HOUSTON — People across southeastern Texas scrambled to find shelter on Sunday as Tropical Storm Harvey continued to drench the state, dropping up to 24 inches on Houston in 24 hours, flooding bayous and rivers, and unleashing one of the worst natural disasters in Texas history.
At least five people were reported dead, according to the National Weather Service in Houston, and authorities expect that number to climb as floodwaters recede.
With some areas bracing for 50 or more inches of rain — more rainfall than many Texas towns get in a year — the National Weather Service warned that “catastrophic” flooding in the nation’s fourth largest city was expected to worsen and could be “unprecedented.”
“Local rainfall amounts of 50 inches would exceed any previous Texas rainfall record,” the weather service said in a statement. “The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before.”
More than 3,000 national and state guard troops were deployed to assist with rescue and recovery efforts Sunday, and the White House announced that President Donald Trump plans to travel to the state on Tuesday.
At a morning news conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city’s police and fire departments had received more than 2,000 calls to rescue stranded residents from flooded highways, apartment complexes and nursing homes.
“This is a storm that is testing the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I know for a fact that the city of Houston will rise to the occasion.”
Asked why there was no evacuation order — even in low-lying areas prone to flooding — Sylvester said the flooding was unprecedented and noted that the city was not in the direct line of the hurricane.
“So which neighborhood would you have to evacuate?” Turner said. “You literally cannot put 6.5 million [people] on the road. If you think the situation right now is bad — you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare.”
Across Houston, 911 calls went unanswered. Officials urged residents to be patient and call only if they found themselves in imminent danger.
By Sunday afternoon, Ben Taub Hospital, a 444-bed public facility that includes a trauma care unit, was being evacuated because flooding in the basement had disrupted power. Critical patients were being moved first.
The city’s two major airports — George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Hobby Airport — were closed to commercial flights until further notice. Houston public schools announced that they were closing until Sept. 5.
With Task Force 1, the state’s urban search and rescue team, unable to enter huge swaths of the city, emergency officials appealed to the public to provide boats and high-water vehicles to assist search and rescue efforts.
Nearly two days after Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast on Friday night as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, the full scope of devastation was unknown. Debris and floodwater covered roads across small towns and inner-city neighborhoods, in some cases blocking access for emergency crews.
William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that although Houston was taking the brunt of the catastrophic rainfall, it was important to remember that “there are many communities inside the state of Texas that are hurting.”
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Long said FEMA was prepared to be in Texas “for years,” adding: “This disaster recovery — this disaster — is going to be a landmark event. … We’re setting up and gearing up for the next couple of years.”
Throughout the weekend, news spread of possible storm-related fatalities. In La Marque, a small city 38 miles southeast of Houston, police reported that the body of a 52-year-old homeless man was found Sunday morning at a Wal-Mart parking lot that had been engulfed in high water.
“At this time it is unknown if the subject passed away from health conditions or due to drowning,” the La Marque Police Department said in a statement.
Local reports were at times contradictory. Roy Laird, assistant chief with the Rockport Volunteer Fire Department, said Saturday that three people were dead in Aransas County. Charles Wax, the mayor of Rockport, a small fishing town about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, said Sunday that only one death had been confirmed across the county.
“It’s bad and it’s not getting better as the rain is still continuing,” Wax said Sunday morning, noting that the City Hall is under 2 feet of water and the county courthouse is severely damaged. “All over, the city is devastated.”
He urged residents who had evacuated not to come back to the city.
“Our residents are still in extreme danger,” he said. “The storm came in from the sea, and now the flooding is going to come down from the inland areas.”
Trump tweeted Sunday morning that he would visit Texas “as soon as that trip can be made without causing disruption,” which the White House later said would be Tuesday.