Tropical Storm Harvey continued to pummel southeast Texas on Monday, leaving at least nine people dead and vast swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest city unrecognizable as murky brown water submerged highways, houses, shopping plazas and entire neighborhoods.
Federal officials said more than 30,000 people in Houston and across the Gulf Coast were likely to seek temporary shelter as Harvey, which initially made landfall as a hurricane, continued to drench parts of Texas and Louisiana with heavy rains and surging floodwaters.
Parts of Harris County had seen 30 inches of rain — and an additional 15 to 25 inches are still on the way as Harvey regains strength, according to the National Weather Service.
“It has to be categorized as one of the largest disasters America has ever faced,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters.
But the precise toll of the brutal storm remained unknown — emergency officials had no way of knowing how many people may have died but not been found, how many others were still trapped in their homes.
As the rain kept pouring, as many as 13 million people, from Houston to New Orleans, were under flood watches and warnings. Many residents climbed to the upper stories of their homes. Some even pitched tents on their roofs, waiting it out until a boat or helicopter swooped in.
“Harvey has in many ways turned southeast Texas into an inland lake … the size of Lake Michigan,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross.
By Monday evening, the death toll had risen to nine. Officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, reported at least six “potentially storm-related” fatalities. A 60-year-old woman died Monday 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 also found in La Marque, a small city near Galveston.
Local officials were looking into reports that a family of six — four children and their elderly great-grandparents — drowned Sunday near Greens Bayou in east Houston. Virginia Saldivar, 59, said her brother-in-law, Sam, crossed a bridge over the bayou as he was driving her grandchildren and her husband’s parents to higher ground when all of a sudden the current swept up the van.
As the van nosedived into the water, Sam climbed out of the front seat and urged the kids to open the back doors. But the current moved too swiftly. As he grabbed on to a tree limb, he watched the van disappear into the water.
“I just want my babies,” said Saldivar, who is now sheltering at her son’s house in Humble. “We don’t have the bodies. We don’t know where the van is, if it’s down in the bayou.”
Across the region, a volunteer navy of amateurs in kayaks, motorboats, airboats, and circular pool floats searched for stranded survivors, sometimes persuading hardheaded homeowners that they needed to leave their flooded homes.
Men and women, with grief and relief written on their faces, waded out from the water with whole families in tow, holding what belongings they could carry _ sometimes babies and pets, which they held delicately over the water. Lives depended on it.
In Washington, President Donald Trump, who planned to visit southern Texas on Tuesday, predicted that federal aid would be delivered quickly.
“You’re going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president … We think you’re going to have what you need and it’s going to go fast,” Trump said at a press conference with the Finnish president in Washington.
But he cautioned that the extent of the disaster is still unknown.
“It’s a long road. Still pouring. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it. I’ve heard the word epic. I’ve heard historic. That’s what it is,” he said.
At a news conference in Corpus Christi on Monday, Abbott emphasized that the region’s journey to recovery was just beginning.
“There is much to do,” he said. “This is a place that Texas and FEMA will be involved in for a long, long time … We need to recognize it’s going to be a new normal — a new and different normal for this entire region.”
By Monday morning, 911 operators had received 56,000 calls, but the backlog that left residents hanging on the telephone, calls unanswered, was almost resolved, city officials said. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said officers had rescued 2,000 people from flooding in the city and 185 critical requests for help remained pending.
“Our goal is to complete the rescues of all critical missions today,” Acevedo said.
“It’s still a very dangerous situation out there,” Houston Fire Dept. Chief Samuel Pena said, noting that there had been 290 water rescues since midnight and his department also had pending calls. “We’re expecting more rain. We’re expecting the demand for our services is going to increase.”
By Monday afternoon, nearly 7,000 people filled the two main Houston-area shelters, and local officials were looking for another major shelter to house the streams of displaced residents.
Houston braced for yet more water as the Army Corps of Engineers opened two swollen flood-control reservoirs early Monday. The Corps said it needed to undertake a controlled release of water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to limit the scope of the disaster.
Even with the controlled release, the reservoirs were rising at a rate of 4 inches an hour, said Edmund Russo, deputy district engineer for programs and project management for the Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District.
“It could create additional problems, additional flooding,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a news conference Monday. “People who were not in a crisis state yesterday may find themselves in a crisis state today.”
Strong currents proved a challenge Monday morning as half a dozen volunteers with a pontoon boot tried to save 20 people, including children and the elderly, trapped in a flooded neighborhood in Spring, at the northern edge of Houston.
People called out for help from the upper levels of two-story homes. Yet the 40-foot boat could save only a dozen at a time. After they launched to attempt the rescue, a Harris County deputy constable ran up to the crew, frantic. Authorities planned to release more water from Lake Conroe to the north that would overwhelm the creek, he said.
The boat retreated without saving anyone.
“We couldn’t get them,” Mandi Davis, 36, of Spring, said when she landed. “The current was too strong and the water was too deep. They’re going to have to get airlifted out.”
Genesis Rivas, 20, and her family were disappointed to see the volunteers return empty-handed. Seven of her relatives were stranded, including her grandmother and two children ages 4 and 2. She estimated 200 people were trapped on their street.
“We’re worried about the kids,” she said as the group huddled under an umbrella near the would-be rescuers. “Hay mucha agua _ the water is too strong,” she told a relative in a mix of Spanish and English. Her sister watched astonished as an Austin special operations rescue crew arrived, checked the water and departed.
“They’re just going to leave the people there?” said Odaly Ticas, 23. “It’s more than 200 people. There was a cop with a boat just here. I don’t know why they left.”
With forecasters predicting that the Brazos River, which runs southwest of Houston, would crest at 59 feet — topping its historical record of 54.7 feet — local officials on Sunday urged residents in low-lying areas to leave their homes to find safer ground.
“Evacuate immediately,” the city of Rosenberg urged residents on Twitter.
On Sunday night, Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert issued mandatory evacuation orders for more districts.
“Fifty-nine feet represents at least an 800-year flood event, and there’s no levee designed to prevent an 800-year flood,” he said at a news conference.
As many as 100,000 residents in Fort Bend — roughly 20 percent of the county’s population — were under voluntary and mandatory evacuations, he said.
In Houston, the police chief urged residents to be patient, saying it was still extremely difficult to reach those who were stranded in flooded homes.
“You know, the dams are about to open and that’s not music to my ears, I can tell you that much,” Acevedo said on a livestream video late Sunday as he cruised the city’s southwest freeway in the dark amid torrential rain.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “They said it was going to be a five-day event, and I’m telling you, Harvey’s going to make us sweat every single day.”