More rain, more tragedy: Harvey floods keep Houston paralyzed

HOUSTON— Floodwaters reached the rooflines of single-story homes Monday and people could be heard pleading for help from inside as Harvey poured rain on the Houston area for a fourth consecutive day after a chaotic weekend of rising water and rescues.

The nation's fourth-largest city was still mostly paralyzed by one of the largest downpours in U.S. history. And there was no relief in sight from the storm that spun into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, then parked over the Gulf Coast. With nearly 2 more feet (61 centimeters) of rain expected on top of the 30-plus inches (76 centimeters) in some places, authorities worried that the worst might be yet to come.

Harvey has been blamed for at least three confirmed deaths, including a woman killed Monday in the town of Porter, northeast of Houston, when a large oak tree dislodged by heavy rains toppled onto her trailer home.

A Houston woman says that she presumes six members of a family, including four of her grandchildren, have died after their van sank into Greens Bayou in East Houston.

Virginia Saldivar says her brother-in-law, Samuel Saldivar, was driving the van Sunday, trying to deliver his parents and her four grandchildren to safety. He was crossing a bridge when a strong current in the floodwaters took the van. It pitched forward over the bridge into a bayou. Saldivar was able to climb out of a window and urged the children, siblings ages 6 to 16, to escape through the back door, but they could not.

Virginia Saldivar says: "I'm just hoping we find the bodies."

Houston emergency officials say they cannot confirm the deaths.

The second night inside the George R. Brown Convention Center has been much louder and at times more chaotic than the first, as the downtown Houston shelter exceeds its original stated capacity.

Police officers and Red Cross personnel have been seen running several times to respond to people who need medical help, including two people who were on the ground, unresponsive, near the exit to the convention center. Officers pushed back evacuees and media as medics tended to them. Houston's emergency operations center did not immediately return a phone message asking what had happened.

Over a loudspeaker, a person shouted in English and Spanish to leave space for first responders moving in and out of the cavernous convention hall.

The convention center exceeded its 5,000-person capacity earlier Monday night, and a Red Cross spokesman says volunteers may not have enough cots for everyone. Evacuees from Harvey continue to arrive.

The disaster unfolded on an epic scale in one of America's most sprawling metropolitan centers. The Houston metro area covers about 10,000 square miles, an area slightly bigger than New Jersey. It's crisscrossed by about 1,700 miles of channels, creeks and bayous that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles to the southeast from downtown.

The storm is generating an amount of rain that would normally be seen only once in more than 1,000 years, said Edmond Russo, a deputy district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, which was concerned that floodwater would spill around a pair of 70-year-old reservoir dams that protect downtown Houston.

The flooding was so widespread that the levels of city waterways have equaled or surpassed those of Tropical Storm Allison from 2001, and no major highway has been spared some overflow.

The city's normally bustling business district was virtually deserted Monday, with emergency vehicles making up most of the traffic.

Rescuers continued plucking people from the floodwaters. Mayor Sylvester Turner put the number rescued by police at more than 3,000. The Coast Guard said it had also rescued more than 3,000 by boat and air and was taking more than 1,000 calls her hour.

Chris Thorn was among the many volunteers still helping with the mass evacuation that began Sunday. He drove with a buddy from the Dallas area with their flat-bottom hunting boat to pull strangers out of the water.

"I couldn't sit at home and watch it on TV and do nothing since I have a boat and all the tools to help," he said.

They got to Spring, Texas, where Cypress Creek had breached Interstate 45 and went to work, helping people out of a gated community near the creek.

"It's never flooded here," Lane Cross said from the front of Thorn's boat, holding his brown dog, Max. "I don't even have flood insurance."

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the low-lying Houston suburb of Dickinson, home to 20,000. Police cited the city's fragile infrastructure in the floods, limited working utilities and concern about the weather forecast.

In Houston, questions continued to swirl about why the mayor did not issue a similar evacuation order.

Turner has repeatedly defended the decision and did so again Monday, insisting that a mass evacuation of millions of people by car was a greater risk than enduring the storm.

"Both the county judge and I sat down together and decided that we were not in direct path of the storm, of the hurricane, and the safest thing to do was for people to stay put, make the necessary preparations. I have no doubt that the decision we made was the right decision."

He added, "Can you imagine if millions of people had left the city of Houston and then tried to come back in right now?"

The Red Cross quickly set up the George R. Brown Convention Center and other venues as shelters. The center, which was also used to house Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans in 2005, can accommodate roughly 5,000 people. By Monday evening, it was nearly full.

At the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the Army Corps started releasing water Monday because water levels were climbing at a rate of more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) per hour, Corps spokesman Jay Townsend said.

The move was supposed to help shield the business district from floodwaters, but it also risked flooding thousands more homes in nearby subdivisions. Built after devastating floods in 1929 and 1935, the reservoirs were designed to hold water until it can be released downstream at a controlled rate.

In the Cypress Forest Estates neighborhood in northern Harris County, people called for help from inside homes as water from a nearby creek rose to their eaves. A steady procession of rescue boats floated into the area.

Harvey increased slightly in strength Monday as it drifted back over the warm Gulf, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Forecasters expect the system to stay over water with 45 mph (72 kph) winds for 36 hours and then head back inland east of Houston sometime Wednesday. The system will then head north and lose its tropical strength.

Before then, up to 20 more inches (51 centimeters) of rain could fall, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said Monday.

That means the flooding will get worse in the days ahead and the floodwaters will be slow to recede once Harvey finally moves on, the weather service said.

Sometime Tuesday or early Wednesday, parts of the Houston region will probably break the nearly 40-year-old U.S. record for the biggest rainfall from a tropical system — 48 inches, set by Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 in Texas, meteorologists said.

The amount of water in Houston was so unprecedented that the weather service on Wednesday had to update the color charts on its official rainfall maps to indicate the heavier totals.

In Louisiana, the images of the devastation in Houston stirred up painful memories for many Hurricane Katrina survivors.

"It really evoked a lot of emotions and heartbreak for the people who are going through that now in Houston," Ray Gratia said as he picked up sandbags for his New Orleans home, which flooded during the 2005 hurricane.

In Washington, President Donald Trump's administration assured Congress that the $3 billion balance in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster fund was enough to handle immediate needs, such as debris removal and temporary shelter for displaced residents. Trump planned to visit Texas on Tuesday.

Harvey was the fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since 1961's Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record.

Continuing coverage on Harvey, here.