In Houston, Anxiety and Frantic Rescues as Floodwaters Rise

HOUSTON — What felt like an apocalyptic onslaught of pounding rains and rapidly rising floodwaters brought the nation’s fourth-largest-city to its knees Sunday, as highways and residential streets turned to rivers, waist-high waters choked off access to homes and hospitals and officials begged boat owners to pitch in with a massive and frantic rescue operation.

It was a scene that evoked Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005, with worried residents punching holes in roofs in anticipation of the water rising even higher and people being rescued by helicopters from soggy rooftops.

The chaos inflicted by the remains of Hurricane Harvey played out across an enormous swath of Texas and most conspicuously in this metropolitan area of 6.6 million that has long been used to major storms blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico, but has seldom, if ever, faced a scene quite like this one.

The storm, which made landfall late Friday as a Category 4 hurricane, so far has left five people reported dead, many others injured and untold numbers of homes and businesses flooded, damaged or destroyed on both the coast and far further inland. Even the National Weather Service seemed overwhelmed by the scope of the devastation.

“This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced,” the federal service said on Twitter Sunday. “Follow orders from officials to ensure safety.”

In Houston Sunday morning, Mayor Sylvester Turner declared that “most major thoroughfares and their feeder roads” were now “impassible.” He urged those whose lives were not endangered to refrain from calling an overburdened 911 system, noting that officials had already received more than 2,000 rescue calls by Sunday morning.

Some people posted addresses of their flooded homes on Twitter and Facebook, with photographs of half-submerged furniture or families stranded on roofs, to try to draw the attention of rescue crews.

Mr. Turner announced the opening of the George R. Brown Convention Center as a shelter, and said the number of other shelters to open would “dramatically increase.” West of Houston, San Antonio was housing roughly 1,000 evacuees in emergency shelters as of Sunday afternoon. A few hundred evacuees are also in emergency shelters in Dallas, to the north, and that city was preparing to house up to 5,000 more in a “mega-shelter” planned to open as early as Tuesday morning in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

In Houston, harrowing close calls shook many families.

Maya Wadler, 17, recalled the moments before she was rescued from her home Sunday around 4 a.m. The water, she said, “bubbled up from the doors, seeped in from the windows.”

“Everywhere you turned,” she said, “there would just be a new flowing puddle. It just kept filling. It passed the outlets. I was so scared. We didn’t know what would happen. And there is no one you can call.”

Ms. Wadler was eventually helped onto a dump truck driven by rescue workers.

“I was sitting in the corner holding my dad really tight,” she said. “I usually just trust my parents that everything is going to be O.K. But I looked up and I saw that my dad was closing his eyes, the water was getting in his eyes. And I just thought: He has absolutely no idea where we are going to go.”

For a vast swath of southeast Texas, there may be still more trouble in the days ahead. The National Weather Service said the storm was expected to linger for a number of days. It predicted an additional 15 to 25 inches of rainfall along the upper Texas coast and southwest Louisiana through Friday. The service also raised the possibility of 50 inches of total rainfall in some areas, exceeding previous Texas rainfall records.

Flooding was reported in numerous communities in the Texas interior between Houston, to the east, and Austin and San Antonio, to the west. On Sunday, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for the city of La Grange, where the National Service’s projected that the Colorado River would crest at 49.1 feet, according to the city’s website.

A house in the Meyerland section of Houston. CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

As inland communities struggled with the flooding crisis, coastal communities that took the brunt of the hurricane’s pounding remained punch-drunk.

In Rockport, where the storm made landfall, hundreds of homes, apartments, businesses churches and government offices were damaged or destroyed. On Sunday morning, parts of the city were a wreck, pervaded by the sweet stench of gas, wind-battered and littered with downed power lines and tilting utility poles. Injured dogs wandered the streets.

The storm also blew through key areas for the United States oil and gas industry and was already causing some disruption of production. Exxon Mobil, for instance, said on its website Sunday that it was shutting down operations at its huge Baytown refining and petrochemical complex because of flooding, while heavy rain prompted Royal Dutch Shell to close a large refining facility at Deer Park.

Shell, one of the largest producers in the Gulf of Mexico, said it had closed two offshore production platforms, Perdido and Enchilada Salsa, and evacuated most of the workers.

Stillthe gulf produces substantial quantities of oil and gas, and analysts say it is likely that the impact on energy prices and supplies will be limited by the substantial stocks of oil available, and products like gasoline that are on hand because of a long period of booming global output.

In the long term, Texas is likely to face a massive, multibillion-dollar rebuilding effort that may affect a generation — and what is sure to be a daunting and sometimes depressing era of government trailers, red tape and fights with bureaucrats and insurance companies.

The federal government is promising a muscular response, with 5,000 federal employees — including members of the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department — on site in Texas and Louisiana to assist state and local officials.

Sgt. Nicholas Carson of the National Guard near a flooded section of Interstate 610 in Houston.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

“We’re setting up and gearing up for the next couple of years,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday.

For President Trump, the storm is the first domestic disaster to test his administration’s competence. On Sunday, in a flurry of tweets, the president wrote, “Good news is that we have great talent on the ground.” In another tweet, he promised to visit Texas “as soon as that trip can be made without causing disruption.”

Hanging over this narrative is the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago. President George W. Bush was blamed by many for the blundering federal response.

Texans, however, responded with great empathy and even heroism. Boat owners crossed the Sabine River to conduct water rescues in New Orleans, and the city of Houston threw open its arms to thousands of evacuees.

Now Texas government will face rebuilding after a disaster of similar scope, both emotional and geographic: Gov. Greg Abbott said on Sunday that 18 counties were covered by a federal disaster declaration signed by President Trump.

The Houston police chief, Art Acevedo, was among those who said that the state’s mythic toughness would help Texans soldier on. “It’s sad,” Chief Acevedo said in a live video posted to Twitter. “It breaks your heart for our city and our state. But it’s Texas. We’ll get through.”

The Houston Independent School District said schools and offices would be closed for the entire week. The city’s two main airports announced Sunday that they had ceased all commercial operations. The Federal Aviation Administration estimated that George Bush Intercontinental Airport would reopen at noon on Monday but that William P. Hobby Airport would remain closed until Wednesday morning.

Gloria Maria Quintanilla walked to work in Houston’s Galleria area. CreditJulie Turkewitz/The New York Times

Many of Houston’s streets were rendered impassable, complicating the focus on rescuing residents isolated by floodwaters or trapped in areas where the water was rising. Harris County officials asked the public to contribute boats and high-water vehicles, which they said were “desperately” needed to help rescue people before nightfall.

As hard rains continued to fall, cars lay wrecked or stalled out on Houston’s interstate highways. People walked the roadways, looking for shelter or help, some vainly holding umbrellas skyward. Others waded through waist-high water, or paddled pirogues and little inflatable rafts. Rescue crews traversed the city in high-water vehicles, their crews in life jackets and helmets, and in trucks towing boats and Jet Skis.

At Ben Taub Hospital, a Level I trauma center in the sprawling Texas Medical Center complex, officials were waiting for rescue workers to evacuate their 350 patients, starting with roughly 18 patients in critical care units on ventilator support, said Bryan McLeod of the Harris Health System.

Mr. McLeod said that floodwater had entered the basement, and that a sewage pipe had burst. Cafeteria, pharmacy and other operations were suspended. “ There’s still about waist deep water around the facility,” he said.

Elsewhere, ghostly scenes underscored the destruction in a place long seen as one of the nation’s most dynamic generators of growth and prosperity. Near the Galleria, Houston’s famous shopping mall, a stretch of South Rice Avenue had more than two feet of water in some places.

Gloria Maria Quintanilla appeared as a speck on the horizon, wading through waist-high waters in the middle of the road with a sack thrust over one shoulder and an umbrella perched on the other. Ms. Quintanilla, 60, seemed to epitomize Houston’s work ethic, its resolve and its shock.

“I worked at the hotel up there,” she said when a reporter approached. As she walked, she explained that she was an immigrant from El Salvador, here since 1982. She makes $10 an hour washing and ironing sheets and towels at the Doubletree.

She had started the journey from home more than an hour before.

“It was my day to work, and I’m a very responsible person,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I had no idea it was going to be like this.”


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