ROCKPORT, TEXAS (REUTERS) - Rescue crews raced against rising floodwaters on Sunday (Aug 27) to pull hundreds of stranded residents from their homes in south-east Texas as Harvey, the most powerful storm to hit the state in more than 50 years, roared inland.
The storm has killed at least five people, the National Weather Service said.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said on Twitter the death toll could rise, with his deputies responding to reports of a deceased woman and child inside a submerged vehicle on Interstate 10 near Houston.
Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport shut down its airfield early on Sunday due to standing water on the runway, cancelling all inbound and outbound flights. The arrivals section of the airport was also closed as waters rose.
The second confirmed fatality from Tropical Storm Harvey came on Saturday evening as a woman attempted to drive through flooded streets on Houston’s west side, said Sergeant Colin Howard of the Houston police department.
“It appeared that her vehicle went into high water and she drowned as a result,” he said. The victim was not immediately identified.
Emergency services in Houston told people to climb onto the roofs of their houses rather than into their attics to escape rapidly rising waters. Authorities have urged residents to stay off the streets of Houston and other south-east Texas cities as rain falling at up to 5 inches per hour flooded roads and major intersections.
On Friday night, an unidentified victim died in a house fire in the town of Rockport, 48km north of Corpus Christi.
Another dozen people in the area suffered injuries like broken bones, another official said.
The Harris County Joint Information centre said first responders were conducting hundreds of rescues early on Sunday morning as calls came in across the county.
Gonzalez’ Twitter feed was inundated by residents asking for help and the sheriff could only tell some of them that crews were doing the best they can. “All agencies care but everyone simply operating at maximum capacity,” he tweeted at one point.
Harvey slammed into Texas late Friday as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 209kmh, making it the strongest storm to hit the state since 1961. It has since lingered over Houston, dumping 2-3 inches of rain an hour onto the city.
The storm ripped off roofs, snapped trees, triggered tornadoes and flash floods and cut off power to some 232,000 people, mostly in the Houston area, on Saturday night. It also largely curtailed oil and gas production in the state, prompting price hikes at the pumps.
Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday but was expected to lash Texas for days as it lumbers inland, bringing as much as 40 inches of rain to some areas, according to the National Hurricane Center, which described the forecast for the state as potentially "catastrophic".
The Weather Channel reported that rainfall rates in Houston, the fourth most populous city in the United States and home to a third of the 6 million people that could be impacted by Harvey, could reach 5-6 inches per hour, making streets impassable.
Rockport, which took a direct hit from the storm, was left with streets flooded and strewn with power lines and debris on Saturday.
A dozen recreational vehicles were flipped over on a sales lot, one blown into the middle of the street. By Saturday evening, a convoy of military vehicles had arrived in the Rockport area with people and equipment to help in the recovery efforts, and town officials announced an overnight curfew for residents.
"It was terrible," resident Joel Valdez, 57, told Reuters. The storm ripped part of the roof from his trailer home at around 4am, he said as he sat in a Jeep with windows smashed by the storm.
"I could feel the whole house move."
Before the storm hit, Rockport's mayor told anyone staying behind to write their names on their arms for identification in case of death or injury. A high school, hotel, senior housing complex and other buildings suffered structural damage, according to emergency officials and local media.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he was activating 1,800 members of the military to help with the statewide cleanup, while 1,000 people would conduct search-and-rescue operations.
The streets of Corpus Christi, a city of about 320,000 people, were deserted on Saturday, with billboards twisted and strong winds still blowing. City authorities asked residents to reduce use of toilets and faucets because power outages left waste water plants unable to treat sewage.
Elsewhere, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it was forced to evacuate some 4,500 inmates from three state prisons near the Brazos River because of rising water.
Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale when it hit the coast, the second-highest category, and the most powerful storm in over a decade to come ashore anywhere in the mainland United States.
Harvey weakened to tropical storm from hurricane strength on Saturday, the US National Hurricane Centre said. The centre of the storm was barely moving and was less than 240km from Houston with sustained winds of 96kmh.
'MAJOR WATER EVENT'
"This is serious," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a televised interview on Saturday afternoon. "It is important that people stay off the roads."
Turner said the city, which has faced flooding in recent years during smaller storms, is prepared for what he described as a "major water event".
Authorities warned of the potentially life-threatening impact of heavy rains between Houston and Corpus Christi over the next several days.
The latest forecast storm track has Harvey looping back toward the Gulf of Mexico coast before turning north again on Tuesday. "This rain will lead to a prolonged, dangerous, and potentially catastrophic flooding event well into next week,"the National Weather Service said.
The size and strength of Harvey dredged up memories of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that made a direct hit on New Orleans as a Category 3 storm, causing levees and flood walls to fail in dozens of places. About 1,800 died in the disaster made worse by a slow government emergency response.
US President Donald Trump, facing the first big natural disaster of his term, signed a disaster proclamation on Friday. He met with his cabinet and staff on Saturday to discuss the federal reaction to the storm, according to a White House statement.
"President Trump emphasised his expectations that all departments and agencies stay fully engaged and positioned to support his number one priority of saving lives," according to the statement.
Several refiners shut down plants ahead of the storm, disrupting supplies and pushing prices higher. Many fuel stations ran out of gasoline before the storm hit, and the US Environmental Protection Agency loosened gasoline specifications to reduce shortages.
Disruptions to fuel supply drove benchmark gasoline futures to their highest price in four months.
More than 45 per cent of the country's refining capacity is along the US Gulf Coast, and nearly a fifth of the nation's crude is produced offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
Just under 25 per cent of Gulf output, or 429,000 barrels per day (bpd) had been shut in by the storm, the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said on Saturday.