By Tim Craig, Kevin Sullivan and Joel Achenbach, (c) 2017, The Washington Post
ROCKPORT, Texas — Hurricane Harvey flattened buildings in the small city of Rockport and slowed to a crawl Saturday, losing hurricane status but remaining strong, with torrential rains that could linger for days and cause catastrophic flooding.
Officials confirmed one fatality near Rockport as search and rescue operations continued in ravaged areas that have become largely inaccessible.
“We’ve been devastated,” said Rockport Mayor C.J. Wax in a phone interview. “There are structures that are either significantly disrupted or completely destroyed. I have some buildings that are lying on the street.”
The city of about 10,000 people had been under a mandatory evacuation order since Wednesday morning. Wax, who had evacuated to San Antonio, said residents who had left Rockport should not attempt to return.
“There’s no utilities. There’s no food. Stay where you are, don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution,” he said.
On social media, residents and others who rode out the storm in Rockport shared images of downed trees, collapsed buildings and darkened streets. Also suffering severe damage was the small island community of Port Aransas, which caught the edge of the eye of the hurricane.
The storm made landfall at 10 p.m. Central time Friday with 130-mph winds – the first Category 4 storm to hit the United States since Charley in 2004. By late morning Saturday, Harvey had lost some of its punch, but still had hurricane-force winds of 80 mph, having drifted to about 25 miles west of the inland city of Victoria. Shortly after noon, the National Hurricane Center downgraded Harvey to a tropical storm, with sustained winds of 70 mph.
The storm remains dangerous, because as predicted, it has become virtually stuck in place, giving Texas no respite from the deluge. The center of the storm on Saturday morning crept along at just 2 mph. By Saturday afternoon, with winds of 65 mph, it was 45 miles west-northwest of Victoria, Texas, and came to a halt.
In the coming days, forecasters believe the tropical storm will meander south and east, and possibly slip back out over the hot Gulf waters, allowing it to restrengthen to some extent. All the while it will dump what could be historic quantities of rain.
The National Weather Service predicted total rain accumulations of 15 to 30 inches in many areas, with as much as 40 inches in isolated areas. Most ominously, the area around Rockport could see up to 60 inches of rain through midweek.
“Please take the flooding threat seriously,” the National Weather Service tweeted. “Remember, this is a multiday event … marathon not a sprint.”
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said he had declared 50 counties a disaster area. With the storm now ashore, he said, “our primary concern remains dramatic flooding.” He urged citizens to follow the familiar advice: “Turn around, don’t drown.”
The governor spoke to reporters two levels below ground in a bunker-like room at the State Operations Center in Austin. He spent much of the brief news conference praising the resilience of evacuees he’d met the day before in San Antonio, saying they were happy to be alive but worried about their homes and possessions in coastal communities.
More than 200,000 people across the state were without power early Saturday, and wastewater and drinking-water treatment plants here were offline.
The National Weather Service predicted “major flood” conditions at some 49 rivers across a vast region of south and southeast Texas.
The Tres Palacios River has already risen more than 20 feet near Midfield, Texas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The San Bernard River near the town of Sweeny is expected to rise more than 10 feet above its 1998 record flood stage. The Brazos River is expected to break a flood record set just last year, and officials have ordered mandatory evacuations in low-lying areas of Fort Bend County.
Among the cities at risk of major flooding is Houston, the nation’s fourth largest with a population in excess of 2 million. Early Saturday morning, the city was buffeted by waves of torrential rain and lightning followed by periods of calm.
In the southwest part of the city, Brays Bayou was swelling with fast-flowing, debris-filled brown water, and a tornado touched down in a suburban neighborhood.
Montry Ray was staying up late to ride out the storm with his wife and two children when the roaring sound of the tornado sent them running for cover in a bathroom. Just as they bolted from the master bedroom, the storm exploded through its wall, embedding bricks in the drywall across the room. The storm ripped open the roof.
“You know how they say you hear the train noise?” said 12-year-old Caden Hill, who lives down the street. “I heard it.”
He, along with about 50 neighbors, turned out Saturday morning to help clean up. Volunteers chopped fallen trees, hauled away crumpled fences and gathered debris while roofers patched the homes.
In Corpus Christi, the storm ripped shingles and satellite dishes off roofs, but the city did not appear to have suffered major destruction, Mayor Joe McComb said. The power outage disrupted the city’s wastewater treatment plant, and officials are asking residents to boil drinking water until further notice.
“The storm surge never happened, but the winds came in a whole lot higher than anyone predicted,” McComb said. “Some areas also got hit with pretty hard rain, but I was impressed with how little rain we had at my house.”
The 20-story Holiday Inn Marina hotel, where many relief workers and journalists rode out the storm, reported that it was running low on food. A note in the lobby and in elevators asked guests to use their own “emergency” food and water supplies before purchasing the hotel’s dwindling supplies. The hotel is a major staging area for Red Cross officials, who flew into the city ahead of the storm.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged residents to continue to stay off the roads as Harvey neared the city and brought wind gusts up to 60 mph and heavy rain. The city is under a flash flood watch and tropical storm warning.
“We don’t want anyone in San Antonio to let their guard down,” Nirenberg said.
The city closed 10 roads in the area due to high water, and officials expect that number to grow.
Weather officials took to social media and the airwaves Saturday in an effort to persuade people not to be lulled by a false sense of security by the relatively muted impact so far in places away from the Rockport area.
In Galveston, a city that lived through the last big Texas hurricane – Ike in 2008 – residents seemed unconcerned.
“We thought it was going to be much worse,” said Latoya Fulton, 33, who was eating breakfast with her husband and four children at Waffle House. The Fultons, who live in Galveston, spent Friday night in a hotel in Conroe, north of Houston, as a precaution. But they returned Saturday morning to their undamaged house when news reports made it clear that Galveston had been largely spared from the hurricane’s winds.
A few tables over at the packed restaurant – one of the few businesses open in the area – Galveston residents Dottie and Kevin Bowden ate breakfast with their 16-year-old granddaughter, Savannah Stewart.
“This ain’t nothing,” Kevin Bowden said.
All the houses in their neighborhood are built on stilts, so they weren’t worried about flooding, and local officials did not issue a mandatory evacuation order. Everyone in the neighborhood stayed to ride out the storm.
“We’re not crazy,” said Dottie, 63, who runs a business cleaning rental properties. “If they told us to leave, we would have.”
“And this isn’t our first rodeo,” added her husband, 56, who manages personal investments.
Rain was still slashing down in intermittent waves, and Galveston authorities still had flash-flood warnings in place. The forecast was for potentially severe rain to continue for days.
Kevin Bowden said the biggest problem so far was that “we’re running low on Corona.”
Farther east, the hurricane has put officials in New Orleans and across Louisiana on alert, and Gov. John Bel Edwards said Saturday that it could be a week before the state has to cope with flooding. He said the pumping system in New Orleans, which flooded earlier this month after a heavy downpour, is steadily improving. “We’re a long ways from being out of the woods, but we are very thankful it hasn’t been more severe up to now,” he said of the storm.
President Donald Trump on Friday night signed a disaster proclamation for Texas after Gov. Abbott sent him a written request saying that “Texas is about to experience one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the state.” White House aides said that Trump would visit Texas next week.
Trump said in a series of tweets Saturday morning that he is closely monitoring the situation from Camp David and that federal officials have been on the ground since before the storm hit. He urged residents to “be safe” and pledged a thorough federal response. “We are leaving nothing to chance,” he wrote. “City, State and Federal Govs. working great together!”
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Sullivan reported from Houston and Galveston. Achenbach reported from Washington. Dylan Baddour in Houston, Brittney Martin in San Antonio, Ashley Cusick in New Orleans, Mary Lee Grant in Kingsville, Texas, Sofia Sokolove in Austin, Emily Wax in Katy, Texas, and Sandhya Somashekhar, Mark Berman, Angela Fritz and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.
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