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Monday 23 April 2018

Marathon search for flood survivors continues with death toll expected to rise

Volunteer rescuer Matt Clarke searches for local residents after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in the area beneath the Barker Reservoir after Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo: Getty Images
Volunteer rescuer Matt Clarke searches for local residents after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in the area beneath the Barker Reservoir after Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo: Getty Images

Andy Sullivan

A week after Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas, rescuers kept up a marathon search for survivors yesterday as large pockets of land remained under water after one of the costliest natural disasters to hit the United States.

The storm has displaced more than a million people, with 44 feared dead from flooding that paralysed Houston, swelled river levels to record highs and knocked out the drinking water supply in Beaumont, Texas, a city of about 120,000 people.

Chemicals maker Arkema SA and public health officials warned of the risk of more explosions and fires at a plant owned by the company. On Thursday, blasts rocked the facility, about 40km east of Houston and zoned off inside a 2km exclusion zone, after it was engulfed by floodwater.

With the presence of water-borne contaminants a growing concern, the National Weather Service issued flood watches from Arkansas into Ohio yesterday as the remnants of the storm made their way through the US heartland.

The Neches River, which flows into Beaumont and nearby Port Arthur, was forecast for a record crest from yesterday, well above flood levels. The flooding and loss of drinking water forced the evacuation of a hospital on Thursday. Two of the last people remaining in their flooded home near the river, Kent Kirk (58) and Hersey Kirk (59) were pulled to safety late on Thursday.

"They were the last holdouts, the last house," said Dennis Landy, a neighbour who had spent the day in his airboat ferrying people from a small, remote group of houses near Rose City, Texas, close to the Neches' banks, to safety.

It took an hour of coaxing by a rescuer but Mrs Kirk finally let herself be carried from her wheelchair to the airboat and then to a Utah Air National Guard helicopter.

"I'm losing everything again," she said. "We got flooded in Ike, in Rita. My husband just got a new car - well it was new to him anyway. It's sitting in five feet of water."

Harvey roared ashore late last Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in half-a-century. It dumped unprecedented quantities of rain and left devastation across more than 450km in the southeast corner of the state.

Moody's Analytics estimated the economic cost from Harvey for southeastern Texas at $51bn to $75bn (€43bn to €63bn), ranking it among the costliest storms in US history.

Much of the damage has been to Houston, the US energy hub.

At least 44 people were dead or feared dead in six counties including in and around Houston, officials said. Another 19 remained missing.

Some 779,000 Texans have been told to leave their homes and another 980,000 fled voluntarily amid dangers of new flooding from swollen rivers and reservoirs, according to federal estimates.

Tens of thousands crowded in evacuation centres across the region.

A new hurricane, Irma, had strengthened into a category three storm, the midpoint of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, yesterday.

It remained hundreds of kilometres from land but was forecast to possibly hit the US territory of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and neighbouring Haiti by the middle of next week.

Some 70pc of Harris County, which encompasses Houston and has a population of about 4.6 million people, was covered with 18 inches or more of water, county officials said.

As signs of normal life returned to Houston, the nation's fourth most populous city, there were concerns about health risks from bacteria and pollutants in floodwater.

The Houston Astros baseball team, forced to play away from the city due to the floods, will return and play at its home field today.

It has invited shelter residents to attend its double-header against the New York Mets, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on his Twitter feed.

Flooding has shut some of the nation's largest oil refineries and has hit US energy infrastructure, which is centred along the Gulf Coast.

It has sent gasoline prices climbing and disrupted global fuel supplies.

The national average for a regular gallon of gasoline rose to $2.519 (€2.11) as of yesterday morning, the highest since August 2015, and up 17 cents since before the storm hit, according to motorists advocacy group AAA.

Irish Independent

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