HOUSTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump visited Texas on Tuesday (Aug 29) to survey damage from the first major natural disaster to test his leadership in a crisis, as record rainfall from tropical storm Harvey lashed Houston and tens of thousands of people fled deluged homes.
The slow-moving storm has brought catastrophic flooding to Texas, killing at least 12 people and paralysing Houston, the America’s fourth most populous city. Damage was expected to run well into tens of billions of dollars, making it one of the costliest US natural disasters.
City officials were preparing to temporarily house some 19,000 people, with thousands more expected to flee the area as the flooding entered its fourth day and authorities found themselves running out of space in cramped shelters.
The mayor of Houston announced an indefinite midnight to 5 am curfew amid reports of looting, armed robberies and people impersonating police officers.
Nearly a third of Harris County was under water, an area 15 times the size of Manhattan, according to the Houston Chronicle newspaper. Forecasters warned the rain would continue through Thursday, badly straining the dams and drainage systems that protect the low-lying US energy hub.
Harris County officials warned residents to evacuate as they released water from overflowing reservoirs to alleviate pressure on two dams, a move that would add to flooding along the Buffalo Bayou waterway that runs through the area.
Residents within 2.4km of a chemical plant in Crosby were also ordered to evacuate due to the rising risk of an explosion.
Trump, speaking in Corpus Christi near where Harvey first came ashore last week as the most powerful hurricane to strike Texas in more than 50 years, said he wanted the relief effort to stand as an example of how to respond to a storm.
“This was of epic proportion. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” he said of Harvey as he met state and federal officials for a briefing at a Corpus Christi fire station.
After Corpus Christi, Trump was headed to the state capital Austin to meet with officials. Houston was not on his itinerary because much of it is impassable.
POLICE OFFICER DIES
An 11th death was reported on Tuesday – Houston police sergeant Steve Perez, 60, a 34-year veteran of the force whose body was found after apparently drowning while attempting to get to work on Sunday, police chief Art Acevedo told reporters.
Acevedo said Perez’ family had urged him not to leave the house because of the dangerous flooding but the officer told them: “We have work to do.”
Some 3,500 people have been rescued from high waters in the Houston area with police, firefighters and National Guard troops continuing to try to locate those marooned in high waters.
Large numbers of civilians also formed ad hoc rescue groups, many using boats to pluck neighbors from flooded homes.
Gloria Stilwell, 44, who described herself as a stay-at-home mom, said she agreed with Trump’s assessment that Houstonians were well equipped to handle the storm.
“I totally agree with him. Texas can definitely handle it,” Stilwell said as she registered to volunteer at a shelter.
“I’ve lived here since 1980, through plenty of hurricanes. Texans have always banded together.”
Nurse Lisa Ike, 39, was less impressed.
“Texas can handle anything? I just lost my house and three cars. We need help,” she said, after being shown Trump’s comments.
She said she had not voted in the presidential election and said she had not yet made up her mind about Trump, adding: “My opinion will be made by how he handles this situation.”
US RAIN RECORD
The storm broke rainfall records for the continental United States, with one site south of Houston recording 1.25m of precipitation since the storm’s start. The rainfall about what the region typically sees in a year and exceeds 1.22m recorded in 1978.
Multiple looters were arrested overnight, police said.
Harvey has roiled energy markets and wrought damage estimated to be in the billions of dollars, with rebuilding likely to last beyond Trump’s four-year term in office.
About 9,000 evacuees were staying at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Centre and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assets to allow the city to shelter another 10,000 people.
Other shelters were set up in Dallas, about 402km to the north, for about 8,000 people, and Austin, 258km west, to take in 7,000 people. The Red Cross said it had 34,000 cots in the region and enough food for that many people.
Harvey was also drenching Louisiana 12 years after Hurricane Katrina hit the state and killed 1,800 people.
The slow-moving storm’s centre was in the Gulf of Mexico about 150km south-east of Houston by midday Monday. It was likely to remain just off the coast of Texas through Tuesday night before moving inland late on Tuesday or early Wednesday, according to the US National Hurricane Centre.
Harvey was expected to produce another 15 to 30cm of rain through Thursday over parts of the upper Texas coast into south-western Louisiana.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to half of US refining capacity. The reduction in supply led gasoline futures to hit their highest level in two years this week as Harvey knocked out about 16 per cent of total US refining capacity, based on company reports and Reuters estimates.