Rescuers Pluck Hundreds from Rising Floodwaters in Houston

HOUSTON (AP) — Tropical Storm Harvey sent devastating floods pouring into the nation’s fourth-largest city Sunday as rising water chased thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground and overwhelmed rescuers who could not keep up with the constant calls for help.

The incessant rain covered much of Houston in turbid, gray-green water and turned streets into wide channels navigable only by boat. In a rescue effort that recalled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, helicopters landed near flooded freeways, airboats buzzed across inundated neighborhoods and high-wheel vehicles plowed through water-logged intersections. Some people managed with kayaks or canoes or swam.

Volunteers joined emergency teams to pull people from their homes or from the water, which was high enough in some places to gush into second floors. The flooding was so widespread that authorities had trouble pinpointing the worst areas. They urged people to get on top of their homes to avoid becoming trapped in attics and to wave sheets or towels to draw attention to their location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that as of 5 p.m. on Sunday, Houston police and fire departments had received nearly 6,000 calls for rescues and had rescued more than 1,000 people.

Turner said that so far only one fatality has been confirmed — a woman who died Saturday evening after getting out of her car when it drove into a flooded street.

Turner said 22 aircrafts were working to help identify people stranded on roofs. Sixteen of those aircrafts are from U.S. Coast Guard.

In addition, 35 boats and 93 dump trucks were being used by the city for high water rescues.

The mayor also defended his decision not to order an evacuation.

“The decision that we made was a smart one. It was in the best interest of Houstonians. It was the right decision in terms of their safety… absolutely no regrets. We did what was the right thing to do,” Turner said.

As the water rose, the National Weather Service offered another ominous forecast: Before the storm that arrived Friday as a Category 4 hurricane is gone, some parts of Houston and its suburbs could receive as much as 50 inches (1.3 meters) of rain. That would be the highest amount ever recorded in Texas.

Some areas have already received about half that amount. Since Thursday, South Houston had received nearly 25 inches (63 centimeters) and the suburbs of Santa Fe and Dayton got 27 inches (69 centimeters).

“The breadth and intensity of this rainfall is beyond anything experienced before,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

Average rainfall totals will end up around 40 inches (1 meter) for Houston, weather service meteorologist Patrick Burke said.

The 18 counties now under a federal disaster declaration represent about a quarter of the Texas population, or 6.8 million people.

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said the government expected to conduct a “mass care mission” and predicted that the aftermath of the storm would require FEMA’s involvement for years.

“This disaster’s going to be a landmark event,” Long said.

Andrew White (L) helps a neighbor down a street after rescuing her from her home in his boat in the upscale River Oaks neighborhood after it was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rescuers had to give top priority to life-and-death situations, leaving many affected families to fend for themselves. The city’s main convention center was quickly opened as a shelter.

Gillis Leho arrived there soaking wet. She said she awoke Sunday to find her downstairs flooded. She tried to move some belongings upstairs, then grabbed her grandchildren.

“When they told us the current was getting high, we had to bust a window to get out,” Leho said.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez used Twitter to field calls for assistance. Among those seeking help was a woman who posted: “I have 2 children with me and the water is swallowing us up.”

Some people used inflatable beach toys, rubber rafts and even air mattresses to get through the water to safety. Others waded while carrying trash bags stuffed with their belongings and small animals in picnic coolers.

 

Rainfall of more than 4 inches per hour resulted in water levels higher than in any recent floods and higher than during Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, said Jeff Linder of flood control district in Harris County, which includes Houston.

For those trying to escape, rescue came by land, water and air.

People walk through the flooded waters of Telephone Rd. in Houston on August 27, 2017 as the city battles with tropical storm Harvey and resulting floods. (Photo credit should read THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)

On Interstate 45 south of downtown, television video showed people climbing over concrete dividers to get to a high-wheel dump truck that appeared to be wheels-deep in water on a service road. They clambered up the side of the truck to get into the dump box.

In Friendswood near Houston, authorities asked people with flat-bottomed airboats or fuel for them to help rescue people.

Jesse Gonzalez, and his son, also named Jesse, used their boat to rescue people from a southeast Houston neighborhood. Asked what he had seen, the younger Gonzalez replied: “A lot of people walking and a lot of dogs swimming.”

“It’s chest- to shoulder-deep out there in certain areas,” he told television station KTRK as the pair grabbed a gasoline can to refill their boat.

Staff at a Houston television station broadcasting live coverage of the floods had to evacuate after water started to gush into the building. The anchors and news operations at KHOU moved first to a second floor before finally abandoning the station.

The White House announced that President Donald Trump would visit Texas on Tuesday. The president Trump met Sunday by teleconference with top administration officials to discuss federal support for response and recovery efforts.

The rescues unfolded a day after the hurricane settled over the Texas coastline. It was blamed for killing at least two people.

One person was killed in Aransas County in a fire at home during the storm, county Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said.

Another person — a woman who tried to get out of her vehicle in high water — died in flooding in Harris County, where Houston is located, though authorities had not confirmed a cause of death, said Gary Norman, a spokesman for the Houston emergency operations center.

The fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in more than a decade came ashore late Friday about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Corpus Christi as a mammoth Category 4 storm with 130 mph (209 kph) winds.

Harvey weakened Saturday to a tropical storm. On Sunday, it was virtually stationary about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Victoria, Texas, with maximum sustained winds of about 40 mph (72.42 kph), the hurricane center said.

The system was the fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since 1961’s Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record.