Hurricane Harvey leaves Houston with Texas-sized problems

Nation

MILES O'BRIEN: Harvey is gone, but Houston still faces Texas-sized problems tonight.

It runs the gamut, from catastrophic housing loss to the dangers of damaged chemical plants. And as the region struggles to recover, officials are searching for the living and the dead.

William Brangham begins our coverage.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Above, it's more sunshine and mostly clear skies. Down below, flooding from Harvey still as far as the eye can see.

But as the water begins to recede, fire and rescue crews in Houston are going door-to-door in flooded neighborhoods, hoping they won't discover more bodies.

JAMES PENNINGTON, District Chief, Houston Fire Department: We're finding out, just to see how much damage there is, if there is any civilians that have been left behind. We don't think we're going to find any humans, but we're prepared if we do.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the same time, many of the people who evacuated during the flood are now starting to come home and assess what's left of their homes.

I'm in the Northeastern Houston right now, which is one of the areas that was hardest hit by the storm. And, as you see, people are coming home, taking out of all the muddy, soaked belongings and dumping them here on the curb.

Just outside Houston, there were small explosions at a chemical plant, which sent 30-foot flames and plumes of smoke into the air. A power outage had left containers of volatile chemicals unrefrigerated, and as they heated up, they ignited.

It happened at the Arkema site in Crosby, Texas. Dozens of workers were removed before the hurricane. And officials had already ordered people living within a mile-and-a-half to leave.

BOB ROYALL, Assistant Fire Chief, Harris County: We're trying to make sure that our citizens are comfortable in what's going on, and that they know the truth. And so with that, these are small container ruptures, that may have a sound — excuse me — may have a sound of a pop or something of that nature. This is not a massive explosion.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the smoke posed no immediate threat to public health. Fifteen sheriff's deputies went to hospitals, but most were quickly released.

To the east, Orange County, Texas, ordered a mandatory evacuation this afternoon as the Neches River surged higher. The river also knocked out the water supply in the city of Beaumont, Texas. That forced the evacuation of nearly 200 hospital patients by air, and the closure of local shelters.

CAROL RILEY, Beaumont Police Department: We are not sheltering anybody anymore. With the situation that we are in with the water, we are having people — people that are displaced, we are finding other locations for them. That's what we're working on.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Vice President Mike Pence, with his wife, Karen, and other members of President Trump's Cabinet today visited areas of Texas hit by Harvey.

The vice president, visiting the severely damaged city of Rockport, where Harvey first came ashore, again promised full federal support.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Just know we are with you, and we will stay with you until Rockport and all of Southeast Texas come back.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, Harvey's hit on the country's energy supply also continued.

Colonial Pipeline said it's shutting down part of a key line that moves nearly 40 percent of the South's gasoline. It could start carrying fuel again by Sunday. But the interruption, coupled with the closure of several big Texas refineries, sent gas prices soaring. In turn, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is a former Texas governor, and part of the Pence entourage, announced he's releasing 500,000 barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

RICK PERRY, Secretary of Energy: Gas prices are going to go up because of the cut in supply. Every state's attorney general will be watching to make sure that there's not price gouging going on, and anybody that is considering raising prices above what would be considered to be appropriate need to watch out.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To the north, remnants of Harvey moved further inland. It's been downgraded to a tropical depression, but it's still soaking Western Louisiana and Southern Arkansas. And as much as 10 inches of rain could fall in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky in the hours ahead.

MILES O'BRIEN: That report from our William Brangham, who joins us from Houston with more.

William, Houston is no stranger to flooding. Do you get the sense that people there see this as a — if you will excuse the term, a watershed?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes, in many ways, Houstonians are familiar with flooding. It has been going on for decades here.

The thing that is not talked about as often is that the way Houston was built and the way it's continued to grow has very substantially exacerbated what those floods do to this area.

The nickname for Houston is the city with no limits and in many ways that is true. The growth that occurred over here the last few decades has been explosive. And what's happened is, is that they have been digging up farmland outside the skirts of the city, and they put up parking lots and highways and developments.

And you don't have to be a hydrologist to know that if you replace spongy, absorbent farmlands with hard, concrete surfaces, when a lot of comes down, that water is going to flood these neighborhoods. So Harvey was going to be a problem no matter what. But there are many people who argue that there could have been things done in the decades past that could have made Harvey a little bit less damaging.

MILES O'BRIEN: It sounds like there is a big civic conversation that needs to occur in Houston that might be a little bit overdue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Certainly, that conversation has gone on in the past. But every time reforms have been suggested, they have been put aside for one reason or another. After I believe it was Ike in 2008, there were numerous flood control projects that were proposed. They were shelved.

After Allison came through and devastated a lot of this area, more reforms were proposed. They were put aside. Voters here have several times said that they don't want to change the zoning laws, which are incredibly lax and don't really require cities and townships to put in good flood control measures.

So, every time this has come up as a conversation, people recognize that it's an issue, but the incentives of economic growth and economic development and inexpensive housing are very powerful. And so the conversation maybe will occur again, but right now the focus is really on rescue and recovery.

MILES O'BRIEN: William Brangham in Houston, thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You're welcome, Miles.

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