Houston crippled by catastrophic flooding, with more rain on the way

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Harvey was set to dump more rain on Houston on Monday, worsening flooding that has paralyzed the country’s fourth-largest city, forced thousands to flee surrounding counties and swelled rivers to levels not seen in centuries.

Harvey, the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years, first hit land late on Friday and has killed at least two people. It has since stayed around Texas’ Gulf of Mexico Coast, where it is forecast to remain for several more days, drenching parts of the region with a year’s worth of rain in the span of a week.

Schools, airports and office buildings in Houston were ordered shut on Monday as scores of roads turned into rivers and chest-high water filled neighborhoods in the low-lying city that is home to about 2.3 million people.

Torrential rain also hit areas more than 150 miles (240 km) away, swelling rivers upstream and causing a surge that was heading toward the Houston area, where numerous bayous have already been breached.

More flooding is expected as water levels continue to rise, putting more residents at risk. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that it was releasing water from two nearby reservoirs into Buffalo Bayou, the primary body of water running through Houston.

“If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher and have a greater impact on the surrounding communities,” said Colonel Lars Zetterstrom, Galveston district commander of the Corps.

The Harris County Flood Control District said it expected the release to start flooding homes around the Addicks and Barker reservoirs on Monday morning.

Authorities ordered more than 50,000 people to leave parts of Fort Bend County, about 35 miles (55 km) southwest of Houston, as the Brazos River was set to crest at a record high of 59 feet (18 m) this week, 14 feet above its flood stage.

Brazos County Judge Robert Hebert told reporters the forecast crest represented a high not seen in at least 800 years.

“What we’re seeing is the most devastating flood event in Houston’s recorded history,” said Steve Bowen, chief meteorologist at reinsurance company Aon Benfield.

The National Weather Service has issued flood watches and warnings from near San Antonio to New Orleans, an area where more than 13 million people live.

Harvey is expected to produce an additional 15 to 25 inches of rain through Friday in the upper Texas coast and into southwestern Louisiana, the National Hurricane Center said.

Total precipitation could reach 50 inches (127 cm) in some coastal areas of Texas by the end of the week, or the average rainfall for an entire year, forecasters said. Nearly 24 inches fell in 24 hours in Baytown, a city with major refineries about 30 miles east of Houston, the weather service said early on Monday.

Dallas will set up a “mega shelter” it its convention center to house 5,000 evacuees, the city said in a statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump plans to go to Texas on Tuesday to survey damage from the storm, a White House spokeswoman said on Sunday.

Trump, facing the first big U.S. natural disaster since he took office in January, signed a disaster proclamation on Friday, triggering federal relief efforts. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Sunday he planned to add 1,000 more National Guard personnel to the flood battle.

MASSIVE DAMAGE

The center of Harvey was 98 miles (159 km) southwest of Houston on Monday morning and forecast to arc slowly toward the city through Wednesday.

“The storm isn’t moving much,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Steve Wistar said. “If it doesn’t move much, it keeps throwing rain into the same area.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office used motorboats, airboats, humvees and other vehicles to rescue more than 2,000 people in the greater Houston area on Sunday, a spokesman said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Houston police rescued hundreds more as residents brought boats to staging centers to help and helicopters were deployed to save others stranded by the floods.

Federal authorities predicted it would take years to repair the damage caused by Harvey.

Forecasters could only draw on a few comparisons to the storm. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed 1,800 people in 2005, and Tropical Storm Allison lingered for days over South Texas in 2001, flooding 70,000 homes and causing $9 billion in damage.

Damage from Harvey may equal the more than $15 billion in flood insurance losses that Katrina caused in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Almost half of the U.S. refining capacity is in the Gulf region. Shutdowns extended across the coast, including Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery, the nation’s second-largest. The reduced output could affect gasoline supplies across the U.S. Southeast and other parts of the country.

More than 2.3 million barrels of capacity were offline as of Monday morning, representing 13 percent of daily U.S. production.

Gasoline futures rose more than 4 percent to two-year highs on Monday morning. The outages will limit the availability of U.S. crude, gasoline and other refined products for global consumers and further push up prices, analysts said.

All Houston port facilities will be closed on Monday because of the weather threat, a port spokeswoman said.

More than 247,000 customers in the Houston area were without power on Monday morning, utilities CenterPoint Energy, AEP Texas and TNMP said. CenterPoint warned, though, that it could not update its figures due to limited access caused by flooding.

Jose Rengel, a 47-year-old construction worker who lives in Galveston, helped rescue efforts in Dickinson, southeast of Houston, where he saw water cresting the tops of cars.

“I am blessed that not much has happened to me, but these people lost everything,” he said.

“And it keeps raining. The water has nowhere to go.”

Additional reporting by Brian Thevenot in Rockport, Kevin Drawbaugh, Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason in Washington, DC, Chris Michaud and Dion Rabouin in New York, Erwin Seba, Marianna Parraga, Nick Oxford and Ernest Scheyder in Houston; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and David Gaffen; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Lisa Von Ahn

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