Death toll rises in wake of Harvey’s record-smashing 50-inch deluge

Updated Aug 29, 2017
Jay Janner
A man rides his bicycle Tuesday south of Cairnway near the Addicks Resevoir that flooded overnight in West Houston. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A veteran Houston police officer who drowned while on duty is among those claimed by record-breaking Hurricane Harvey, which experts on Tuesday said might return to Texas from the Gulf of Mexico, but isn’t expected to strike the nation’s fourth-largest city again.

A search culminated in officers finding Sgt. Steve Perez’s body under a highway overpass Tuesday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said. Speaking through tears, Acevedo confirmed Perez, 60, a 34-year veteran of the department, had drowned. An autopsy awaits.

His death is the 15th fatality in Texas that can be tied to Harvey, the once-Category 4 hurricane that in five days has destroyed pre-storm projections along with families, homes and peace of mind for millions of Texans. Acevedo said more than 3,500 people in Houston have been rescued in the wake of torrential rains and flooding, and that officials are likely days away from being able to launch a full recovery effort. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 113 pets.

HURRICANE HARVEY: More evacuees expected in Austin shelters

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump visited Texas to show support. Accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, the president stopped first in Corpus Christi before arriving in Austin after 2 p.m. for a briefing at the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Operations Center.

The destruction wrought by Harvey, which has been downgraded to a tropical storm, is measured in jarring numbers.

John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist, told The Washington Post that a rain gauge in Mont Belvieu, about 40 miles east of Houston, had registered 51.1 inches of rain through early Tuesday afternoon. That’s not only a Texas record, but a record for the 48 contiguous states, the paper reports, and exceeds the previous high-water mark of 48 inches set during tropical cyclone Amelia in Medina in 1978. The new mark is unofficial, pending a review.

Meteorologist Jeff Lindner told the Houston Chronicle that between 20 and 30 percent of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles was underwater as of Tuesday afternoon. Taking the lower end of that projection, 20 percent is the equivalent of 355 water-logged miles — bigger than Austin.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said rescuers were shifting focus to Kingwood, a community in northeast Houston that sits mostly in Harris County, but partly in Montgomery County.

VIEWPOINT: As waters rise in Harvey’s wake, Texans make a heavy lift

With the storm swirling north from the Gulf, experts warn Beaumont and Louisiana to be on the lookout. Harvey was expected to make its second landfall in Louisiana near the Texas border on Wednesday, bringing 6 to 12 inches of rain to the north and east of Houston.

Houston officials had planned to open two or three more mega-shelters to accommodate people who continue to arrive at the overflowing George R. Brown Convention Center seeking refuge, Turner said.

The center already held more than 9,000 people Tuesday, almost twice the number officials originally planned to house there, he added.

“We are not turning anyone away. But it does mean we need to expand our capabilities and our capacity,” Turner said. “Relief is coming.”

More than 17,000 people have sought refuge in Texas shelters, and that number seemed certain to increase, the American Red Cross said.

READ: Austinites who fled Katrina know what Houston evacuees face

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that the Texas Department of Transportation is receiving $25 million in federal money to help repair roads damaged from Hurricane Harvey.

The U.S. Labor Department also announced approval for an initial $10 million to assist with cleanup and the recovery effort and to help Texans get back on their feet if they are unable to work. Funding comes through the National Dislocated Worker Grant.

The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in Texas and Louisiana.

Harvey’s death toll is expected to rise.

Harris County’s medical examiner identified an individual previously tallied as a likely drowning victim. According to an update posted by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Alexander Kwoksum Sung, 64, a resident of South Houston, drowned at 2:40 p.m. Sunday.

Institute spokeswoman Tricia Bentley later said that through Tuesday, autopsies confirmed five additional deaths—including the police sergeant — in connection with the hurricane. Bentley said eight additional individuals, whose bodies were found Sunday or later, awaited autopsies.

Galveston County has tallied six deaths related to the storm, a local investigator told the Houston Chronicle.

“There’s more deaths than that,” Chief Investigator John Florence with the Galveston County medical examiner’s office was quoted as saying. “But we don’t know if they’re storm-related.”

On Saturday, the Chronicle said, an elderly woman died in her Santa Fe home after her oxygen tank failed when the electricity went out. Crews recovered her body Sunday.

HURRICANE HARVEY: Austin groups rally to support flood victims

Most of the other five deaths were Sunday and Monday in Dickinson and League City, the paper said, with one man found dead Sunday in a La Marque Walmart parking lot, though it’s not clear how he died or if it was storm-related.

The newspaper said it wasn’t clear how the other storm victims died because Florence couldn’t access his Texas City office to see records.

People living near a Houston-area plant that uses ammonia to make organic peroxides were evacuated Tuesday. Arkema Inc., the company that owns the plant in Crosby, had earlier expressed concern that without a power source, the plant could warm to a dangerous level, touching off an explosion or fire.

In a slither of good news, Port Aransas is now accessible to anyone who drives the land route from Corpus Christi, the city says.

But ferry service from Aransas Pass is “closed to the public until further notice,” said Rickey Dailey, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Corpus Christi district.

The beachside community suffered extensive damage Friday night.