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Catastrophic Floods Threaten Millions After Hurricane Harvey Drenches Houston

Roque Planas
  • Harvey’s center is expected to move off the coast Monday, but rains will continue pummeling the region for the rest of the week, the National Hurricane Center said.
  • Thousands of people were still awaiting rescue on Monday. Authorities urged citizens to stay off the streets and to climb to rooftops if they are trapped.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from two dams west of Houston early Monday morning, further increasing water levels throughout the city in order to save the dams from failure.
  • FEMA administrator Brock Long said he anticipates 30,000 residents to be placed in temporary shelters.

HOUSTON ― Thousands of people awaited rescue on Monday as heavy rains poured into the area surrounding the nation’s fourth-largest city, worsening one of the most dramatic flooding disasters in recent U.S. history.

At least 25 inches of rain have fallen in Southeast Texas since Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport on Friday evening, shatteringseveral previousrainfall records, leaving at least 300,000 people without power, and causing damage that authorities predicted would take years to fix. Two people were confirmed dead, including one in Houston, and several others were injured.

Many highways and streets throughout the region are flooded, making normal travel impossible and forcing first responders rescue over 2,000 people over the weekend, with more expected throughout the week. FEMA administrator Brock Long said he anticipates that at least 30,000 residents will be displaced to temporary shelters.

More flooding is ahead for the Houston region, forecasters warn, and an already dire situation could soon become desperate: An area the size of Connecticut is expected to receive at least another 20 inches of rain through Friday, though the rain is expected to let up intermittently through the week. Officials said that by the time the storm ends, Harvey could dump up to 50 inches of water on some parts of the affected area, which includes 54 counties.

“This is a landmark event for Texas,” Long said. “Texas has never seen an event like this.”

President Donald Trump on Monday declared a state of emergency for Louisiana, which was also expected to be hit by the storm nearly twelve years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. 

“I want to stress that we are not out of the woods yet,” Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said of the storm. “Harvey is still a dangerous and historic storm.”

If you’re sitting in the Houston area and you see a break and the rain lets up, don’t let your guard down. It’s gonna come right back in." National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Burke

As highway underpasses and feeder roads across Houston became lakes, first responders spent Sunday pulling people stranded from submerged cars into boats and plucking others from the rooftops of their homes by helicopter. Police also had blocked roads to surrounding rural areas, where ranches and farms were also under several feet of water.

Electric signs on Interstate 10 traveling east into the city read “High water” and urged drivers to “Turn around, don’t drown.”

Harvey is now stationary, and close enough to the water that it has an unlimited source of fuel, NWS meteorologist Patrick Burke told HuffPost. The weather event will affect the area for “days, if not weeks,” he warned.

“If you’re sitting in the Houston area and you see a break and the rain lets up, don’t let your guard down. It’s gonna come right back in,” Burke said. “Rainfall predictions are as high as we’ve ever made for a storm.” 

The ongoing crisis in Southeast Texas “is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced,” the National Weather Service warned Sunday.

Officials urged residents trapped in their homes to avoid sheltering in their attics and to get on their roofs instead. “[H]ave reports of people getting into attic to escape floodwater,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo warned Sunday morning. “[D]o not do so unless you have an ax or means to break through onto your roof.” 

(THOMAS B. SHEA via Getty Images)

Members of the Houston Fire Department were searching the interstate for both trapped drivers and bodies on Sunday afternoon. They commandeered a HuffPost reporter’s boat to look for a woman trapped in her car. When a rookie fireman asked if they would be recovering bodies, another explained they were only picking up survivors on that pass.

Some residents with access to boats carried out their own rescues. Videos showed citizens filling their private boats with evacuees and ferrying them to safety.  

Brock Long, FEMA’s administrator, appealed to the public for help in assisting federal rescue workers and requested volunteers to visit www.nvoad.org for more information on how to get involved.

“We need the whole community, not only the federal government forces,” Long said. “This is a full community effort from all levels of government and it’s going to require the citizens getting involved.”

(Handout via Getty Images)

According to city officials said, more than 56,000 911 calls were made in the 17 hours after the storm made landfall. On a normal day, 911 operators receive around 8,000 calls,

The city’s emergency services tweeted that they were at capacity and asked residents to only call if they faced imminent danger. The mayor advised people to give preference to life-threatening situations when calling 911. 

Trump praising emergency responders for their work in a tweet over the weekend. He plans to travel to Texas on Tuesday with first lady Melania Trump.

A submerged car in Katy, Texas, just west of Houston. (David Lohr/HuffPost)

Upstream and west of Houston, two giant reservoirs, built in the 1940s to protect the city from flooding, are already nearing capacity. The Addicks and Barker dams hold back the reservoirs’ collective 410,000 acre-feet of water and if the dams fail, half the city could be underwater. To prevent the structures from failing, the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams, began releasing water from both the Addicks and Barker reservoirs before 2 a.m. on Monday.

Officials said the city’s public hospital, Ben Taub, was evacuated Sunday due to flooding and power outages. Later in the day, Bayshore Medical Center, another Houston metropolitan area hospital, decided to suspend operations and evacuate its 196 patients.  

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has urged residents to prepare for days of heavy rains and flooding. During a press conference on Sunday morning, Turner advised residents to stay in place and said the city would be opening more shelters to cope with the storm’s effects. The city is opening its George R. Brown Convention Center as one such shelter, and Dallas will open a convention center that can host up to 5,000 evacuees on Tuesday morning.

“Just stay put,” Turner pleaded. “We need you to help us.” 

Turner also told residents to refrain from driving and to “stay off the streets unless it’s an emergency.”  

Still, many chose to ignore city officials’ recommendations to stay put, at times driving the wrong way up interstate exists in order to snake around flooded underpasses. 

Rosanna Moreno looks over the flooded Buffalo Bayou on Interstate 610. (Roque Planas/HuffPost)

Rosanna Moreno, 55, had tried to reach the condominium building in the city where she lives after a family visit to the capital of Austin, only to find the expressway closed. She parked her car on I-610, still several miles from the city, unsure of what to do next. 

“People are crazy trying to go through,” Moreno told HuffPost. “Basically, we’re all underwater. We’re stuck.”

Lydia O’Connor, Nick Robins-Early, and Dominique Mosbergen contributed reporting.  

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.