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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Trump visit Houston to assess Harvey damage  

'I'm really worried about how many bodies we're going to find,' says Houston's police chief

Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighbourhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise on August 29, 2017, in Houston. David J Phillip/AP Photo
Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighbourhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise on August 29, 2017, in Houston. David J Phillip/AP Photo

Rescue crews in Houston fear their mission will soon switch to recovering bodies once the rains ease and the emergency calls slow.

More than three days after Hurricane Harvey blasted ashore in Texas with 210kph winds, authorities have so far confirmed only three deaths but the number of reported or presumed dead is growing steadily, giving an unofficial death toll of 10.

Among them are six members of the same family, missing after their van was swept away.

President Donald Trump is due to visit Texas on Tuesday to survey the damage, with 30,000 people forced from their homes and more days of rain forecast.

Officials say they are already worried about they will find when the water recedes.

Art Acevedo, Houston police chief, said: “We know in these kind of events that, sadly, the death toll goes up historically.

“I'm really worried about how many bodies we're going to find."

Those confirmed dead include a woman who was crushed when a tree, its roots loosened by flood water, fell on to her trailer home in the small town of Porter on Monday.

Waters were still rising in Houston on Tuesday as one of the most destructive storms in American history continued to dump rain across Texas and the neighouring state of Louisiana. Radar images suggested New Orleans, he city that was hit so hard by Huicane Katrina in 2005, was next in line.

Forecasters say another 60cm of rain is still possible on top of the 76cm already experienced in some places, bringing flooding on an epic scale.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said he expected more than 450,000 people to apply for federal assistance and officials say 30,000 people have already been taken into shelters.

Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, described it as “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced”. He was among a number of local and federal officials who said the recovery would take years. “We need to recognise it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region,” he said.

Sam Speights exits a window of his home that was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. Eric Gay/AP Photo
Sam Speights exits a window of his home that was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. Eric Gay/AP Photo

Countless families are already trying to deal with a new normal of ruined homes or missing loved ones.

Virginia Salvidar fears six members of her family, including four of her grandchildren, are dead after their van was swept off a bridge in East Houston during an escape attempt.

She said her brother-in-law, Samuel Salvidar, was driving the van on Sunday as he tried to take his parents and grandchildren to safety. But a current in the floodwaters took the van, pitching it into the river.

She described how Mr Saldivar managed to climb out of the window and urged the children — aged six to 16 — to escape through the back door but they could not manage to get out.

“I'm just hoping we find the bodies,” she said.

Mr Trump and the first lady were due to visit Texas to see the damage and rescue efforts for themselves.

Their schedule will take them to Corpus Christie, close to where Harvey made land, rather than Houston where their presence would be likely to divert resources from the mammoth emergency.

US President Donald Trump is briefed on Tropical Storm Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 29, 2017.Earlier he said America's core characteristics of strength, charity and resilience would see the country through the disaster.Carlos Barria / Reuters
US President Donald Trump is briefed on Tropical Storm Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 29, 2017.Earlier he said America's core characteristics of strength, charity and resilience would see the country through the disaster.Carlos Barria / Reuters

Speaking at a news conference the day before, Mr Trump struck a unifying tone.

“We are one American family,” he said. “We hurt together, we struggle together, and, believe me, we endure together. We are one family.”

He said protecting lives was his top priority and promised that his threats to shut down the federal government would not slow the arrival of recovery funds.

He said the core American characteristics of “strength, charity and resilience” were showing through in the disaster response. “We will get through this,” he said. “We will come out stronger and believe me we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before.”

At the same time, there will be questions about whether more could have been done to prevent the disaster. Houston, with its rapid expansion, flat terrain and 2,735 kilometres of creeks, streams and bayous, is notoriously flood prone. And, as Harvey barrelled toward the shore, the mayor and governor gave conflicting advice on whether to evacuate.

The UN weather agency also said the huge volume of rainfall from Tropical Storm Harvey was probably linked to increased moisture in the atmosphere as a result of global warming.

“Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise,” said Clare Nullis, spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organisation. The US National Weather Service had to introduce a new colour on its maps to indicate such high amounts of rain, she added.

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