HOUSTON (CN) — Tropical Storm Harvey is flooding southern Louisiana after dumping a record-breaking 51 inches of rain on Houston, leaving more than 20 people dead, 10,000 sheltering in a downtown convention center and hundreds of thousands of evacuees wondering what has become of their homes.
Harvey dumped more than a trillion gallons of rain on Harris County, the equivalent of 15 days of water going full tilt over Niagara Falls, according to Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner.
Harvey’s withdrawal from Greater Houston brought some relief to people who had been ordered to evacuate their homes near the Brazos River in Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, on Wednesday.
The river is expected to crest on Friday morning as rain water drains from its watershed, Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert said in a statement Wednesday.
He said the National Weather Service has lowered the river’s forecasted crest in Richmond, the county seat, from 57.5 feet to 56 feet.
He said 56 feet is the county’s 100-year flood event, which has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.
“The 100-year flood event is what our levees are designed to defend against. So the new elevation is well within the design capabilities of our levees and I have no indication that any levee is having difficulty keeping the river out,” Hebert said.
But he cautioned that 56 feet is above the river’s record peak of 54.74 feet set during Memorial Day weekend 2016 and many streets that have never flooded will.
“So the evacuation orders remain in place. Freedom of speech and social media can be a very dangerous weapon in an event like this because folks who want to manage the news in their view of the future get out there and send messages that can be misleading. The evacuation orders can only be canceled by order of this county judge,” Hebert said.
Lindner said at a news conference on Wednesday morning that a levee holding back Cypress Creek in the Inverness Forest neighborhood in North Houston near Bush Intercontinental Airport has a crack in it and that if it’s breached, it could flood homes up against the embankment to the rooftops.
He said law enforcement went door-to-door in the neighborhood on Monday telling people to leave and the majority did, but some homeowners had chosen to stay and “I don’t know if they’ve left since then.”
He said the likelihood of a breach is still low.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick told KTRH-AM early Wednesday that people in Beaumont are overwhelmed, and he’s received reports of people climbing on their cars to escape the flood waters because they couldn’t get to the roofs of their homes.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the Bob Bower Civic Center in Port Arthur, but officials said early Wednesday that flood waters had washed into the building.
People have climbed up on bleachers in the building until they can be relocated, KHOU, Houston’s CBS affiliate reported early Wednesday.
Branick said rescue efforts will be more difficult in Beaumont and Port Arthur than in Houston because first responders cannot enter the city from Interstate 10 West. It’s underwater from Beaumont to Houston’s eastern suburbs.
“Our whole city is underwater but we are coming! If you called, we are coming. Please get to higher ground if you can, but please try to stay out of the attics” Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman said in a Facebook post around midnight Wednesday as 911 calls overwhelmed the city’s emergency operations center.
He also posted a video of him wading through 4 feet of water in his house early Wednesday.
Freeman said the Coast Guard is in the city conducting boat and helicopter rescues and there are 150 boats rescuing people, 100 of which are manned by volunteers.
Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, Harvey dropped 19 to 20 inches on Port Arthur, which has a population of 55,000 and is home to one of the nation’s largest petrochemical complexes.
Refineries in Port Arthur, Beaumont and Houston that were closed by Harvey had taken more than 20 percent of the nation’s oil refining capacity offline by Wednesday afternoon, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Flooding from Harvey forced Saudi Arabia-owned Motiva early Wednesday to close its Port Arthur oil refinery. The nation’s largest, it produces 603,000 barrels a day.
Valero also shut down its Port Arthur oil refinery on Wednesday afternoon, citing “flooding and potential power supply interruption.”
ExxonMobil and Total Petrochemicals have also shuttered oil refineries in the area.
In Beaumont, 20 miles northeast of Port Arthur, firefighters and police in a boat found an 18-month-old girl holding on to her mother’s drowned body Tuesday, CBS affiliate KFDM-TV reported.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner set a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew Tuesday to stop looters from breaking into homes. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said looters will face double penalties because Harris County is under a federal disaster declaration.
If caught and convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison. The punishment is normally two years to 20 years, Ogg said.
Thirty percent of Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, with more 4.5 million residents, had flooded by Tuesday, meteorologist Lindner said.
With the downtown convention center already over capacity nonprofit BakerRipley opened up the NRG Center late Tuesday night and said it could house 10,000 people and will have a play area for children, a section for pets and a dining hall. The NRG Center is part of a complex that includes the Houston Texans’ home field NRG Stadium and hosts the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo each spring.
Emergency personnel on Wednesday dropped off truckloads of flood evacuees in a parking lot on Westheimer Road just west of Beltway 8, where they met with Houston police officers who were providing food, water and a few essentials.
Dozens of emergency vehicles drove up and down Westheimer Road in west Houston and had to navigate an uptick in traffic due to disabled stoplights.
Most grocery stores on Westheimer were open Wednesday afternoon. Kroger had returned to business as usual, with a modest amount of customers. The local HEB had a line that nearly wrapped around the corner of the building.
An HEB associate said that the store was trying to avoid being overloaded with shoppers because supplies were limited until trucks arrived to restock. The worker said that the store was particularly low on dairy goods, but was reasonably stocked on other groceries and essentials.
However, the Target store on Westheimer Road and Walnut Bend Lane is closed until Thursday, according to a sign posted on the door.
Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Popeye’s and Taco Bell were the first to open after days of heavy rain subsided. Many full-service restaurants in the area were still closed Wednesday.
One restaurant, Rio Ranch on Westheimer at Briarpark, east of Beltway 8, incurred damage when the front door overhang collapsed. The restaurant appeared to be empty and had caution tape around the entrance.
Donations are flooding in to the convention centers, Houston churches and schools that are serving as shelters. At Lakewood Church, a megachurch off U.S. Route 59, news reports showed piles of pillows reaching almost to the building’s 20-feet ceilings Tuesday night.
Boat rescues continued Tuesday in flooded neighborhoods in northwest Houston.
Two reservoirs that catch water in the upper watershed of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, which flows through downtown to the Houston Ship Channel, are holding record levels of water. Linder said Tuesday the Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water from the reservoirs to prevent it from going over their northern spillways. He warned homeowners downstream along Buffalo Bayou to be ready to evacuate Wednesday.
A Houston police dive team recovered the body of police Sgt. Steve Perez, 60, on Tuesday.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference Tuesday that Perez drove into high water under an overpass early Sunday in the dark and drowned.
An emotional Acevedo said Perez “was a sweet gentle public servant” who told his wife and father-in-law, “We’ve got work to do,” when they begged him not to venture out into the flooded streets and freeways.
Officials confirmed that a family of six – four children and their great-grandparents – drowned when their van was swept into the current of a swollen bayou as they tried to escape to higher ground in Houston on Sunday.
A woman going by the name of Yancey Quintanilla tried to capitalize on their deaths and set up a GoFundMe account falsely claiming that she was related to the family, Houston’s NBC affiliate KPRC reported Tuesday night.
Another GoFundMe fundraiser set up by a Houston dentist Terri Alani, and authenticated as genuine by KPRC, says that a relative of the deceased family members is her dental assistant. Alani had raised $8,835 toward her $30,000 goal by early Wednesday morning.
Harvey has caused the deaths of more than 20 people so far, according to the Houston Chronicle. Suburbs to the northeast and south have also been inundated and evacuations are expected to continue into Wednesday.
A chemical plant in Crosby, Texas is in danger of igniting or exploding after it was flooded with 6 feet of water during heavy rains over the weekend and through Tuesday.
Refrigerated chemicals at the plant began to heat up after the facility lost power, and compound degradations could result in a fire or an explosion as soon as Wednesday.
The plant, owned by Arkema Inc., was forced to evacuate all of its employees Tuesday, and 300 residents within 1.5 miles of the plant were voluntarily evacuated from the area.
The facility’s employees were unable to reenter the building to prevent a fire, and local officials told Arkema that the flooding may not recede for up to six days, Arkema’s president and CEO Rich Rowe said Wednesday.
However, the potential fire was “nothing that would pose any long-term harm or impact” and would likely only affect the facility itself, Rowe said.
The plant, located northeast of Houston, was shut down Friday before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coastline. Arkema did not relocate any of its inventory before the storm.
CNS reporter Matt Cooper contributed to this story.