Tropical Storm Harvey hammered the Houston area with wave after wave of pummeling rain Sunday, leaving at least five people dead and overwhelming rescue crews, which used helicopters, boats and anything else that floats to reach thousands trapped by rapidly rising water.
Up to 27 inches of rain had fallen across a wide area since Saturday, flooding all 22 of Harris County’s watersheds and leaving residents to struggle with an unprecedented disaster. Another 15 to 25 inches are expected over the next several days.
“The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before,” a National Weather Service alert said. “Catastrophic flooding is … expected to continue for days.”
Residents were urged to dial 911 only if their lives were in immediate danger and to stay on the line until their call was answered because emergency lines were swamped.
Officials also warned affected residents to climb atop roofs — avoiding attics, lest they be trapped by rising water — and to wave sheets or towels so they could be noticed by about 18 helicopters searching for the stranded.
The U.S. Coast Guard set up emergency phone lines for people in need of inland water rescues, and Houston police brought 1,100 people to safety in 90 separate rescues, Chief Art Acevedo said.
“We are going on fumes & our hearts ache for community we serve, but we will not stop,” Acevedo said via Twitter.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett pleaded for local volunteers to donate boats and vehicles capable of handling floodwater, saying all pre-positioned rescue craft were already in use, with reinforcements blocked because all major highways and several hundred roads had been closed by flooding.
By noon, emergency crews had conducted 1,500 to 2,000 high-water rescues, an unprecedented number, Emmett told the Houston Chronicle.
“We desperately need boats and high-water vehicles,” he said. “We can’t wait for assets to come from outside.”
The National Weather Service said five deaths in Houston appeared to be storm-related, and the Chronicle reported that a sixth death in La Marque also might have been caused by flooding. With vehicles still submerged along several highways, officials feared the death toll will rise.
Both of Houston’s main airports were closed by flooding, and schools will be closed all week in affected areas across Harris County as well as nearby Galveston, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.
Recovery is expected to take months, if not years, and Gov. Greg Abbott told Fox News that damage from Harvey will be in the billions of dollars statewide.
In Houston, Erica Harris said she carried her five children — four boys and a baby girl — through floodwaters just north of downtown to make it to a city shelter that was hastily set up at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where about 1,000 people had arrived by nightfall.
“We walked over the (University of Houston) bridge, and we got stuck because the kids couldn’t make it across,” she said, describing floodwaters that would have swept the children away. “A lot of people were like, ‘Go back!’ — but it was flooded at our apartments too.”
After retreating and regrouping, she carried two children, including the baby, across first, then returned to carry each of the remaining boys across.
“It was just: Get it done,” she said.
People came to the convention center by bus and on foot, many seeking refuge as the rains briefly calmed Sunday afternoon. They were greeted with dry towels, a warm meal and hundreds of cots that had been set up for the night to come.
Dulcie Alexander and Alexis Teague met on the side of a Houston freeway Saturday night and finally managed to find their way to the shelter.
“We made it inside the Loop, and we couldn’t make it out on the other side,” Alexander said, drinking a cup of coffee. “That’s why it was so bad; the bayou just exploded. It was so bad.”
Rain totals climbed throughout the day as Harvey, centered between Cuero and Victoria, drifted slowly to the southwest.
Still a tropical storm, Harvey formed bands of moisture over the Gulf of Mexico and spun the systems off to the east, raking the Houston area and extending storms into Louisiana, the weather service said. Some areas were being hit with 3 inches of rain an hour, and meteorologists feared that 6 inches an hour could fall in some places.
The weather service reported “epic catastrophic flooding” with additional life-threatening rainfall totals expected, ending on an ominous note: “The extended outlook is for additional heavy rain.”
Also Sunday, the White House announced that President Donald Trump will visit Texas on Tuesday.
“We are coordinating logistics with state and local officials, and once details are finalized, we will let you know,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. “We continue to keep all of those affected in our thoughts and prayers.”
Abbott, who gave the Trump administration an “A-plus” for its swift response to Harvey, also asked the federal government to add 16 counties to the presidential disaster declaration. In all, Abbott has asked that 54 Texas counties be declared disaster areas, making the areas eligible for federal relief.
“These communities have suffered a great deal because of this catastrophic storm, but Texans are resilient by nature and will make it through this tough time,” Abbott said.
COMPLETE COVERAGE FROM STATESMAN JOURNALISTS
The American-Statesman newsroom has mobilized for in-depth coverage of Harvey online and in print. We had reporters and photographers in Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, Victoria, La Grange and Houston as the storm hit, with dozens more in Austin reporting on local effects. Read the latest updates at statesman.com through the days and nights ahead and follow @statesman on Twitter and on Facebook.