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As Harvey clean-up begins, some communities still submerged

September 1, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Even as waters in Houston start to recede and the clean up begins, the devastating effects of Harvey are piling up. The city of Port Arthur is still under water, and Beaumont, Texas, lacks drinking water. Miles O’Brien reports on how things stand, William Brangham goes on a mission with the National Guard and Port Arthur Police Chief Patrick Melvin offers an update on his city’s recovery efforts.
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MILES O’BRIEN: What’s left of Hurricane Harvey is now hundreds of miles away, but the damage in Texas is still piling up. Officials say more than 150,000 homes around Houston were flooded, and some 20,000 could stay that way for days to come. Still, the beginnings of recovery are under way.

In parts of Southeast Texas, cleanup is now in high gear. People are dumping everything, from furniture to carpeting to clothes, and garbage bags line the streets. Search teams have been going block-by-block, checking thousands of homes, and they hope to be finished by tomorrow.

But even as the flooding recedes in parts of the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner says it’s not over for others, especially in the western districts. That’s where reservoirs are still releasing water.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER, Houston: If you have water in your home today, the odds are you’re going to continue to have water in your home over the next 10 to 15 days. And with that being the case, and the stress and the strain that’s been posed on first-responders, as well as your own public safety, I am asking you, I am asking you to leave your homes.

READ MORE: New satellite photos reveal extent of Harvey flooding in Houston

MILES O’BRIEN: Out on the Texas coast, the city of Port Arthur also faces more days underwater. Some say it’s still hard to believe.

MAN: We underestimated it. We didn’t — thought it was going to be this devastating. I mean, I never thought my area would actually be really flooded, like flooded to the point where you actually had to swim out.

MILES O’BRIEN: The U.S. Coast Guard reports it rescued another 3,000 people across Southeast Texas in the last 48 hours. In the city of Beaumont, with 120,000 people, officials managed today to set up a distribution point for bottled water. That’s after its water pumping station was drowned by a swollen river.

ANTHONY MCDANIEL, Displaced Resident: We have things that have been neglected, like our flood wall, our pumps. We have no spirit of proactivity.

MILES O’BRIEN: There were also more reports of gasoline shortages.

MAN: I’m surprised this is working, which, as you can see, it’s barely dribbling out. But there’s been no gas since the start of the storm. Very difficult, but, again, a little concern compared to what most people are going through.

MILES O’BRIEN: In Galena Park, Texas, east of Houston, tankers lined up at a fueling depot, hoping to get supplies to gas stations around the state.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke in Austin this afternoon.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT, R-Texas: The bottom line is that the state of Texas will have plenty of gasoline showing up at gasoline stations across the state of Texas, so don’t worry. We will not run out. And we will be back into our normal pattern before you know it.

MILES O’BRIEN: On top of all that, health experts warn that sewage in floodwaters could make people sick, and that mosquito populations will spike in coming weeks.

In Washington, President Trump received an update on Harvey recovery efforts from disaster relief organizations.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The federal government is on the ground, bringing in significant resources to bear. And I want to assure these organizations, and the others involved, that we will continue to coordinate with them and bring all of the relief and the comfort and everything else that we absolutely can to the Gulf Coast.

MILES O’BRIEN: And the president is set to visit Texas again tomorrow. He will also go to Louisiana to survey storm damage.

Meanwhile, what’s left of Harvey continues to wreak havoc in other states. Flooded waterways have driven people from their homes in Tennessee and Kentucky, and tornadoes have spun through Mississippi and Alabama. The storm, now a post-tropical cyclone, is bringing rain bands toward the Ohio Valley.

Earlier this week, Officer Haley Morrow with the Beaumont Police Department told us a harrowing story of what her community was facing, including how a mother gave her life to save her toddler daughter.

It’s hard to imagine, but, since we spoke, the situation in Beaumont has only gotten worse.

Our William Brangham was out with the National Guard and tells us about what he saw.

William, thank you for being with us.

Behind you, I see some of the National Guard troops that you were with earlier. Tell us about the mission, what you saw.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, we came out today with a group who are principally doing water rescue.

And they brought in these Mark II boats that are meant to normally build floating bridges, but they have been deploying them all in this area trying to rescue people out of their homes. We went out on the boat, and what they ever trying to do was to rescue one of their colleagues who had been on a prior rescue mission.

That boat then got pushed by the current. I don’t know if you can see in the background here, but there is a torrent of floodwater receding south trying to get back out to the Gulf. And one of those boats got trapped in a forest. And so we went out to try to get them out.

We went through. And, basically, we are riding one of these boats where boats are not meant to be. It’s a forest. We are just on the side of the highway. And just to the left of us, you could see all the time highway signs. You could even make out the highway markings.

But the current of this is so strong that we eventually were able to get this boat out by just ramming it. It was almost like bumper cars. These are very sturdy boats. They bumped this other vehicle out. It got freed. And then, as we tried to get out, we ourselves got trapped. And another vehicle had to come and try to get us out.

It was a bit of a chaotic scene.

But I think what it gives you is just a bit of a sense of how chaotic and unpredictable and difficult rescue recovery can be.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ultimately, William, how did your boat get free?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, we’re stick in the forest, and then another boat comes up alongside us. And after banging basically back and forth against trees and branches, we were able — it took about 20, 25 minutes to get ourselves slowly extricated out.

I mean, you have to imagine putting a boat in the middle of a forest with thousands of gallons of fast-rushing floodwater pressing you against the trees, and you’re trying to navigate in a place that is not a navigable waterway.

I mean, it was just very, very difficult. Every time we would bang into a tree, sort of a rain of ants would fall down into the boat, and people are getting bitten. It was a fairly hairy scene.

But, eventually, another boat was able to tie on to us and slowly bang in and drag us out. And we got out.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, multiply that over many hundreds of square miles covered by water, and you get an idea of the challenge that is faced by all these first-responders, and, in this case, National Guard troops.

Who were you with? Tell us about the crew.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Exactly.

Well, the National Guard are what we know colloquially as weekend warriors. The guys on our boat were a kid in college, a guy who manages a restaurant, a guy who works in an oil rig. Actually, a journalist at a local news station was also one of the Guardsmen.

And these guys, when they get the order from the governor, they just drop everything that they’re doing, give up their lives, and come out to serve and try to help their fellow Texans.

As one of them said to me today, “This is Texans helping Texans.”

And I said, is it difficult just letting go of your lives? And some of these guys had damage to their own homes, and yet they are here miles away trying to help other people. And I said, do you wish you were back home?

And he said: “No. My wife knows that, if I were back home, I mentally would still be out on the rescue mission, so it’s better that I’m out here trying to help my colleagues.”

MILES O’BRIEN: That attitude impresses me so much.

Do you get the sense, though, that they’re getting weary as time goes on here?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Not yet.

I think that the rescue effort is still in its early days. They have not been getting out into these areas for really about a day, a day-and-a-half.

So, I think until they feel that they have exhausted all the things that they do, because in the end what they’re really trying to do get to places where people might still be trapped that we just don’t know about, people who have lost power, people who have no phones.

And that is what really driving this whole sense of mission out here.

MILES O’BRIEN: As you stand there on Interstate 10, I’m reminded of the challenges of just getting around an area that is affected by the flooding after a hurricane.

Give us a sense of what you experienced just today doing what you needed to do to get to this particular assignment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, we left Houston this morning, and Houston is largely drained. There are still some spots that are wet, but the bulk of downtown Houston is dry. And the city is starting to come back.

As you come further east here towards the border of Louisiana, you really start to see where the flood has not receded yet. We drove through water constantly. There were roads — we were rerouted three or four different times.

You would see houses out in the middle of a field completely surrounded by water like a small island sitting out there. We saw longhorn steer drowned on the side of the road. Just a very surreal experience. We saw an armadillo racing away from floodwaters, stray dogs walking around.

So, just a very eerie scene out there, as this area being a day or two from where Houston is a few days ago.

MILES O’BRIEN: William Brangham is in Beaumont, Texas. Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You’re welcome, Miles.

MILES O’BRIEN: We move now from Beaumont to the neighboring city of Port Arthur, where the conditions remain dire and dangerous.

I spoke by phone with the city’s police chief, Patrick Melvin, a short time ago.

Chief Melvin, thank you for being with us. I know you’re extremely busy.

First of all, just paint the picture of where you are and what you’re doing right now.

PATRICK MELVIN, Chief, Port Arthur Police Department: Actually, right now, Mr. O’Brien, I’m in one of the neighborhoods that is still immersed in water. I am in about three to five feet of water right now.

There are still recovery operations, rescue operations going on this particular neighborhood. So, I’m going around through the different command centers that we have within the city of Port Arthur and checking welfare on all the command posts.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, give us the big picture. How many rescues so far and do you have any idea who else is potentially in need of help right now?

PATRICK MELVIN: We have had several hundred rescues. We have had a lot of volunteers. We have had the military, the National Guard and different volunteer organizations are helping with the boat rescues, the water rescues.

We have also had the Coast Guard and the National Guard, specifically Coast Guard, helping with house-type rescues in totally immersed neighborhoods. Most of those are being done, are pretty much complete right now.

We’re going back now just to second — just to make sure that we have nod missed anyone. Some of our community members are hunkering down. They don’t feel they need to leave at the time from the different neighborhoods. But this particular neighborhood is totally immersed in water and we just want to make sure that we’re leaving no one behind at this time.

MILES O’BRIEN: Chief, I imagine that is a particular challenge for you when you run into somebody who just wants to hunker down and stay put. What do you tell them?

PATRICK MELVIN: We express the danger, or the possible danger, and we make sure they have telephone, in case something does change. They can give us a call. This is not the first time they have been involved in some kind of catastrophe like this, but never have we been involved, from what I understand, in this kind of flooding here in Southeast Texas.

MILES O’BRIEN: What can you tell us about casualties?

PATRICK MELVIN: We have had some air evacuations to different medical facilities due to the extent of some of the medical challenges that we have had.

As far as fatalities, the number is relatively low at this time, from what I have been briefed on. I know of one particular we had, gentleman who actually had had a heart attack. However, this situation is nowhere close to being over.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tell us a little bit about shelters. How many people are in shelters there?

PATRICK MELVIN: Yes, we have evacuated most of the shelters. We have one shelter that is going on right now. Most people have been evacuated out of the area. And they’re still about 500 to 800 people in the shelters.

I will let you know also there was a lots of social media news about a levee being broken. That is not true. The levee is in great condition. Our community is not releasing water, but I’m told that there’s other communities around us. However, we will not be affected by those releases.

MILES O’BRIEN: A final point. As I understand it, you are probably the only place in the region that had a bowling alley as a shelter. Tell us a little bit about that.

PATRICK MELVIN: We actually took emergency actions. We made entry into this building and took it over, so that we could provide shelter for our residents.

MILES O’BRIEN: You commandeered a bowling alley, but it was all for a good cause, huh?

PATRICK MELVIN: Yes, absolutely.

And we’re really appreciative of the owners and management of that facility, because it if it weren’t for them and their facility, we would have had a lot of displaced residents out there.

MILES O’BRIEN: Patrick Melvin is the chief of police in Port Arthur, Texas.

We wish you will. I know you’re still in the middle of it.

PATRICK MELVIN: Thank you very much, sir. We appreciate it. Keep us in your prayers.

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