Storm-weary residents of Houston and other Texas cities began returning home Friday to assess flood damage from Hurricane Harvey but officials warned the danger was far from over in parts of the battered state.
One week after the Category Four storm lashed southeast Texas, rescuers were still searching by air and by boat for people trapped in their flooded homes.
And as floodwaters receded in Houston, the biggest city in Texas, nearby towns such as Beaumont — which had lost its water supply — and Port Arthur were struggling to get back on their feet.
Tobias James found a mess — including two ruined cars in his flooded garage — as he returned to his home in Port Arthur, a city of more than 55,000 people some 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Houston.
“I ain’t never seen nothing like it in my 37 years,” said James, who works at an oil and gas refinery and was hoisted out of rising floodwaters by a rescue helicopter two days earlier, along with his wife and children.
Harvey has been blamed for at least 42 deaths thus far and tens of billions of dollars of damage.
Across Port Arthur, rescue workers were still evacuating residents who had tried to ride out the storm in their homes.
Jonathan Caldwell, a former police officer who now runs a moving company, said he and some friends rescued about a dozen people in one flooded neighborhood Friday.
“We had little ones on our shoulders, wading through chest deep water this morning,” he said.
President Donald Trump, who declared this coming Sunday to be a “National Day of Prayer” for victims of Hurricane Harvey, visited Texas on Tuesday. He is scheduled to return to the Lone Star State again on Saturday, as well as visit neighboring Louisiana, accompanied by first lady Melania.
“Texas is healing fast thanks to all of the great men & women who have been working so hard,” he tweeted. “But still so much to do. Will be back tomorrow!”
He added later Friday: “Great progress being made!”
Meanwhile, a fresh blaze broke out Friday evening at a chemical plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston, sending a giant plume of thick black smoke billowing into the sky.
An employee who declined to be named said the fire had been expected after the storm cut power used to cool volatile chemicals, while plant officials have warned of more blazes to follow.
Authorities had previously ordered residents living within 1.5 miles of the facility to evacuate amid concerns about the fumes emanating from the plant, which produces organic peroxides used to make plastics and other materials.
‘We need the resources yesterday’
Mayor Sylvester Turner said most of Houston itself was “now dry” but urged residents who live near two overflowing reservoirs in the city’s west to leave their homes because they will remain flooded for another two weeks.
The voluntary evacuation applies to 15,000 to 20,000 homes. Officials said most people have left, but some were holding out — straining emergency workers who have to maintain services to them, including providing them with water.
Turner said the most pressing needs were housing for people who have lost their homes and debris removal.
A US official in Washington said the White House is expected to ask Congress for around $5.9 billion in emergency aid for Texas and Louisiana following the storm.
Turner estimated that around 40,000 to 50,000 homes in the Houston area had suffered damage, and said federal assistance was needed urgently.
“We need the resources now,” Turner told CNN. “In fact let me back that up. We need the resources yesterday.”
Housing ‘critically important’
The Houston mayor said providing housing for the now homeless is “critically important.”
“People can’t stay in shelters forever,” he said.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said more than 42,000 people spent Thursday night in 258 shelters across Texas and another 3,000 Texans did so in neighboring Louisiana.
While the situation was getting better in much of the state some areas remain dangerous, such as Beaumont, a city of some 120,000 which neighbors Port Arthur in southeast Texas.
Abbott said the Neches River, which runs along the eastern edge of Beaumont, was currently about seven feet (2.1 meters) above the record and was continuing to rise.
“This poses an ongoing threat to Beaumont and the surrounding area,” he said.
A major hospital in Beaumont began evacuating its 200-odd patients on Thursday after the water cut out and a dozen premature babies were airlifted out on Friday.
Abbott also sought to quash fears of fuel shortages. “The state of Texas will have plenty of gasoline,” he said. “Don’t worry, we won’t run out.”
Houston Astros coming home
In a sign of a return to normality in Houston, the city’s Major League Baseball team, the Houston Astros, announced they would return home for games this weekend.
The Astros abandoned their home stadium this week for three games in Florida against the Texas Rangers.
“We hope that these games can serve as a welcome distraction for our city that is going through a very difficult time,” Astros president Reid Ryan said. “We hope that we can put smiles on some faces.”
While baseball was coming back, schools in the Houston area were assessing when they could reopen with most looking at Tuesday of next week, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Schools had been scheduled to resume classes last Monday but Richard Carranza, superintendent of Houston’s largest school district, told the Chronicle at least 35 had sustained damage or lost power during the storm.
So with school still out, many families with children headed instead to the partially-reopened Houston Zoo.