HOUSTON (CN) – Houston streets were buzzing with traffic Friday as people scrambled to get supplies to ride out predicted flooding from Hurricane Harvey, now a Category 3 storm, and a light drizzle grew into a steady downpour.
Houston resident James Mollander said he went to Joe V’s Smart Shop, part of a chain of a HEB-owned discount grocery stores, on Friday morning.
“It was a madhouse. The shelves were bare,” he said.
Mollander said the checkout lines stretched to the back of the store and some aisles were crammed two-abreast with antsy shoppers inching their carts towards the registers.
He bought six packs of Marlboro Ultralight cigarettes to keep him supplied over the coming days, in which Houston is expected to get more than 20 inches of rain between Friday afternoon and early next week, along with gusty winds. There’s also potential for tornadoes in Houston through Saturday afternoon, meteorologists said.
Flooding in Greater Houston is expected to be as bad, or worse, as May 2016, when the region was drenched by two 100-year rainstorms within a week. Such storms have less than a 1 percent of happening in a given year.
City officials urged people to stock supplies for five to seven days. Houston Police Sgt. Michelle Sandoval warned residents in a videotaped statement that 6 inches of moving water can knock you off your feet and 2 feet can sweep your vehicle away.
“Do not go past or drive around barricades. They are there for a reason,” she said.
The city plans to barricade 41 intersections that are prone to flooding.
Sandoval warned people not to use their cellphones if their car stalls in flood waters because it will waste time, and they have 30 seconds to a minute to roll down the windows and escape before their car sinks.
Hurricane Harvey is expected to make landfall in Corpus Christi early Saturday morning, and head northeast up the Texas coast before diminishing to a tropical storm and stalling around Houston.
Outbound highways were packed with Corpus Christi residents fleeing the city Thursday night.
Corpus Christi’s Mayor Joe McComb had not issued a mandatory evacuation notice as of Friday morning, but he said he "strongly encourages" residents to leave.
"We could mandate it, but people need to make a decision of their own. I'm not going to risk our police and fire people going to try and drag somebody out of the house if they don't want to go. Because our fire and police, they're fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles. They've got relatives and they've got family, and we don't want to put them in harm's way because someone just wanted to stay,” McComb said at a news conference Thursday.
Mandatory evacuations have been issued for Aransas, Refugio, San Patricio, Victoria, Calhoun and Kleberg counties, coastal areas southwest of Houston, as storm surges are expected to reach up to 12 feet above ground level in some places.
Galveston County CEO Mark Henry is urging residents of low-lying unincorporated areas on the shores of Galveston Bay to evacuate.
Some oil refineries in the area have already shut down and oil companies are evacuating their workers from offshore rigs. Gulf Coast refineries account for more than 45 percent of the country's refining capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Experts say the disruption to refineries will cause gas prices to increase by 5 to 10 cents in some parts of the country.
In light of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s issuance of a preemptive disaster declaration for 30 counties, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it is moving Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees from the Port Isabel Detention Center to other lockups outside Harvey’s path.
But immigration officials angered civil-rights advocates by announcing they will not close checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, even as the National Weather Service predicted the region’s biggest city, Brownsville, will be hit with hurricane force winds of up to 110 mph.
“As people seek refuge from hurricane Harvey, they are likely to have to go north or west of Texas and would have to go through a checkpoint. By keeping checkpoints open, the Border Patrol is putting undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk out of fear of deportations,” Lorella Praeli, American Civil Liberties Union director of immigration policy and campaigns, said in a statement Friday.
But CBP and ICE urged people in South Texas on Friday to heed the evacuation warnings of their local officials.
The agencies said in a statement that their “highest priorities are to promote life-saving and life-sustaining activities, [and] the safe evacuation of people who are leaving the impacted area,” and “routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks.”
Gov. Abbott said Friday afternoon that undocumented immigrants won’t have to show identification to get into emergency shelters.
Nonprofits are also gearing up for Harvey. The American Red Cross said it will open 34 shelters across the Texas coastline and the Salvation Army was preparing Friday morning to truck in food, water and clean-up kits to the area.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Washington headquarters said on Friday morning that her "hands were full" and referred Courthouse News to FEMA Region 6, which could not immediately be reached for comment.
FEMA Region 6 has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Local law enforcement will keep close tabs on Texas motels, grocery stores and gas stations to ensure they don’t use Hurricane Harvey to exploit customers.
Disaster declarations in Texas trigger stiff penalties for stores caught charging excessive prices for necessities like food, water, lodging and gas.
Back in Houston, Mollander said he’s well-stocked with bottled water.
“I hope I don’t have to take a bath in it,” he said.
At a Foodarama grocery store in northwest Houston, a manager named Felipe frantically stocked an end-of-aisle display with toilet paper Friday morning. He said the store had sold out of bottled water and was planning to close at 3 p.m.
Another Foodarama manager said the store was closing early so its employees could make it home safely, and to avoid an onslaught of customers stopping by on their way home from work.
“But if it’s like this, we’ll stay open,” she said, looking out a light drizzle coming down on the store’s parking lot.
The White House said Friday that President Donald Trump is closely monitoring Harvey and encourages people in the storm’s path to heed the advice and orders of local and state officials.
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