Texas officials say more than 185,000 homes were damaged and 9,000 destroyed as 42,000 people remain in shelters amid overflowing rivers and reservoirs
This article titled “Houston residents begin ‘massive’ cleanup as Harvey death toll hits 45” was written by Rory Carroll and Tom Dart in Houston, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st September 2017 18.31 UTC
Families across Houston made grim and often heartbreaking treks back to flooded homes on Friday as the death toll from Hurricane Harvey rose to 45 and authorities called for “massive, massive” efforts to recover from the catastrophe.
Displaced residents who had moved to shelters, hotels and other accommodation started making forays home to assess damage and retrieve photos, valuables and other possessions.
The Texas department of public safety said more than 185,000 homes were damaged and 9,000 destroyed, estimates which are likely to rise once receding waters give authorities access to heavily populated suburbs.
Officials warned those returning home to do so in daylight, to throw away any food that came into contact with floodwater and to check for wildlife, including snakes.
With swollen rivers and reservoirs still risking potentially deadly flooding, the Red Cross said the number of people in shelters across the region had increased to 42,000.
Hurricane Irma, meanwhile, gathered strength in the Atlantic. Forecasters did not know where it would hit.
Harvey wrecked water pumping stations in the city of Beaumont, about 100 miles east of Houston, leaving residents without clean water. Many remain trapped by debris and waist-high murk that carries a risk of disease.
Authorities in Crosby braced for more potential explosions at the Arkema chemical plant, which caught fire and exploded on Thursday, spewing toxic smoke over the evacuated city.
Houston’s two principal airports have resumed limited service and traffic has begun trundling through dry, sunny streets, giving a sense of normality. But some 37,000 homes in the region were still without power, about half the number from Thursday, said the mayor, Sylvester Turner. He urged conventions and visitors to come. “We will be ready,” he tweeted.
At a press conference, however, Turner said the US army corps of engineers needed to release water in reservoirs to create capacity lest more rain come and bring fresh disaster. He reiterated that people should not stay in their homes if they had water.
The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, struck a bleak tone, saying recovery would be long and arduous. “This is going to be a massive, massive clean-up process,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America. “This is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multi-year project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe.”
He said the clean-up would be bigger than that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, because Harvey had struck a much wider area.
Cutting a devastating path through a 300-mile swath of south-east Texas, it was a landmark storm that broke rainfall records in the continental US and left entire communities submerged.
A category 4 hurricane when it made landfall, Harvey is now a tropical depression, still packing a wallop as it moves north-east, prompting flood warnings in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Donald Trump is due to visit Houston on Saturday, his second visit to the state this week. On Friday he tweeted: “Texas is heeling fast” (sic).
Neighbourhoods around Buffalo bayou in west Houston could only hope so. They live near two flood-control reservoirs and dams and face continued disruption.
Several residents said that even as rainfall rates eased earlier in the week and parts of the city dried out, flooding worsened in their streets as army engineers deliberately released water into the bayou. For some here, access to their streets – let alone starting clean-up work in their homes – remains days away.
Water may remain there for two weeks, officials warned.
Next to the bayou, some of Houston’s wealthiest suburbs were among the worst hit. Oliver Navratil stood on a street corner, wondering how to reach his uncle’s home; the man’s young family had fled to safety as their house took on 8ft or 9ft of water.
The street was still under 3-5ft of water the colour of milky coffee. A newly bought blue Mercedes waited at a stop sign – presumably permanently, as water lapped over its hood.
Navratil said he was “trying to run some reconnaissance. Just trying to see if we can grab a canoe or some kind of floating vessel to get across”.
Adrian van Rensburg, whose house flooded west of Barker reservoir, stood next to a pile of cleaning supplies in the parking lot of an animal clinic. He was picking up some bleach.
“I’ve been here for five years and I’ve experienced a 100-year, a 500-year and a thousand-year flood,” he said. “Something is not working out here.”
The White House has prepared a request to Congress for an emergency $5.9bn (£4.6bn) package in Harvey recovery aid. It is expected to be followed by further requests that could exceed the $110bn to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Analysts said the storm had tempered Republican infighting in Washington that had threatened a government shutdown.
At least many residents in middle-class areas are insured and have savings: the means to recover and rebuild, however delayed the process may prove. In the historically black neighbourhood of Kashmere Gardens, six miles north-east of downtown, streets were dry on Friday but wrecked furniture was piled outside some houses.
Here, the average household income is about $33,000 and properties can be bought for under $60,000 – less than a 10th of what they can cost where the home of Navratil’s uncle was inundated.
Luis Ayala does not have flood insurance even though the home in Kashmere Gardens where he lives with his wife and two children is only 400ft from Hunting Bayou.
“It is too expensive and I never thought about it,” he said, standing in a damp kitchen.
On Friday afternoon, he and a friend placed destroyed armchairs, sofas, mattresses and chests of drawers on piles either side of the driveway outside the long, thin, single-storey ranch house where he has lived for five years.
“As you can see, I lose everything, everything,” the 36-year-old truck driver said. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
Water rushed in on Saturday night and stayed for two days. Birth certificates and family photographs of smiling people on sunny days lay on his front lawn, curled at the edges.
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