Flood-stricken southeast Texas struggled Thursday with a new series of blows that left a city without running water, the operators of a flood-damaged chemical plant warning of additional fires and at least one hospital unable to care for its patients.
Nearly a week after Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast, desperate residents remain stranded without food and water in the wake of unprecedented flooding. Meanwhile, authorities continue to search for survivors and make helicopter rescues from rooftops as the death toll from Harvey and its aftermath climbed to 39.
Given the scope of the disaster, the commanding officer who led the federal response to Hurricane Katrina questioned the adequacy of current relief efforts.
“When you have a combination of hurricane winds, flooding now for five days and you start losing the water and the electric grid, this is a game changer,” retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré told CNN on Thursday.
“Losing electricity itself is a disaster for over a 24-hour period in America to any person because we lose access to water, we lose access to sewers, we lose our ability to communicate.”
The dangers connected to the historic storm seem to increase by the day.
Beaumont, east of Houston, has no running water after both its water pumps failed, forcing a hospital to shut down.
In Crosby, two blasts rocked a flooded chemical plant, and more could come.
And in Houston, authorities were looking door-to-door for victims, hoping to find survivors but realizing that the death toll could rise.
Company warns of more blasts
A pair of blasts at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby sent plumes of smoke into the sky Thursday morning, and the company warned more blasts could follow.
“We want local residents to be aware that product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosion remains,” Arkema said in a statement. “Please do not return to the area within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so.”
The twin blasts Thursday morning happened after organic peroxides overheated. The chemicals need to be kept cool, but after the plant lost power Sunday, the temperature rose, officials said.
That led to containers popping, including one container that caught fire — sending black smoke 30 to 40 feet into the air.
The thick black smoke “might be irritating to the eyes, skin and lungs,” Arkema officials said in a statement.
Fifteen Harris County sheriff’s deputies were hospitalized, but the smoke they inhaled was not believed to be toxic, the department said. By midmorning Thursday, all of the deputies had been released.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said nothing toxic was emitted and there was no imminent danger to the community.
Three other containers storing the same chemical are at risk of “overpressurization,” said Jeff Carr of Griffin Communications Group, which is representing Arkema.
Arkema shut down the facility as Harvey approached last week. The company evacuated everyone within 1.5 miles of plant as a precaution after it was flooded under more than 5 feet of water.
The company has said there’s a small possibility that the organic peroxide, which is used in the production of plastic resins, will get into floodwaters. “But it will not ignite and burn,” Arkema said.
Many chemical or oil plants have shut down operations due to Harvey, including the Colonial Pipeline, which carries huge amounts of gasoline and other fuel between Houston and the East Coast. Valero and Motiva, the largest refinery in the country, have also closed some facilities.
‘People are freaking out’ in Beaumont
Extreme flooding caused both of Beaumont’s water pumps to fail, meaning the city of 118,000 has no running water.
“We will have to wait until the water levels from this historical flood recede before we can determine the extent of damage and make any needed repairs,” the city said in a statement. “There is no way to determine how long this will take at this time.”
So residents lined up at stores hours before they opened Thursday in hopes of getting whatever bottled water they could find.
“It’s crazy,” said Khayvin Williams, who started waiting in line at Market Basket at 6:50 a.m. “People are freaking out.”
At a local Walmart, Jeffrey Farley said the store is only allowing 20 people in at a time and is rationing water to three cases per customer. He got in line at 6:30 a.m. and waited until 8:30 to get his water.
“It’s an insult to injury for a lot of folks,” Farley said. “The water situation has made things dire for everyone here.”
Beaumont, along with Port Arthur, was devastated after Harvey made another landfall Wednesday.
The catastrophe has even forced the closure of Beaumont-based Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas.
“Due to the failure of the city’s water pump, it is in the best interest of our current patients to transfer to other acute care facilities,” the hospital system said in a statement Thursday morning.
“Due to the city-wide lack of services, we have no other alternative but to discontinue all services which will include emergency services. This is being done immediately.”
‘I have no food. I have no water.’
About 20 miles southeast of Beaumont, the pleas for help keep growing in Port Arthur.
Julia Chatham and her neighbors are trapped in her home, with virtually no supplies.
“All I have in my house is power. I have no food. I have no water. I only have power in my house. I don’t have no way of getting around,” Chatham said.
“I’m stuck upstairs. It’s just me and my dog. And I’m upstairs with my other neighbors. It’s like five of us up here.”
Even those lucky enough to get to a shelter in Port Arthur were deluged again, when murky brown floodwater filled an evacuation shelter.
Death toll expected to rise
Across the state, families are searching tirelessly for missing relatives six days after Harvey first pummeled the Texas coast
The Coast Guard has rescued more than 6,000 people, and Houston police and firefighters have rescued several thousand more.
Among the storm-related deaths are a Houston man who was electrocuted while walking in floodwaters and a mother whose body was floating about a half mile from her car. Rescuers found her daughter clinging to her body. The child is in stable condition after suffering from hypothermia.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said Wednesday he believes the death toll will rise.
“We just pray that the body count … won’t rise significantly.” Acevedo said.
But Houston received a bit of good news Thursday. The pool level at Barker Reservoir — which officials feared would overflow — has peaked and is going down, the Army Corps of Engineers said.
And the city’s Addicks Reservoir, which was overwhelmed and caused widespread flooding this week, has also peaked. The water in that reservoir is also receding.
Man tried to warn off friend from electrical wire
Countless stories of heroism have emerged in the aftermath of Harvey — including from some of the victims.
Andrew Pasek was walking through 4 feet of water trying to get to his sister’s house when he accidentally stepped on a live electrical wire.
“He felt the charge and knew something was wrong right away and tried to shake it off right away,” said his mother, Jodell.
The 25-year-old quickly asked a friend to get away from him “because if you do, you know, you will go too,” he told his friend.
Pasek was electrocuted and died. His mother said no one tried to resuscitate him for an hour until the electricity was turned off.
“It could have been anybody,” she said.