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Sun returns to storm-ravaged Houston, but ‘worst is not yet over’

August 30, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
After five days of record rain, the Houston area finally saw sunlight again, but the danger and rescue operations are far from over. Meanwhile, the storm made landfall again near Cameron, Louisiana, dropping more rain on the border region of both states. William Brangham reports and Miles O’Brien talks to Officer Haley Morrow of the Beaumont Police Department about the toll on first responders.
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MILES O’BRIEN: Harvey is back on land tonight, and finally moving on. In its wake, officials in Texas and Louisiana are beginning to calculate the toll, at least 21 confirmed deaths, 32,000 people in shelters and tens of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed.

William Brangham begins our coverage.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: After five days of record rain, nearly 52 inches, the skies stopped pouring, and the Houston area finally saw sunlight again.

Better still, officials announced nearly all waterways have now crested and should start going down.

Jeff Lindner is with the Harris County Flood Control District that includes the city.

JEFF LINDNER, Harris County Flood Control District: The water levels are going down. And that’s for the first time in several days.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But the danger here is obviously far from over. Police today confirmed that six family members drowned when their van was swept away in a bayou.

And officials are still monitoring levees that are straining under enormous the load. If those barriers were to fail, even more homes would go under.

Meanwhile, the rescues continue. The Coast Guard kept searching in Houston. Overnight, volunteers and others joined in to help people stranded in lakes that used to be neighborhoods.

MAN: Well, you have just been saying everything on the news, and it’s just close to home, and, you know, that’s just a thing Texans do. I mean, we just got to go out and lend a hand. I just can’t sit at home knowing that people need help.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Early estimates say more than 48,000 homes have been damaged. The city’s convention center is full to the rafters, and now two more so-called mega-shelters have opened their doors, including TV Pastor Joel Osteen’s church that can hold 16,000 people. He’d been criticized for not taking in storm victims earlier.

Many have harrowing stories to tell. At a mosque-turned-shelter in Stafford, Texas, today, one woman recounted her family’s escape.

HOUSNA KADRIE, Evacuee: We just felt like, oh, my God, if we don’t get out now, it might be like impossible. Like, the water is getting everywhere. And you could see people holding their bag, like, trying to get to the front of the street, just so someone could come pick them up, because it’s really hard to move in cars.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In response, the state has activated 14,000 National Guard troops. Another 10,000 are coming in from other states.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says his city urgently needs more federal help as well.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER, Houston: Right now, there are many people who are angry. They are frustrated, OK? And they want help. And that’s why I’m saying to our federal partners and that’s why I’m saying to FEMA, people are angry and they’re frustrated, they’re wet, they’re out of their homes, OK? And they want assistance yesterday.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, the storm itself made landfall again this morning, early, near Cameron, Louisiana, and slowly pushed north.

But even as it weakened, it dropped more rain on the Texas-Louisiana border region. Parts of Southwest Louisiana are now coping with flooding. And Port Arthur, Texas, was all but cut off by surging water, after 20 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours.

Overnight, a civic center shelter was overrun with gushing water that sent people climbing up into the bleachers. Evacuee Beulah Johnson narrated the scene in a video posted on social media.

BEULAH JOHNSON, Flood Victim: We came here for a safe place to get away from high flooding in our house, to get away from being trapped in our house. And we end up being trapped here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Elsewhere in Port Arthur, the nation’s largest oil refinery closed. Twenty miles away, in Beaumont, Texas, a toddler suffering from hypothermia was found clinging to her drowned mother after they were swept from their vehicle last night.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott warned today that the toll both in deaths and damage is likely to go much higher.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT, R-Texas: The worst is not yet over for Southeast Texas, as far as the rain is concerned. There will be ongoing challenges both during the time that rain continues to fall, as well as for approximately four days to a week to come.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in Houston, Texas.

MILES O’BRIEN: That sad story of a mother’s ultimate sacrifice is just part of what is unfolding now as Beaumont bears the brunt of the storm.

As Beaumont takes the brunt of the storm, it is taking a physical and emotional toll on first-responders, as Haley Morrow of the Beaumont Police Department told me when we spoke a little while ago.

Officer Morrow, thank you very much for being with us. I know you’re very busy.

First off, that horrible story of a mother who perished saving her child, tell us what details you have on that.

HALEY MORROW, Public Information Officer, Beaumont Police Department: Well, we were dispatched out in reference to a water rescue. And when officers and first-responders arrived, they found the woman and her child floating about half-a-mile away from where they were swept into a canal and their vehicle flooded out.

The first-responders are on Zodiac boats right now going out and do these high-water rescues. And so they were able to follow the water and they saw this sweet little baby, pink backpack, sticking up out of the water, and she was clinging to the back of her mother, who was floating along.

And she was hypothermic. But she’s OK and she’s expected to make a full recovery. But, unfortunately, CPR was attempted, but we weren’t able to save the mom.

MILES O’BRIEN: I know you wear a uniform and a badge, but you’re a mom, too. What’s it like to have to deal with something like that?

HALEY MORROW: I am — to be honest with you, receiving that news even just as a first-responder, as a mother, it’s devastating.

And, you know, it’s a true testament to the will and the sacrifices that parents, not just parents and mothers go through in what they will sacrifice which, in this case, Colette sacrificed her life to save her child.

And so we’re so sad about the circumstance. The silver lining is that the sweet baby is alive and will make a full recovery. She’s with family. We have been in inundated with questions about the baby. She’s 3 years old — about her status and who she’s with and if she need to be adopted.

But she’s with family. Of course, they’re dealing with a very, very grief-stricken time and we’re trying to support them as much as possible.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. Please let us know if there’s any way we can help.

Give us the big picture, if you could, the extent of the flooding in Beaumont right now.

HALEY MORROW: Well, right now, we are having major flooding, unprecedented flooding in this area.

All of the major interstate and state highways are flooded getting to our city. Our service roads and many of our major thoroughfares inside the city are flooded. We have nonstop high-water rescues going on right now.

They’re trying to get me accurate numbers, but, of course, they’re just so swamped. We know we have done at least, but probably much more, 700 high-water rescues. And we do have two confirmed fatalities, one being the story that we just talked about, and then we had another fatality this morning.

So, it’s devastating. And our first-responders have all experienced some type of devastation. Some are just — are facing their own damage to their home, and they’re on extremely exhausting shifts. And they just keep persevering and going out and saving people.

MILES O’BRIEN: First-responders are citizens, too, and many of them go out and do this work when their own homes are damaged.

And you are married to another police officer. You said you’re a mom. What is that like trying to put your personal life aside, your own concerns for others?

HALEY MORROW: Well, I’m not only a police wife, a police officer.

My father is a Beaumont police officer, as is my brother, and my sister is a 911 operations dispatcher. So, in situations like this, my mother is the one who keeps the children, and we get her evacuated when we need to. And so it’s hard.

It’s really hard for our first-responders who have had to leave their families and their homes that are taking water to come in and do their job. And, you know, that’s on their mind. But when they get here, they’re so strong and they just continue to go out and do the work.

And that’s what we’re here for. We are the first-responders. And we want to always remind the citizens that we’re coming, we’re going to come and save them, and we just pray that our families are OK, too. And I know those first-responders would love any prayers and good thoughts that anyone wants to send their way.

MILES O’BRIEN: Officer Haley Morrow, the public information officer for Beaumont Police Department, we wish you well.

HALEY MORROW: Thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: Online, you can hear my full conversation with Haley Morrow, where she warns about the spread of misleading and false information on social media, and how that hampers their efforts.

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