HOUSTON — The remnants of Hurricane Harvey continued dumping historic levels of rainfall on the Houston area Monday morning as devastating floods swamped the nation’s fourth-largest city. Rising water chased thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground and overwhelmed rescuers who could not keep up with the constant calls for help.
The National Weather Service says flooding isn’t expected to peak until Wednesday or Thursday.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” Elaine Duke, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said at a Monday morning briefing. “Harvey is still a dangerous and historic storm.”
The incessant rain covered much of Houston in gray-green floodwaters and turned streets into rivers navigable only by boat. In a rescue effort that recalled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, helicopters landed near flooded freeways, airboats buzzed across submerged neighborhoods and high-water vehicles plowed through water-logged intersections. Some people managed with kayaks or canoes or swam.
Volunteers joined emergency teams to pull people from their homes or from the water, which was high enough in places to gush into second floors. The flooding from Harvey, which made landfall late Friday as a Category 4 hurricane and has lingered dropping heavy rain as a tropical storm, was so widespread that authorities had trouble pinpointing the worst areas. They urged people to get on top of their houses to avoid becoming trapped in attics and to wave sheets or towels to draw attention to their location.
Rescuers had to give top priority to life-and-death situations, leaving many affected families to fend for themselves. And several hospitals in the Houston area were evacuated due to the rising waters.
Judging from federal disaster declarations, the storm has so far affected about a quarter of the Texas population, or 6.8 million people in 18 counties. It was blamed for at least two deaths.
As the water rose, the National Weather Service issued another ominous forecast: Before the storm is gone, some parts of Houston and its suburbs could get as much as 50 inches of rain. That would be the highest amount ever recorded in Texas.
“The breadth and intensity of this rainfall is beyond anything experienced before,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.
The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Brock Long, predicted that the aftermath of the storm would require FEMA’s involvement for years. “This disaster’s going to be a landmark event,” Long said.
Follow along below for live updates on the storm. All times are Eastern unless otherwise noted.
A statement from the White House Monday said President Donald Trump has declared an emergency in Louisiana, authorizing federal assistance for Harvey relief efforts in the state.
The statement said the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA would coordinate disaster relief efforts “to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in the parishes of Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis, and Vermillion.”
In a Monday morning briefing, FEMA Administrator Brock Long said officials are expecting 30,000 people in emergency shelters. As many as 50 counties are feeling the impact of the storm.
Calling Harvey a “landmark event,” Long said “you could not dream this forecast up.”
When it comes to the emergency response and evacuations, Long said he believes local, state and federal agencies thus far have operated with the “best information that they had at the time.” More widespread evacuations would have been “difficult” given the time frame, putting people at risk of becoming trapped in long lines of vehicles trying to escape rising floodwaters, which would have been worse than the shelter-in-place scenario playing out now.
“All disasters begin and end at the local level,” he added. “All evacuation decisions are made at the local level in Texas.”
“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Elaine Duke, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “Harvey is still a dangerous and historic storm.”
Duke said emergency officials are currently focused on rescue efforts and plan to move into recovery mode later this week.
For now, she urged local residents to avoid calling 911 unless they were in need of urgent, immediate medical assistance.
Duke said she will accompany President Trump as he visits Houston on Tuesday.
According to the latest forecast from the National Weather Service, the storm is expected to dump another 15 to 20 inches of additional rainfall on the region before it’s over.
Long encouraged Americans who want to help storm victims to go to the website www.NVOAD.org to connect with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which is coordinating donations and volunteers.
Those in need of assistance should visit www.disasaterassistance.gov if they have internet access or call 1-800-621-FEMA.