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article imageRescuers scour storm-hit Texas for victims left in Harvey's wake

By Michael Mathes, with Elodie Cuzin in Beaumont (AFP)     Aug 31, 2017 in World

One week after monster storm Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast, rescue workers on Friday were scouring storm-ravaged southeast Texas for victims trapped in their flooded homes, even as some towns finally found slight relief as waters receded.

Emergency workers were staging dramatic rescues by air and water in Texas towns that were until now cut off by raging floodwaters unleashed by Harvey, which finally began moving inland after crashing into the region as a Category Four hurricane last Friday.

Thousands of rescuers and civilians eager to help battled difficult conditions to reach victims of the unprecedented flooding.

"We felt we'd be alright. We were wrong," said Lonnie Givens, who refused to evacuate their one-story home in the town of Orange. Now, he and wife Missy have about four inches (10 centimeters) of water in the house and no power.

"We really got nowhere to go," Givens said.

His situation echoed those of many in Texas towns inundated by days of torrential rains, with highways still submerged and homes destroyed.

A hospital in the hard-hit town of Beaumont was forced to evacuate its patients -- nearly 200 people -- when the town's water supply went down.

Harvey has been blamed thus far for at least 38 deaths and tens of billions of dollars of damage. A lack of power also triggered twin blasts at a Texas chemical plant, but authorities said the danger was limited.

Flood damaged drywall is removed as residents begin the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey in Ho...
Flood damaged drywall is removed as residents begin the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas
Brendan Smialowski, AFP

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma had intensified into a Category 3 system, churning in open waters but heading straight toward the southern Caribbean, where it was forecast to reach early next week.

It was still too early to tell if the storm would impact Florida or the Gulf of Mexico, but anxiety was running high in the aftermath of Harvey's pummeling.

Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert estimated 100,000 homes had been affected by flooding -- some with eight feet (2.4 meters) of water or more -- and said the White House would ask Congress for emergency funds.

- Trump pledges $1 million -

There was a bit of good news: in Houston, America's fourth-largest city, some of the 2.3 million residents got relief as the raging waters receded.

Speaking from the coastal city of Corpus Christi US Vice President Mike Pence hailed rescuers and volunteers for their "compassion and concern."

Storm Harvey
Storm Harvey
Simon MALFATTO, AFP

"Every American should know that even in this difficult time and this disastrous storm, the very best are the people of Texas, and the very best are the people of America shining forth," he said.

President Donald Trump, who visited Texas earlier this week and vowed to donate $1 million for relief efforts Thursday, will return to the state on Saturday -- and may also visit Louisiana, which has also seen serious flooding.

"He'll pledge, proudly, $1 million of his own personal money to help the people of Texas and Louisiana," spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.

In Beaumont, northwest of the coastal city of Port Arthur, the water system was down.

Brock Long, the head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said his agency was working with the state and the military to open water distribution points for those affected.

Indeed, military trucks fanned out, loaded up with bottled water, military backpacks and personnel ready to help.

The breakdown of the water system forced the evacuation of nearly 200 patients from a Beaumont hospital, some by military helicopters.

"We've practiced this many times before," hospital spokeswoman Mary Poole said.

"We're trying to keep them as close as possible," she said of the evacuated patients. "Part of the healing process is to be with your family."

- 'Out of harm's way' -

Early Thursday, a pair of explosions rocked a flooded chemical plant in Crosby, a town of around 3,000 people some 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Houston, sending a plume of smoke into the air.

A US Coast Guard helicopter conducts search and rescue operations in the Houston area
A US Coast Guard helicopter conducts search and rescue operations in the Houston area
Handout, US Coast Guard/AFP/File

Officials ordered residents living within 1.5 miles of the facility to evacuate amid concerns about the fumes emanating from the plant, which produces organic peroxides -- compounds that can combust if not cooled to the right temperature.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it was reviewing data from an aircraft that surveyed the scene and had no indication that dangerous amounts of toxic materials have been released.

"We believe along with the local authorities that we've moved everyone out of harm's way, and that no one is in danger," Richard Rennard, a senior executive for French plant owner Arkema, told a news conference.

Fifteen sheriff's deputies who responded to the fire were briefly hospitalized.

Crosby resident Lane Averett, 59, told AFP at a church shelter in the town that he was worried about the animals he had left behind.

"I got a dog and three cats, and a calf shut up in the trailer where they can't get no water or feed or nothing," Averett said.

- Up to $75 billion in damage -

In Louisiana, authorities scrambled to safeguard their state from Harvey, whose onslaught evoked painful memories of Hurricane Katrina's deadly strike 12 years ago -- but New Orleans escaped with minimal rain.

Emergency vehicles at a roadblock set up near a chemical plant in Crosby  Texas  where fires erupted...
Emergency vehicles at a roadblock set up near a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, where fires erupted overnight, forcing an evacuation of the surrounding area
Brendan Smialowski, AFP

So far, parts of Texas have seen more than 50 inches (1.27 meters) of rain, while in Louisiana, the total neared 24 inches.

More than 30,000 people have found refuge in shelters across Texas, from the giant Houston convention center to small churches, according to FEMA.

In Houston, where Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a nighttime curfew to aid search efforts and thwart potential looting, the two major airports have reopened on a limited basis, signaling a slow return to normality.

In Texas, the storm damage is staggering -- Enki Research put its "best estimate" at between $48 billion and $75 billion.

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