Zena Stephens told KFDM-TV that authorities were struggling to rescue residents from the flooding.
Mayor Derrick Freeman posted on his Facebook page: “city is underwater right now but we are coming!” He also urged residents to get to higher ground and to avoid becoming trapped in attics.
Harvey is expected to weaken as it slogs through Louisiana and makes it way northward, with Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri on alert for flooding in the next couple of days.
“Once we get this thing inland during the day, it’s the end of the beginning,” said National Hurricane Centre meteorologist Dennis Feltgen. “Texas is going to get a chance to finally dry out as this system pulls out.”
But Feltgen cautioned: “We’re not done with this. There’s still an awful lot of real estate and a lot of people who are going to feel the impacts of the storm.”
Still, the reprieve from the rain in Houston was welcome.
Eugene Rideaux, a 42-year-old mechanic who showed up at Osteen’s Lakewood Church to sort donations for evacuees, said he had not been able to work or do much since the storm hit, so he was eager to get out of his dark house and help.
“It’s been so dark for days now, I’m just ready to see some light. Some sunshine. I’m tired of the darkness,” Rideaux said. “But it’s a tough city, and we’re going to make this into a positive and come together.”
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