In Beaumont, a Southeast Texas city of 118,000 about 75 miles east of Houston, the problem is simple, stark and stifling: too little drinking water caused by too much floodwater.
After Tropical Storm Harvey in the past days caused severe flooding throughout the area, residents awoke Thursday to another crisis that would send officials scrambling for help and cause evacuations at a local hospital and shelters and long lines for water at grocery stores.
“At this time there is no water supply for the city water system,” a statement from the flood-ravaged city said. It contained this ominous note about repairs and resumption of service: “There is no way to determine how long this will take at this time.”
All this while the city – which got more than 30 inches of rain in the past three days from Tropical Storm Harvey – remained under a flood warning.
“Beaumont is basically on an island,” Carol Riley, spokeswoman for the Beaumont Police Department, said during a news conference Thursday.
In Port Arthur, soldiers used 11 helicopters to rescue 183 residents at two nursing homes. They were taken to Conroe.
In nearby Orange County, officials ordered the evacuation of residents in an area threatened by the flood-swollen Neches River. The river is expected to crest Saturday, as is the Sabine River, east of the Neches and on the Texas-Louisiana border.
Despite the daunting and mounting challenges, Beaumont City Manager Kyle Hayes sounded an optimistic note during a news conference Thursday: “We will get through this, just like we did with Hurricanes Rita and Ike.”
Rising water in the Neches River took out the city’s main water pumps, Beaumont City Manager Kyle Hayes said. He didn’t give a timetable for when officials expect the water system to be back in service.
Long lines of floodwater-weary residents waited to buy drinking water at stores. KFDM-TV reported a two-hour wait at a Kroger supermarket. So precious was drinking water that the Beaumont Enterprise newspaper posted updated lists of where it was available.
City officials were working with state agencies to have water tanks and other water resources brought in via military helicopters or other vehicles.
Surrounding counties still had water service. In Beaumont, fire officials worked to arrange delivery of water tanks from neighboring communities to fight any potential fires.
No water meant no medical services at Beaumont Baptist Hospital, which houses about 200 patients and sees about 250 a day in its emergency room. Depending on medical need and proximity, patients were flown to medical facilities elsewhere.
“We started with 193 evacuations at midnight,” said hospital spokeswoman Mary Poole. “We’ve cleaned out the ER. The dialysis patients have been transferred, and we are starting in the ICU now. We will get everybody out until the water returns here.”
Officials at Christus St. Elizabeth, Beaumont’s other major hospital, said they didn’t plan to move patients but were operating under “extreme emergency conditions.” Spokeswoman Katy Kiser said the hospital has two water wells.
Meanwhile, at the Beaumont Civic Center, one of two Red Cross shelters in the city, the water shortage forced hundreds there to go without showers and other water service, though there were portable bathrooms.
The shortage, as well as the flooding threat from the nearby Neches River, which was rising Thursday afternoon, forced the shelter to be evacuated, said Chester Jourdan, regional director at the Red Cross. Buses were expected to begin picking up the hundreds there Thursday night to drive them to a shelter in San Antonio.
The water shortage could also cause the other Red Cross shelter, at Lamar University, to be evacuated in the coming days, Jourdan said.
People at the civic center swarmed trucks carrying water Thursday.
“It’s a bad situation turned worse,” 28-year-old Jessica Wimbley said. She went to the civic center shelter after her southern Beaumont apartment was flooded Tuesday. “It’s scary. I’m getting out of here.”
Various parts of Beaumont, as well as nearby Port Arthur, continued to flood Thursday. Officials feared streets and homes by waterways such as the Pine Island Bayou in northern Beaumont would see rising waters, even as the sun began to beam across Beaumont.
By the afternoon, Beaumont emergency officials had made more than 1,000 water rescues, city spokesperson Haley Morrow said. The number of fatalities in the city due to flooding caused by Harvey had climbed to three.
Police spokeswoman Riley said the latest storm-related death in the city was an apparent drowning. The victim’s identity hadn’t been announced Thursday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Colette Sulcer, 41, died after she and her 3-year-old daughter were swept away by floodwaters after they fled their vehicle near Interstate 10, according to police. The child, found clinging to her mother, is recovering in a hospital.
Another storm-related death was reported when a body was found in water Wednesday morning. The identity of that person hasn’t been released.
Local officials have reported that 5,500 homes were destroyed and an additional 16,000 sustained major damage in Jefferson County, which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur.
Additional material from The Associated Press