HOUSTON — Flooding from tropical storm Harvey is overburdening resources as authorities in and around Houston scramble to save those trapped by the high waters.
Hopes for an immediate respite from Harvey’s wrath seem unlikely as the National Weather Service calls the flooding “unprecedented” and warns things might become more dire if a record-breaking 50 inches of rain falls on parts of Texas in coming days.
The rainfall threatens to exacerbate an already dangerous situation as Harvey’s rains have left many east Texas rivers and bayous swollen to their banks or beyond.
“The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before,” the weather service said. “Catastrophic flooding is now underway and expected to continue for days.”
The storm killed two people in Texas, authorities said, and the death toll will likely rise. More than 1,000 people were rescued overnight, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned that some 911 calls are going unanswered as operators “give preference to life-threatening calls.”
Among those stranded by the storm is Ify Echetebu, 30, who spoke from her aunt’s house in Dickinson, not far from Galveston Bay.
Along with her fiance, grandparents, a friend and several teenagers, Echetebu is trapped on the second floor of the house as floodwaters creep up the staircase. She can see the rooftops of submerged cars in driveways, she said.
On the first floor, the water is up to her waist, she said. Emergency services know she and 10 others are holed up in the home, she said, but because emergencies take priority, she doesn’t expect to be rescued until Monday, Echetebu said.
“We’re nervous to stay here, but we are sleeping in shifts,” she said. “Now we’re having to deal with sewage in the water, river water, bayou water, water moccasins, snakes, gators.”
Not far away, a rescue operation saved 20 to 25 residents of La Vita Bella assisted-living facility in Dickinson.
“They were up to their waist,” Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark said. “If they were in a wheelchair, they could have been up to their neck.”
After a record 22 inches fell on the county in one day, rescuers set out before dawn Sunday to save those who braved the storm.
Officials quickly realized they did not have enough boats for the rescue operations and asked private boat owners to help, said county judge Mark Henry, responsible for disaster response in the county.
As of Sunday evening, between 800 and 1,200 people had been rescued from their homes in Galveston County, Henry said.
As authorities warned people not to take shelter in attics, unless they have axes handy to break through their roofs, several residents provided their accounts of riding out the storm.
“We are still stranded in our home with little kids and the water keeps rising,” Houston resident Janet Castillo said Sunday morning. “We have (tried calling several numbers), but their lines are all busy or they don’t answer.”
Jake Lewis of New Braunfels, Texas, said he woke up to ankle-deep water in the Houston hotel where he is staying.
“We have nowhere to go,” he said. “I have a 2016 Chevy Silverado and the water is up to the door panels. The water keeps rising.”
One of two confirmed fatalities happened in Houston when a woman drove her vehicle into high water and couldn’t make it across, city police said. She got out of her vehicle, was overtaken by floodwaters and drowned.
In a Sunday news conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, “We want to stress when there is heavy rainfall and flooding, the importance of staying off the road. If you drive into water, you’re taking your life into your own hands.”
Portions of major highways were submerged and unnavigable. Houston resident Dion Laurent said the White Oak Bayou flooded Interstate 10 and Interstate 45.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he understands the compulsion to find safer ground, but urged people to think twice before venturing out into high water and to consider unforeseen dangers, such as manhole covers being lifted from their holes.
Lt. Craig Cummings of the Texas Department of Public Safety said attempts to drive to safety may be futile anyway, as it took him 2 1/2 hours to drive 20 miles in Houston on Sunday.
“There’s 60 barricaded locations as of midnight. Most thoroughfares are impassable. Several hundred structures are flooded, and we are expecting that number to rise,” he said.
The 911 dispatchers in the nation’s fourth-most populous city have received 2,000 requests for rescue, Turner said.
Houston fire chief Samuel Pena said his department had responded to 2,500 calls and have about 1,000 more waiting to be serviced.
Gonzalez tweeted that many high-water rescues were performed overnight in Houston, some involving children or residents with medical issues, including one person suffering from cardiac arrest.
Stranded residents were saved from vehicles on the highway. Airboats were employed in some instances, he said.
People are taking to social media to announce their locations and ask for help.
One person, whose mom is diabetic and dad has heart disease, tweeted, “We need help!! My house is flooded.”