Record-breaking Harvey overwhelms dams, washes thousands out of their homes

Find all of our coverage on Hurricane Harvey

MILES O'BRIEN: The crisis in Houston deepens by the day, as Tropical Storm Harvey lurks just offshore.

More than 3,500 people have been rescued, and officials have confirmed four deaths, but expect more. One town east of Houston has already gotten nearly 52 inches of rain, a record for the U.S. mainland.

As much as 30 percent of Harris County, which covers more than 1,700 square miles and is home to Houston, is now underwater. And more and more is washing into the city itself.

P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.

P.J. TOBIA: Images of a region pushed to the brink. Torrents poured through parts of downtown Houston, as a pair of aging dams overflowed. Rescue crews had worked through the night, with flood victims crowding onto dump trucks heading for higher ground.

Some waited until morning, only to see the water climb higher.

SAMMY GONZALES, Richmond, Texas resident: It quit raining, and the water had gone down and we thought we were OK, until the fire department come and told us they were going to reopen the dams and they were going to reflood everything. So I said, let's go.

TIMEKA SCOTT, Houston resident: I have been here two years. This is my second flood. I have lost my car twice. So I'm a little bit overwhelmed. I'm not sure what the next step is and where I go from here.

P.J. TOBIA: Water also breached a levee in Brazoria County, southwest of Houston, and the county's Twitter account urgently put out the word: "Get out now." The levee was later fortified.

Everywhere, storm victims faced desperate moments. A traffic camera captured drivers stranded atop a truck on a highway that's now a river. A rescue boat arriving to carry them to safety. Another man caught in fast-moving water clung to a sign as he waited for help. Thousands poured into Houston's Convention Center, filling it to nearly double the official capacity of 5,000. And tempers frayed.

WOMAN: You really trying to understand with the microphone still in my face, with me shivering cold, and my kids wet, and you still putting the microphone in my face?

P.J. TOBIA: Mayor Sylvester Turner said today the city is working to open more shelters.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER, Houston: We have certainly made the official request to FEMA. We need additional assistance, and so we have asked them to provide supplies and cots and food for an additional 10,000 individuals.

P.J. TOBIA: Ed Emmett is in charge of emergency operations for Harris County. He's worried about the long-term health consequences of this flood.

ED EMMETT, Harris County, Texas: Even though the storm, today's the last day, it's going to move out, we're still going to have floodwaters, we're still going to have downstream effects. But we're going to have a recovery effort could take certainly months, maybe even years, that I don't think we have seen a recovery effort like this anywhere in the United States.

P.J. TOBIA: Some who evacuated earlier in this West Houston neighborhood returned today to see what remains of their homes.

TONY LATHROP, Houston resident: We left it last night with an inch of water in it. And it's got at least two foot in it now. It's sad. Everything can be replaced.

P.J. TOBIA: Scenes like this are playing out all across Houston tonight, with families returning to storm-damaged homes, finding decades of possessions upended and waterlogged.

There is also the human toll. A tearful police chief announced Sergeant Steve Perez drowned Sunday, trying to get to work.

ART ACEVEDO, Chief, Houston Police Department: It was too treacherous to go under and look for him. So, we made a decision to leave officers there waiting until the morning, because as much as we wanted to recover him last night, we could not put more officers at risk.

P.J. TOBIA: All the while, the rain keeps falling. That's because Harvey, still a tropical storm is back in the Gulf of Mexico, soaking up new moisture. It's expected to make a second landfall tomorrow near Houston, dumping even more rain on Southeastern Texas and Southwestern Louisiana.

In Corpus Christi, where the storm first made landfall Friday night, skies were blue as Air Force One touched down today. President Trump was flanked by Texas officials and members of his Cabinet at the Corpus Christi Firehouse before heading to Austin.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it. This was of epic proportion. Nobody's ever seen anything like this.

P.J. TOBIA: FEMA Director Brock Long said even with Houston's shelters overwhelmed, there's no comparison to 2005's disastrous Hurricane Katrina.

WILLIAM BROCK LONG, Administrator, FEMA: We're very aware of the issues at the Convention Center, but let me be clear: This is not the Superdome.

P.J. TOBIA: In Louisiana, memories of Katrina are still vivid. Hundreds of boats and trucks carried water and other supplies to Houston, a brigade of the so-called Cajun navy.

TODD TERRELL, Cajun Navy: We were all affected by the flood and various hurricanes in the past, so we know what it's like to not have help. And we're just out there to help our neighbors.

P.J. TOBIA: But the Cajun navy may soon be needed back at home. Evacuations are already under way in Lake Charles, as Louisiana braces for the storm to head its way.

MILES O'BRIEN: That report from our P.J. Tobia, who joins us with more from Houston.

P.J., tell us where you are and what is going on.

P.J. TOBIA: Miles, we're in Houston right now, the neighborhood behind me completed flooded out.

Folks are being rescued from their homes by boat. And then they're being brought to this area behind me, where they're then walking a few paces to an Exxon gas station to wait for transport to another location where it's a more permanent shelter.

Some are also being met by friends and family who are on higher ground and being taken to other private homes for safekeeping. They tell me as they get off these boats — you can hear a helicopter as well right over there that is checking out the scene — that the water is coming up to — it's beginning to approach second-floor windows and doors.

This is not mandatory evacuation, but people are beginning to feel unsafe in this neighborhood and they want to get out.

MILES O'BRIEN: Do you get the sense, P.J., that there's still quite a few people in their home trying to stick it out?
P.J. TOBIA: I think now folks are beginning to evacuate.

I think that the folks who were the holdouts who wanted to stick it out in their homes are either left or making a move to leave. Actually, this afternoon, we spent some time with folks who did leave. They did evacuate in a timely fashion and wanted to get back to their homes. We showed you some of that in our report earlier.

Their neighborhood was breached with waist-high water, their home completely destroyed pretty much. They said they're going to rebuild, however, and there's lots of stories like that around town today

MILES O'BRIEN: It's hard to come up with adjectives to describe this particular event. Can you give us a sense of how people are responding generally? We have the sense that the response has been relatively smooth. Is that what you have seen?

P.J. TOBIA: Yes, it's really remarkable.
Folks are calm. The couple that we were with whose home was completely destroyed said they would rebuild. There were no tears, they didn't seem anguished. It could be early days. It is early days, but I seen remarkable resilience from the folks here on the ground in Houston and also of course from the first-responders.

MILES O'BRIEN: P.J. Tobia in Houston, thank you.

P.J. TOBIA: Thank you, Miles.

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