News Local/State

At Least One Person Killed As ‘Catastrophic’ Floods Inundate Houston

Residents wade through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday in Houston, Texas.

Residents wade through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday in Houston, Texas. David J. Phillip/AP

At least one person was killed Saturday night as the Houston area is inundated by torrential rain and catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey, which officials called an "unprecedented" weather event that has left some residents stranded in their flooding homes and overwhelmed rescue workers.

"It appears at this time a woman drove into some high water," said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at a briefing late Sunday morning, "and drowned while trying to escape." It happened around 9 p.m. CST Saturday in southwest Houston. Turner said the woman was pronounced dead at the scene but an official medical ruling on the cause of death has not yet been made.

As Harvey hovered over Texas, the National Weather Service tweeted, "This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced. Follow orders from officials to ensure safety."

In Harris County, where Houston is located, sheriff's spokesman Jason Spencer told the AP that flooding is so widespread that it's "difficult to pinpoint the worst area," as authorities are sifting through calls trying to ensure that life-and-death ones "are at the top of the list."

"We have received more than 2,000 calls for rescues on 911," Turner said Sunday morning. He added that some people have had trouble getting a response but that "it is working" and people should only call with life-threatening emergencies.

At 4:43 a.m. CST, the city of Houston tweeted, "911 services at capacity. If u can shelter in place do so."

Emergency management officials requested "that people escaping flood waters as a last resort do not stay in the attic. If the highest floor of your home becomes dangerous ... get on the roof. Call 911 for help and stay on the line until answered."

Chief Art Acevedo of the Houston Police Department asked people to not go into the attic "unless you have an ax or means to break through onto your roof."

Turner said the city's convention center is opening to serve as a shelter. But the Houston mayor asked people not to drive anywhere as area roads remain "impassable."

Gail Delaughter of Houston Public Media spoke to NPR's Weekend Edition near I-45, a major north/south route that runs through Houston. "And this section of roadway is depressed underground and is totally flooded right now," Delaughter said. "It's like a river, the water is all the way up to the embankment and you can't even see if there's any vehicles down there right now. Once the water drains out, who knows what they are going to find down there."

Rainfall totaled more than 17 inches in Houston by 9 a.m. CST Sunday.

Turner warned residents not to be lulled by a pause in the rain. Forecasters Sunday morning were calling for an additional 15 to 25 inches of rain across the middle and upper Texas coast before the storm is over.

The National Weather Service called it "a catastrophic and life-threatening flash flooding event." A flash flood emergency was in effect Sunday for most of Southeastern Texas.

The NWS raised expected storm totals in isolated areas to 50 inches. The AP reported that would be the highest rainfall ever recorded in Texas.

Tornadoes had been occurring across Southeast Texas over the past day or so and will continue over the next several days, according to forecasters.

Houston's Metro said it was suspending all bus and rail service, and Houston's Hobby Airport said it was closing its arrivals section "due to high water." The city's fire department tweeted: "Please don't Travel - seeing multiple vehicles flooded."

Houston TV station, KHOU, has been covering the flooding and evacuations, but was itself overtaken by floodwater. Anchor Blake Matthews tweeted a video of water from a nearby bayou rushing into the downtown studio. He said they continued working from the second floor.

Elsewhere in Texas

Harvey is the most powerful storm to hit Texas in more than half a century.

In the small coastal city of Rockport, Texas, where Harvey made landfall as a massive Category 4 hurricane on Friday night, a local county judge said one person had died as a result of the storm. The judge also said that the number of injured had risen to about 14 people.

NPR's John Burnett reports from Rockport that even though a mandatory evacuation was ordered, around half of the city's residents are thought to have remained.

One resident, Ruben Nino, said he did not have a vehicle and he and his family cowered in their apartment while the storm raged.

"Sheetrock and glass were breaking," Nino said. "We survived in a little closet with four people until we called 911 and they came and rescued us. There was a lot of screaming and praying to Jesus."

In the nearby island community of Port Aransas, officials have been unable to conduct a full assessment of Harvey's toll, because of "massive" damage, reports AP.

"I can tell you I have a very bad feeling and that's about it," Mayor Charles Bujan told AP. Bujan had called for a mandatory evacuation but did not know how many residents heeded the call to leave.

In coastal Galveston County officials made an appeal for owners of "flat bottom" boats to assist with rescue efforts.

But Corpus Christi, just 30 miles south of where Harvey made landfall, appeared to have suffered little damage Sunday from the storm. ABC 13 in Houston said that witnesses in Corpus Christi reported relatively minor damage, including downed trees, but no injuries.

What's ahead

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott spoke about the storm on several Sunday morning news shows. On CNN, he reminded viewers that the storm is impacting a wide swath of the state. "And we urge people across East Texas to make a plan for potential evacuation, if they are ordered to do so."

He said more than 1,000 state personnel are involved in search and rescue, focusing on the coastal region where Harvey hit whilefforts are expanding to the Houston area.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long told CNN that nearly 5,000 federal workers are in Texas and Louisiana helping restore power, perform search and rescue missions and "pushing forward recovery housing teams ... We're setting up and gearing up for the next couple years." Long added that "this is a storm that the United States has not seen yet."

The National Hurricane Center says Harvey is likely to weaken to a tropical depression by Sunday. But continuing rainfall in the days ahead — likely through Thursday — remains the biggest threat. Some areas of Harris County are receiving more than four inches of rain per hour.

The midtown neighborhood of Houston inundated by flood water early Sunday as Tropical Storm Harvey made its way across Texas.

Photo Credit: Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media

President Trump tweeted Sunday, "Great coordination between agencies at all levels of government. Continuing rains and flash floods are being dealt with. Thousands rescued."

In another tweet Trump said, "I will be going to Texas as soon as that trip can be made without causing disruption."