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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Hurricane Harvey: Houston to shelter 30,000 people as flood waters continue to rise

With rescue services overwhelmed by thousands of calls for help, local authorities made the difficult decision to sacrifice some neighbourhoods by opening two reservoirs to reduce the threat of overspilling water inundating further areas of downtown Houston

Evacuees are airlifted to safety in a US Coast Guard helicopter after flooding inundated neighborhoods in Houston on August 27, 2017. US Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Johanna Strickland / Handout via Reuters
Evacuees are airlifted to safety in a US Coast Guard helicopter after flooding inundated neighborhoods in Houston on August 27, 2017. US Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Johanna Strickland / Handout via Reuters

Officials in Houston said on Monday they were preparing to house 30,000 people in emergency shelters as flood waters continued to rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Residents of the United States's fourth largest city woke on Monday morning to find rains had eased overnight but that they were still facing days of hardship amid catastrophic flooding on a level expected in Houston only once in 800 years, according to officials.

With rescue services overwhelmed by thousands of calls for help, local authorities made the difficult decision to sacrifice some neighbourhoods by opening two reservoirs to reduce the threat of overspilling water inundating further areas of downtown Houston.

By Monday morning, a record 75 centimetres of rain had fallen on the city, turning roads into rivers of turbid grey water and forcing families to climb on to roofs as they await help.

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Three people were confirmed dead — a number that is expected to rise — and as many as 2,000 people rescued.

And there appeared to be no end in sight.

After more than three days of intense rainfall, the acting head of the US department of homeland security had a warning for residents along the Texas Gulf Coast.

"While the hurricane force winds have diminished, I want to stress that we are not out of the woods yet," Elaine Duke said at a news conference.

"Harvey is still a dangerous and historic storm."

The danger was clear to residents of Fort Bend County, where a fresh set of evacuation was ordered on Monday morning as a river came close to overflowing.

“A flood of this magnitude is an 800-year event and it exceeds the design specifications of our levees, and is potentially dangerous for a good portion of Fort Bend County,” said Fort Bend County judge Robert Hebert.

Officials were continuing to tell people to shelter in place and stay off flooded streets as they concentrated their rescue efforts on reports of individuals and families trapped in homes, buildings or cars.

Keith Smith, a public information officer, said the city’s 911 emergency response system had been overwhelmed by a massive increase in calls. Operators typically handle a total of 8,000 calls per day but in the 17 hours after Harvey made landfall they received more than 56,000 requests for help.

Rescuers said they had to give priority to life-and-death situations, leaving many of those stranded to fend for themselves.

Several hospitals had to be evacuated on Sunday after becoming victims of floodwater themselves.

Residents whose homes had been flooded, meanwhile, began arriving at Houston’s George R Brown Convention Centre, which was also used as a shelter for people fleeing Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Gillis Leho arrived soaking wet. She said she awoke on Sunday to find the ground floor of her home flooded. She moved what she could carry upstairs before grabbing her grandchildren.

"We had to bust a window to get out," she told The Associated Press.

Stories like those and the vast scale of the emergency had prompted a re-examination of conflicting advice given as Hurricane Harvey closed in on the coast.

While the governor urged people to flee their homes, the mayor of Houston said people should shelter at home. But on Monday, many of those people were trapped.

On Sunday, Greg Abbott, the Republican governor, refused to blame his Democratic mayor.

"Now is not the time to second-guess the decisions that were made," he said at a news conference. "What's important is that everybody work together to ensure that we are going to, first, save lives and, second, help people across the state rebuild."

The mayor, Sylvester Turner, stuck by his advice, saying that ordering 2.3 million residents to evacuate their homes would have created chaos on the motorways.

"If you think the situation right now is bad, and you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare," he said.

Harvey barrelled ashore on Friday night as a category four storm with winds of up to 130 miles per hour, making it the strongest hurricane to hit America in more than a decade. Since then it has lost energy and been downgraded to a tropical storm. But as it lingers close to Houston its torrential rain has brought flooding to 50 Texas counties.

It provides a stiff test for US president Donald Trump’s administration and its ability to handle a major emergency.

The White House said the president planned to visit the affected area on Tuesday. He has so far kept up a running commentary on Twitter as part of an effort to show is keeping abreast of developments.

“HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas,” he tweeted on Sunday evening. “Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible. Thanks!”

Elsewhere, efforts continued to reduce the deadly effects of what is forecast to be 27 trillion gallons of water dumped in the region.

Officials in two counties — Harris and Fort Bend — told residents near the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to prepare for a controlled release of water that could flood their homes as part of efforts to protect downtown Houston.

"The idea is to prepare … pack up what you need and put it in your vehicle and when the sun comes up, get out," said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District. "And you don't have to go far, you just need to get out of this area."

Even as officials try to reduce the deadly toll of the unfolding disaster, longer term recovery efforts have begun.

Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said it would take years for the area to rebuild.

“Fema’s going to be there for years,” he said. “This disaster is going to be a landmark event and we’re already — while we are focused on response right now in helping Texas respond — we are already pushing forward recovery housing teams.”