As Harvey breaks rainfall record, Houston imposes a curfew and death toll climbs to 18
Molly Hennessy-Fiske reporting from the Houston convention center
City officials in Houston imposed an overnight curfew to guard against opportunistic crimes as Tropical Storm Harvey continued to deluge southeast Texas on Tuesday, breaking the record for the most extreme rainfall on the U.S. mainland.
Authorities announced the curfew — midnight to 5 a.m. — after police arrested a crew of armed robbers who were hijacking vehicles, and officials warned residents of people impersonating Homeland Security investigators. There also were fears of looting as thousands of houses lay partially submerged and abandoned.
Since Harvey made landfall Friday night as a hurricane, some areas around Houston have seen in excess of 50 inches of rain — more than what they usually receive in a year. Authorities said the death toll had risen to 18, including a Houston police officer who drowned in his car on the way to work.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Mont Belvieu industrial suburb east of Houston recorded 51.12 inches of water since Harvey’s arrival, breaking the highest previous record of 48 inches for a single storm, from Tropical Storm Amelia in Medina, Texas, in 1978.
“It’s the heaviest storm on record anywhere in the U.S. outside Hawaii,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and professor at Texas A&M University. “And it’s still raining.”
With muddy brown water engulfing huge areas of the nation’s fourth-largest city and much of the Gulf Coast, thousands were forced to seek refuge in shelters. Federal officials have estimated that as many as 30,000 displaced residents may seek temporary shelter and more than 450,000 people are likely to apply for federal aid.
“In four days, we’ve seen a trillion gallons of water in Harris County — enough water to run Niagara Falls for 15 days,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, who estimated that up to 100,000 homes in the 1,777-square-mile area may have flooded. “It’s beyond anything we’ve ever seen and will probably ever see.”
After moving slowly east Tuesday evening, Harvey was poised to turn northeast early Wednesday and make a second landfall, moving inland over southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.
After assuring Texas on Monday that Congress would deliver swift federal assistance, President Trump visited the storm-ravaged state Tuesday, saying he hoped the region’s long road to recovery would be viewed as a model.
He did not venture to Houston, where rescuers continued to rove from neighborhood to neighborhood in motorboats and kayaks, desperately trying to pluck residents from waterlogged homes. As a light rain drizzled, a reservoir west of downtown Houston spilled over Tuesday morning for the first time in its history, pouring yet more water onto already sodden communities.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo broke down in tears Tuesday as he announced that Sgt. Steve Perez, 60, a 34-year veteran of his department, drowned during the weekend while trying to get to work through an underpass in the darkness.
“He laid down his life,” Acevedo said during a briefing, noting that before Perez left for work he told his wife, who urged him to stay home: “I’ve got work to do.”
Later in the day, Acevedo said officers had rescued 4,100 people across the city and had more than 500 calls holding. The city’s fire chief, Samuel Peña, said his department had performed nearly 700 rescues.
“We’re still trying to get to folks,” Acevedo said. “Don’t give up on us. Seek the higher ground. We will get to you.”
By the end of the day, the number of people sheltering at the George R. Brown Convention Center swelled to 10,000. Its capacity is supposed to be 5,000. Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for cots and food for an additional 10,000 people, and officials are set to open another mega shelter at the Toyota Center, the downtown home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
“We are not turning anyone away,” Turner said.
Houston highways remained mostly empty and blocked by police early Tuesday. A few cars and trucks navigated wet streets downtown.
Families were still arriving at the massive convention center, some with sleeping pads and rain boots, others with their belongings in garbage bags. Some feared for relatives left behind, and others worried they might soon face shortages of food and other supplies.
And the death toll kept rising. On Tuesday, local authorities reported a man in Montgomery County, north of Houston, drowned Monday night while trying to swim across a flooded road. In Galveston County, Clear Creek Independent School District reported that a former track and football coach had died in the flooding.
Tuesday night, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences updated its storm-related deaths to include an 89-year-old woman, Agnes Stanley, who was found floating in 4 feet of floodwater in a home. Another woman, 76, was discovered floating in water near a vehicle. Her name was not released. A 45-year-old man, Travis Lynn Callihan, left his vehicle and fell into floodwater. He was taken to a hospital, where he died Monday.
Officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, had already reported at least six “potentially storm-related” fatalities. A 60-year-old woman died in Porter, a small community north of Houston, when a large oak tree fell on her mobile home. Another person died in the small coastal town of Rockport, near where Harvey made landfall. A 52-year-old homeless man was found dead in La Marque, a small city near Galveston.
Local officials were also looking into reports that a family of six — four children and their great-grandparents — drowned Sunday near Greens Bayou in east Houston. Virginia Saldivar, 59, said her brother-in-law, Sam, was driving her grandchildren and her husband’s parents to higher ground when the current swept up the van.
Early Tuesday, a major dam outside Houston began to overflow, threatening some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods to the west of the city. Engineers had tried to prevent Addicks Reservoir from overspilling by releasing some of its water Monday, but flood control officials reported Tuesday morning that water was beginning to seep over the top of a spillway, the first time water had breached the dam.
In some areas in and around Houston, the water was so deep that rain sensors no longer were working. The Harris County Flood Control District, a government agency that works to reduce the effects of flooding in the area, announced that multiple water level and rain sensors were out of service because of flooding.
In Brazoria County, south of Houston, the Brazos River was beginning to overflow its banks. On Tuesday morning, a levee breached in the Columbia Lakes neighborhood.
“We are asking residents to please get out,” said Sharon Trower, public information officer for the county, which already has rescued hundreds of residents after severe flooding from heavy rainfall. “The additional river flooding is just going to be catastrophic.”
Major roads throughout the county already were closed because of flooding.
At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. James C. Witham, director of domestic operations for the National Guard, told reporters Tuesday that up to 30,000 Guardsmen as well as a U.S. naval amphibious assault ship could be called upon to help out in rescue efforts in Texas.
Already, 30 National Guard helicopters are supporting Hurricane Harvey relief, and 24 more are requested. Witham said that could increase to 100 helicopters in the days ahead.
“Texas has been given everything that they’ve asked for,” Witham said, noting that the Pentagon expects “more forces will be requested.”
While catastrophic flooding continued across southeast Texas, there was at least some good news: Flash-flood watches were dropped for western portions of the Houston area as light to moderate rain fell Monday night. The National Weather Service said the threat of flooding is gradually shifting east.
“Expect improving conditions this afternoon and evening across the area as Harvey pushes northeast,” the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office said in an update.
“They say this too shall pass,” Mayor Turner said during an early evening news briefing as the sun, finally, appeared in the sky. “After the clouds pass, the sun will shine. In this city — regardless of the storm clouds, regardless of the rain — in this city the sun will shine.”
And as the sun finally returned to Houston, so did the unmistakable sight of traffic. Cars and trucks piled up at stoplights on roads that had only recently been totally abandoned as Texans waited out the storm in their homes. In the suburb of Rosenberg, there was even a pedestrian: a pale teenager in dark clothing, with a bowl haircut and headphones, who was dancing — doing the Robot, actually — on a street corner as traffic passed.
As Harvey moved closer to neighboring Louisiana on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival there, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged residents to stay home and shelter in place.
A few inches of rain could cause serious problems in New Orleans, which is still recovering from flooding after thunderstorms this month overwhelmed the city’s drainage system.
More than 5 inches of rain fell in some parts of the city Monday, causing localized floods. Flash-flood watches were in effect as meteorologists forecast 4 more inches of rain Tuesday.
“Today, we are a resilient city with greater resolve, but we remain vigilant in the face of another threatening storm,” Landrieu said in a statement. “While this is a somber day for New Orleanians, the determination and spirit of our people gives us great hope for the future.”
In Texas, many stranded Houston and coastal residents drove to cities such as Dallas and San Antonio to avoid overcrowded shelters near the Gulf Coast.
After sleeping in the Houston convention center after his house in Dickinson, about 30 miles south, flooded on Saturday, Jose Banda, a 38-year-old landscaper, piled his four young children — all under the age of 12 – into his Chevy Silverado early Tuesday and made the four-hour drive to Dallas.
The family was among the first to check in at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which can shelter nearly 5,000 evacuees of Tropical Storm Harvey.
“This is at least far from the coast and not too many people are here yet,” Banda said.
Back home, most of Banda’s landscaping equipment — lawn mowers and weed whackers — that he had stored in his backyard were ruined.
“I don’t know how I’ll afford to buy new ones. It’ll be tough,” said Banda as sweat beaded on his forehead.
“I’m just glad they’re all right,” he said, nodding at his children who stood at his side wearing backpacks.
Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Atlanta and Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske from Houston. Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts in Corpus Christi, W.J. Hennigan in Washington, Matt Pearce in Houston, Kurtis Lee in Dallas and Melissa Etehad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
9:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.
6:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with curfew imposed, new figures for deaths, rescues; details on Trump visit, other details.
12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with information on the death of a Houston police officer.
12 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on rainfall and flooding.
9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with more details on the flooding, the president’s arrival in Texas and information on New Orleans.
8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with more information on the latest conditions, including people seeking shelter.
7:55 a.m.: This article was updated with more information on the Addicks Reservoir.
This article was originally published at 6:55 a.m.