Saturday 25 January 2020

After Hurricane Harvey, Texans await the floods with gritted teeth

A home damaged by Hurricane Harvey remains surrounded by flood waters in Rockport, Texas Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay
A home damaged by Hurricane Harvey remains surrounded by flood waters in Rockport, Texas Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Nick Allen

The fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in more than a decade caused widespread damage and dumped torrents of rain along hundreds of miles of the Texas coastline.

Residents were warned of "catastrophic and life-threatening flooding" to come, after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday night with 130mph winds battering buildings, knocking down trees and electricity cables, and leaving up to 300,000 without power.

The hurricane has weakened to a tropical storm, but is expected to lash Texas for days, bringing as much as a metre of rain. Texas utility companies said nearly a quarter of a million customers were without power.

One person died in a house fire in the town of Rockport, 48km north of the city of Corpus Christi, marking the first confirmed fatality from the storm - but it was expected to take time for emergency crews to reach many areas and assess the damage.

Rockport, a coastal town of about 10,000 people, where two thirds of residents had already evacuated, was directly in the storm's path. CJ Wax, its mayor, said it had been hit "right on the nose" and there was "widespread devastation". The roof of a high school reportedly caved in, and 10 people were taken to the county jail for treatment after a roof collapse at a nursing home.

Mayor Wax said emergency services had been hampered by a loss of mobile phone service.

Earlier, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he would activate 1,800 members of the military to help with the statewide cleanup while 1,000 people would conduct search-and-rescue operations.

One man who stayed in the town said: "The storm sounded like a train with square wheels. It was the most stressful thing I've ever been through. I saw trees going down, roofs blowing off. I've got 300-year-old oak trees down in my yard, a magnolia tree on my roof."

On Friday, Mayor Wax had offered ominous advice to people who chose not to evacuate. He said they should mark their arm with a marker pen, implying that the marks would make it easier for rescuers to identify their dead bodies.

Rockport resident Frank Cook, 56, said: "If you have something left of your house, you're lucky."

Up to 50cm of rain fell in a matter of hours in some places and there were warnings of flash floods. Texans were warned to look out for alligators. Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office said: "Expect them to be displaced. Simply looking for higher ground. Leave alone until water recedes."

The storm stirred memories of Hurricane Katrina, which made a direct hit on New Orleans in 2005 and led to 1,800 deaths. Harvey was the first natural disaster to hit the US since Donald Trump became president. Mr Trump signed a disaster declaration late on Friday night which he said would "unleash the full force of government help".

As many as six million people were in Harvey's path and tens of thousands fled inland before it hit. In Corpus Christi, the closest city to the storm, streets were littered with lamp posts, tree limbs and roof tiles. Donna McClure, a resident, wrote on Twitter: "In the dark, internet out, ham radio not working. Is anybody out there? Alone trying not to be scared."

Harvey came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane, the fiercest to hit Texas since 1961. It moved slowly inland and was later downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 150kph and gusts of up to 190kph.

But forecasters suggested as much as a metre of rain may fall by next Wednesday. The National Hurricane Centre said that could unleash "catastrophic" flooding. Steve Sims, the volunteer fire chief in Rockport said: "We've heard rumours of 1,000 different things, we can't confirm anything because we haven't seen anything. We know we've got a lot of problems, but we don't know what yet."

Houston - the fourth most populous city in the US and home to a third of the six million people that could be impacted by Harvey - seems next in line to feel the fury of the elements. Residents of the city received automatic cell phone warnings of flash floods early yesterday. Authorities warned of the potentially life-threatening impact of close to 60cm of rain falling on the city over several days. The storm's outer bands had already dumped 15cm of rainfall on parts of the city by early Saturday afternoon.

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