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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

At least 44 feared killed as floods recede in Houston

Economic cost from powerful storm estimated at more than $50 billion

People rescued from the flood waters of Tropical Storm Harvey wait to board school buses bound for Louisiana in Vidor, Texas, on August 31, 2017. Jonathan Bachman / Reuters
People rescued from the flood waters of Tropical Storm Harvey wait to board school buses bound for Louisiana in Vidor, Texas, on August 31, 2017. Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

A week after Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Texas, no let-up in rescue efforts was expected on Friday as large pockets of land remained under water after one of the worst and costliest natural disasters to hit the United States.

The storm has displaced over a million people, with 44 feared dead from flooding that paralysed Houston, swelled river levels to record highs and knocked out the drinking water supply in Beaumont, a city of about 120,000 people.

The public were warned of the risk of more explosions and fires at a flooded chemical plant about 40 kilometres outside Houston that was rocked by blasts on Thursday.

The National Weather Service issued flood watches from Arkansas into Ohio on Friday as the remnants of the storm, downgraded to a tropical depression, headed inland.

The Neches River, which flows into Beaumont and nearby Port Arthur, was forecast for to rise well well above flood levels from Friday. The flooding and loss of drinking water forced the evacuation of a hospital on Thursday.

"Beaumont is basically an island," city mayor Becky Adams said.

The city, about 130km east of Houston and largely cut off by floods, was only able to receive one major supply of drinking water on Thursday and there were plans to set up water distribution centres on Friday, city officials said.

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Harvey roared ashore late last Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in half a century, dumping unprecedented quantities of rain and leaving devastation across more than 450km in the south-east corner of the state.

Moody's Analytics estimated the economic cost from Harvey for south-eastern Texas at between $51 billion (Dh187.35bn) and $75bn, ranking it among the costliest storms in US history. Much of the damage has been to the Houston, the US energy hub, whose metropolitan area has an economy comparable with Argentina's.

At least 44 people were dead or feared dead in Houston and areas around it, officials said. Another 19 remained missing.

Some 779,000 Texans have been told to leave their homes and another 980,000 fled voluntarily amid dangers of new flooding from swollen rivers and reservoirs, according to the department of homeland security.

Tens of thousands were in crowded evacuation centres across the region.

As floods began to recede in Houston, firefighters began conducting a house-by-house search to rescue stranded survivors and recover bodies as some residents began to return to their homes to assess the damage.

Seventy per cent of Harris County, which encompasses Houston and has a population of about 4.6 million people, was covered with 45 centimetres or more of water, county officials said.

As signs of normal life returned to the city, the nation's fourth most populous, there were also concerns about health risks from bacteria and pollutants in floodwater.

The Houston Astros baseball team, forced to play away from the city because of the floods, will return and play at its home field on Saturday. It has invited shelter residents to attend its double header against the New York Mets, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said on Twitter.

Flooding has shut some of the nation's largest oil refineries and hit US energy infrastructure, which is centred along the Gulf Coast. It has sent petrol prices climbing and disrupted global fuel supplies. In major Texas cities including Dallas, there were long lines at petrol stations, prompting authorities to tell people they were sparking a panic and saying there were ample fuel supplies.

Power outages had decreased from peaks of more than 300,000 to about 160,000 homes and businesses in Texas and Louisiana as of Friday morning, data from utilities showed.

Many Houston residents were shocked at what they found when they returned home.

Anita Williams, 52, lined up at a shelter at Houston's George R Brown Convention Centre to register for emergency aid after seeing the damage to her one-storey home.

"It's not my house anymore," Ms Williams said. "My deep freezer was in my living room."