Monday 23 October 2017

Search continues for Hurricane Harvey survivors as Trump requests $7.85bn aid

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
A convenience store owner walks through floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey outside an Exxon Mobil station in Houston
A man floats past a truck submerged on a freeway flooded by Hurricane Harvey near downtown Houston. Photo: AP
Barges are secured by tugboats in the flood-swollen Burnet Bay along the Houston Ship Channel in Houston. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
Barges are secured by tugboats in the flood-swollen Burnet Bay along the Houston Ship Channel in Houston. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Emily Flitter and Marianna Parraga

Rescuers searched painstakingly through flooded neighborhoods across southeastern Texas on Friday for people stranded by Hurricane Harvey's deluge as President Donald Trump asked Congress for $7.85 billion in federal disaster relief.

The storm, one of the costliest to hit the United States, has displaced more than 1 million people, with 50 feared dead from flooding that paralyzed Houston, swelled river levels to record highs and knocked out the drinking water supply in Beaumont, Texas, a city of 120,000 people.

The Trump administration in a letter to Congress asked for a $7.85 billion appropriation for response and initial recovery efforts. White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters on Thursday aid funding requests would come in stages as more became known about the impact of the storm.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said that his state may need more than $125 billion.

Bossert said the Trump administration wanted Congress to pass the disaster relief measure on its own and not add it to other measures, such as the effort to raise the debt ceiling.

The U.S. government has a statutory limit on how much money it can borrow to cover the budget deficit that results from Washington spending more than it collects in taxes. Only Congress can raise that limit.

Barges are secured by tugboats in the flood-swollen Burnet Bay along the Houston Ship Channel in Houston. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
Barges are secured by tugboats in the flood-swollen Burnet Bay along the Houston Ship Channel in Houston. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Trump plans a second visit to the region on Saturday.

Though the sun was out in Houston on Friday and water levels down in many areas, Mayor Sylvester Turner called for voluntary evacuations on the city's west side. He said already-flooded neighborhoods there may be in greater danger as the Army Corps of Engineers continues to release water into the adjacent Buffalo Bayou to prevent dam and levee failures.

About 80 miles (130 km) to the east, the Neches River, which flows into Beaumont and nearby Port Arthur, was forecast to crest early on Saturday well above flood levels, the National Weather Service said.

"It (the Neches River) is about 7 feet (2.1 meters) above the record and it will continue to remain at or be near that high for about the next week. This flooding poses an ongoing threat," Texas Governor Abbott told reporters.

A convenience store owner walks through floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey outside an Exxon Mobil station in Houston
A convenience store owner walks through floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey outside an Exxon Mobil station in Houston

Rescue officials were still working to determine the scope of flooding, said Rodney Smith, deputy chief of the Cedar Hill, Texas, Fire Department.

The storm's impact played out in ways large and small, a full week after Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast Friday night as the strongest hurricane to hit the state in more than 50 years.

A man floats past a truck submerged on a freeway flooded by Hurricane Harvey near downtown Houston. Photo: AP
A man floats past a truck submerged on a freeway flooded by Hurricane Harvey near downtown Houston. Photo: AP

At the Hollywood Community Cemetery in Orange, floodwaters had caused three coffins to pop out of concrete vaults. One belonged to Dewey Mosby, who died in 2003 at the age of 82.

"He won't stay put," said Ron Kendall, 63, who helps maintain the cemetery and said he knew Mosby well in life. Kendall had helped direct Mosby's coffin back to its resting place after the 2008 floods from Hurricane Ike and again during floods in 2016.

"Everybody knows where Mr. Mosby goes now because he always comes up," Kendall said.

At chemical maker Arkema SA, a fire started on Thursday in a truck storing chemicals at a flooded plant east of Houston had burned itself out by Friday. But more blasts were likely in eight other trucks storing the same chemicals. .

Meanwhile a new storm, Irma, had strengthened on Friday into a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. It remained hundreds of miles from land but was forecast to possibly hit Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti by the middle of next week.

Harvey, which lingered around the Gulf of Mexico Coast for days, dumped unprecedented amounts of rain and left devastation across more than 300 miles (480 km) of the state's coast.

A list of the dead put out by Harris County painted a grim picture of the storm's brutality, describing bodies found floating face down in floodwaters, lying in ditches or across fences. Many were unidentified.

The storm shut about a fourth of U.S. refinery capacity, much of which is clustered along the Gulf Coast, and caused gasoline prices to spike to a two-year high ahead of the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has risen 17 cents since the storm struck, hitting $2.519 as of Friday morning, according to motorists group AAA.

Supply concerns prompted the U.S. Energy Department to authorize the release of up to 4.5 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Several East Coast refineries have run out of gasoline, raising fears that travelers will face fuel shortages during the three-day holiday.

In Texas cities including Dallas, there were long lines at gas stations. Abbott said the state was taking steps to ensure adequate supplies, adding: "Don't worry. We will not run out of gasoline."

Harvey came on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,800 around New Orleans. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush's administration was roundly criticized for its botched early response to the storm.

"The people of Texas and Louisiana were hit very hard by a historic flood and their response taught us all a lesson, a very, very powerful lesson," Trump said. "There was an outbreak of compassion only ... and it really inspired us as a nation."

Some 440,000 Texans have already applied for federal financial disaster assistance, and some $79 million has been approved so far, Abbott said.

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