HOUSTON • As flood waters from Hurricane Harvey recede, thousands were set to return to their homes yesterday to survey damage from unprecedented flooding that devastated densely populated areas of Texas, even as worries mount about health risks.
Harvey, which came ashore on Aug 25 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in 50 years, is expected to be one of the costliest natural disasters in US history, having displaced more than one million people and leaving wreckage over more than 480km.
Thirteen Superfund sites - heavily contaminated former industrial zones - in Texas were flooded or damaged by Harvey, but the full impact on surrounding areas was not immediately clear, the US Environmental Protection Agency said on Saturday.
The announcement came amid rising concern about the health risks posed by Harvey's record floodwaters, which contain a toxic mix of chemicals, oil and bacteria from Houston's notoriously leaky sewer system.
The city of Houston ordered a mandatory evacuation yesterday of about 4,600 residences in the western section, where several hundred people have not left their homes and flooding is expected to last for another two weeks.
"Put your own personal safety above your property," Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding that residents should consider the safety of first responders who would have to handle any emergencies.
Damage from the storm is also posing an economic and humanitarian challenge for US President Donald Trump, who visited Houston on Saturday and met some of the thousands of people in evacuation shelters and rescue workers who have helped shuttle survivors to safety.
RELIEF WORK DONE 'VERY EFFICIENTLY'
Really, I think people appreciate what has been done. It has been done very efficiently, very well. There is a lot of love, a lot of love.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, speaking during a stop at the NRG Centre, a convention complex converted into a facility to assist storm evacuees.
"Really, I think people appreciate what has been done," Mr Trump told reporters at NRG Centre, a convention complex converted into a facility to assist storm evacuees. "It has been done very efficiently, very well. There is a lot of love, a lot of love."
The visit gave Mr Trump an opportunity to show an empathetic side, after some criticised him for staying clear of the disaster zone during a Texas visit on Tuesday. In response, Mr Trump said he did not want to hamper rescue efforts.
Late Saturday night, Mr Trump tweeted: "Just got back to the White House from the Great States of Texas and Louisiana, where things are going well. Such cooperation & coordination!"
The Trump administration on Friday asked Congress for a US$7.85 billion (S$10.7 billion) appropriation for response and initial recovery efforts. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who accompanied the Trumps, has said his state may need more than US$125 billion.
For many in the Houston metropolitan area, which has an economy as large as Argentina's, losses to individual families were cataclysmic.
In a neighbourhood in east Houston, streets were lined with 2.4m piles of soggy debris, including mattresses, carpets and other belongings ripped out of homes.
Mr Adrian Rodriguez returned on Saturday to his flood-hit home, where he lived with his wife and three young boys.
"I lost everything. All my children's pictures of them growing up. Their birthday pictures. Vacation pictures. Their school projects of what they wanted to be when they grow up," he said.
"There is furniture on the sidewalk that I'm still paying for," he said. "Everything in the house is history."
Officials said at least 75 schools in Houston - or more than 25 per cent of all those in the district - suffered severe or extensive water damage .
At least one high school, with 2,700 students, was unlikely to open for nearly the entire school year, and the city was still evaluating some other school structures.
Many areas of Texas were still battling floodwaters from swollen rivers that were expected to last for a week or more. In Beaumont, about 140km east, officials were trying to repair a flood-damaged pumping station that caused the town of about 120,000 people to lose drinking water for days.
As of Saturday morning, nearly 200,000 homes have suffered flood damage and about 12,600 were destroyed, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Nine days after the hurricane hit, more than 50,000 people remained without power.