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3,000 guard troops called up as ‘catastrophic’ Harvey causes deadly floods in Texas

By Dylan Baddour, Kevin Sullivan, Wesley Lowery, Robert Samuels

August 27, 2017 at 4:47 PM

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Weather officials downgraded Hurricane Harvey to a tropical storm Aug. 26, yet catastrophic flooding continues to plague Southeast Texas in the wake of the storm. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

HOUSTON — More than 3,000 national and state guard troops are being deployed to assist with relief and recovery efforts as the nation's fourth-largest city and surrounding areas try to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which has transformed into a disaster of historic proportions. President Trump plans to travel to Texas on Tuesday.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a news conference that the perpetual rain and dire flash flooding has produced the strongest storm the state has seen in at least 50 years. He could not confirm death totals nor the number of evacuations, but the National Weather Service has said there have been reports of as many as five deaths. The service issued a statement that the storm was "catastrophic" and "beyond anything experienced."

Outside the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Southwest Houston, Nichelle Mosby stood up to her knees in floodwater in the parking lot Sunday, grimacing with a towel over her head to block the rain.

Mosby and six family members, including a 4-year-old girl, had come from Louisiana to visit relatives. When Harvey hit over the weekend, they booked into the Courtyard, where they are stranded with dozens of other guests.

"We went through Katrina, but this feels different," she said. Instead of a gradual buildup of rising water, "this was like a gush of water that came up too fast."

Thia NOAA-NASA GOES Project satellite image taken at 1737 UTC on August 24, 2017 shows storm activity off the south east coast of the US. A major storm, Harvey, was upgraded to hurricane status on August 24, 2017, as it targeted hundreds of miles of coastline in Texas and Louisiana. The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned of a potential for "life threatening" floods from the storm, which was due to make landfall sometime on August 25, 2017.The NHC said the category one hurricane could hit land as a much more powerful category three, with winds of 130 miles (209 kilometers) per hour. / AFP PHOTO / NOAA-NASA GOES Project / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /NOAA-NASA GOES PROJECT/HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images
A traffic sign reminds motorists to prepare for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Houston. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting Harvey will become a major hurricane to hit the middle Texas coastline. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)
William Hazzard loads water into his car in preparation for tropical weather on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Houston. Tropical Storm Harvey is expected to intensify over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before reaching the Texas coast Friday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Hundreds of sandbags are seen behind City of Brownsville workers as they shovel and sack Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, at Pct. 1 County Commissioner Sofia C Benavides and Pct. 2 County Commissioner Alex Dominguez warehouse along MagneTek Drive and 14th Street in Brownsville, Texas, in preparation of what is now the remnants of Tropical Storm Harvey. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)
Marina employees secure the boater's facility at the Corpus Christi Marina in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Rachel Denny Clow/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Ken Knox secures a friend's boat at the Corpus Christi Marina in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Rachel Denny Clow/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Bill Tippett, with the Salvation Army disaster department, deliver supplies of water and clean up kits to the Salvation Army in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Rachel Denny Clow/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
A sign warns of a Texas coastal hurricane watch as traffic passes by in Hutchins, Texas, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. A hurricane warning was issued for most of the central and southern Texas coast Thursday morning. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Mayor Joe McComb talks about storm surge in the Corpus Christi, Texas area during a news conference in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Gabe Hernandez/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Bryan Tumlinson installs storm shutters on his store, Island Joes Coffee and Gallery, on North Padre Island in Corpus Christi, Texas, ahead of Tropical Storm Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Tropical Storm Harvey intensified Thursday into a hurricane that forecasters said would be the first major hurricane to hit the middle Texas coastline in nearly 15 years. (Courtney Sacco/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Evelyn Lynch and her daughter, Sucorro, stock up on canned goods in preparation of Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Kroger in Galveston, Texas. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting Harvey will become a major hurricane to hit the middle Texas coastline. (Jennifer Reynolds /The Galveston County Daily News via AP)
Aaron Berg fills up a gas can and his portable generator Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Houston as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Shoppers pass empty shelves along the bottled water aisle in a Houston grocery store as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - AUGUST 25: A sign on a business reads, 'Closed for Harvey', as people prepare for approaching Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a hurricane and is aiming for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - AUGUST 25: Lilyann Lewis packs pinky into the vehicle as her family packs up and evacuates their home before the approaching Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a hurricane and is aiming for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Carolyn Price empties a fridge on the lower level of her property in Matagorda, Texas before Hurricane Harvey makes landfall Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Conditions were deteriorating along Texas's Gulf Coast on Friday as Hurricane Harvey strengthened and slowly moved toward the state, with forecasters warning that evacuations and preparations "should be rushed to completion." Price and her husband David drove down from Lake Conroe to retrieve their power fishing boat and other belongings after hearing the surge would reach 10-12 feet. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - AUGUST 25: Cody Munds, Lee Martin and John Pezzi (L-R) fill sandbags as people prepare for approaching Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a hurricane and is aiming for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Clouds and rain form over downtown Corpus Christi, Texas, as the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey move closer to shore, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. The National Hurricane Center warns that conditions are deteriorating as Hurricane Harvey strengthens and slowly moves toward the Texas coast. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Ramon Lopez, left, and Arturo Villarreal board up windows of a business in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Matt Looingvill struggles with his umbrella as he tries to walk in the wind and rain, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Luis Perez watches waves crash again a jetty in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A family is helped to a bus as they are evacuated as the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey begin to make landfall, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Martha Wilson, center, listens to a radio as she waits to be evacuated with others as the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey begin to make landfall, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Officials deliver water to an holding area for residents waiting to be evacuated, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas A&M University at Galveston students Erica Tomlinson, from left, Kourtney Gasaway and Kara Jackson wait to evacuate the Mitchell Campus on Pelican Island in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey nears the Gulf coast Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Galveston, Texas. The students were bussed to the College Station campus. (Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via AP)
A sign above Interstate 10 in Beaumont, Texas, warns travelers to stay away from the coast as Hurricane Harvey bears down on the state on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (Ryan Pelham/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP)
Twana Phillips is hit by a gust of wind while standing along the seawall in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
People rest while waiting to board a bus headed for San Antonio at an evacuation center in Corpus Christi, Texas on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Hundreds of residents of the Corpus Christi area boarded buses Friday to be transported to a shelter in San Antonio as Hurricane Harvey is expected to make landfall on the Texas coast Friday night or early Saturday morning. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 25: In this NASA handout, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASAs Terra satellite acquired this natural-color image of Hurricane Harvey reaching the Gulf Coast at 12:25 p.m. local time (17:25 UTC) on August 25, 2017. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)
PORT LAVACA, TX - AUGUST 25: Justin Karl, and Stockton Quirey, 17, board up a window as they prepare to ride out the storm with family and friends at the Green Iguana Grill as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico in Port Lavaca, TX on Friday, Aug 25, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
PORT LAVACA, TX - AUGUST 25: Jack Rigby, 17, lays on a mattress as he along with is family and friends prepare to ride out the storm at the Green Iguana Grill as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico in Port Lavaca, TX on Friday, Aug 25, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference about Hurricane Harvey at the State Operations Center in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey is shaping up as just about a worst-case scenario storm with possible flooding from two different directions. ( Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
TxDOT crews install the final portion of a surge wall on TX-361 leading to the Port Aransas ferry in Aransas Pass, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Conditions deteriorated Friday along the Texas Gulf Coast as Hurricane Harvey strengthened and crawled toward the state, with forecasters warning that evacuations and preparations "should be rushed to completion." (Nick Wagner /Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Strong winds batter a house on Padre Island before the approaching Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey will soon hit the Texas coast with forecasters saying it is possible expect up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTONMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Gallery: Tropical Storm Harvey intensified into a hurricane that forecasters said would be the first major one to hit Texas in nine years.

By Sunday afternoon, the Weather Service was predicting that parts of Texas could receive nearly 50 inches of rain, what would be the largest recorded total in the state's history. Communities in Southeast Texas, already experiencing water so high that it engulfed vehicles up to their car handles, were continually being beaten down by heavy, sideways rain.

Related: [FEMA director calls storm a ‘devastating disaster,’ says it could be the worst in Texas history]

The flood warnings also came with urgent pleas for residents to be cautious, stay indoors and not attempt to travel flooded roadways. Police and rescue workers implored residents who see floodwaters rising near their homes to make their way to the highest point possible — even if it is a roof — while awaiting rescue. On Saturday night, a woman was found dead near her vehicle, believed to have been trapped during a flood.

More than 82,000 homes were without electricity, and local news stations reported that Ben Taub Hospital, one of two trauma centers in the city, would soon have to evacuate.

The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched five helicopters, and Houston is expecting about 40 additional boats to find those in need of help, Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a news conference. He defended the decision not to issue evacuation orders, noting that it would have been a "nightmare" to empty out the population of his city and the county all at once.

"You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road," Turner said.

As officials worked to execute a strategy, desperate families and residents crafted some of their own. At the urging of Houston police, they set out with boats and kayaks to help their friends in need. Families in flooded homes blew up inflatable pool toys to ferry children as they made their way out on foot.

In Katy, Erica Stietenroth, 38, said she was in tears driving around trying to find an open pharmacy to help her 8-year old daughter, who had a 105-degree fever. The emergency room on Saturday night didn't have the drugs she needed for her strep throat, so doctors wrote her a prescription.

She awoke Sunday morning and started her desperate search, ultimately finding a pharmacy inside a local grocery store — but it was unstaffed because people couldn't get in to work. An employee who happened to come in to shop for food got permission to mix the medication for her.

"I was crying my eyes out for my baby girl," she said. "By the grace of God, that employee was there."

By 7 a.m. Central time Sunday, the National Weather Service had recorded close to 25 inches of rain around Houston, with an additional three to seven inches expected. Warnings for flash flooding and tornadoes remained in place for a large swath of the state, and storm surges are expected along the coast, bringing flooding to typically dry areas. William H. Hobby Airport was shut down.

"There's flooding all over this city," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a live stream video early Sunday morning. "We have one fatality, and a potential second fatality from the floodwaters out here."

William "Brock" Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he expects the agency to be working in the area for years as Texas recovers from the storm.

Related: [‘All night of slam, bang, boom,’ then a scramble to assess the hurricane’s damage]

As it scrambles to open shelters across Texas, the Red Cross command center in Houston is now "physically isolated" because of floodwaters, said Paul Carden, district director of Red Cross activities in South Texas, which includes Corpus Christi.

"The advice is if you don't have to be out, don't be out," said Bill Begley, a spokesman with the Joint Information Center in Houston around 7:30 a.m. Central time. He said most of the calls for help it has received have come from residents who tried to drive through the storm and wounded up getting stuck in high water.

President Trump praised the way the city's officials are handling the flood, tweeting at 8:25 a.m. that the "Good news is that we have great talent on the ground." He promised to head to Texas "as soon as that trip can be made without causing disruption. The focus must be life and safety."

Southwest Airlines flight attendant Allison Brown estimated that at least 50 flight attendants, a number of pilots, airport staff and hundreds of passengers have been stranded at Hobby Airport since at least 1 a.m. Sunday.

Brown said the airport flooded so quickly that shuttles were unable to get to them out. They were told by police that it would be unsafe to attempt to leave.

"Luckily we have the restaurant staff or else we would've been stuck with no food," Brown said. "Waters in the road are around four feet — minimum — surrounding the airport."

In Southwest Houston, the Brays Bayou had overflown its banks and completely swamped a bridge near the hotel, with waters rising at least 10 to 20 feet or more since Saturday. Its powerful brown flow carried large tree branches and other debris.

All roads in the area were underwater, and a park across the bayou was completely flooded. A car nearby had been abandoned, its doors left open. City traffic lights were still blinking red and green over the empty and flooded bridge, but most buildings visible in the area seemed to be dark and possibly without power.

In the lobby of the Marriott Courtyard there, John McMillian, 70, sat eating breakfast with his wife, Debbie McMillian, 64, and their daughter, Tara, 29.

They were in town so John McMillian could have five days of treatment for his leukemia at MD Anderson Cancer Center just down the road. He had three days of treatment and was supposed to have his fourth on Sunday, but now they were stranded.

"If push came to shove, we could always wade to the hospital," he said.

"I'm not going to let him, don't worry," his wife added.

She said her new Acura was underwater in the parking lot.

"I haven't even made the first payment on it yet," she said.

Local station KHOU went offline while covering a live rescue of a driver in an 18-wheeler stuck in more than 10 feet of water near the Interstate 610 loop.

The reporter was able to flag down a rescue crew, but as the rescue was about to take place, the station went dark. The main office said the station had to evacuated because floodwaters seeped into the building.

Harvey pounded the Texas coast on Saturday, making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane that destroyed buildings and caused widespread power outages as residents evacuated towns. Later downgraded to a tropical storm, Harvey crept inland, then stalled and dropped hours of torrential rain that officials said has caused catastrophic flooding across a broad section of the state.

In Katy, Michele and Joel Antonini were in line at a cavernous HEB supermarket with 20 sacks of groceries. They had come out in the rain to buy food for elderly neighbors they would probably be taking in from Grand Lakes, where they used to live.

They bought sheet cakes, a roast, chips, hot dogs and hamburgers.

"We just want to be ready if they are hungry and can get out," Michele said. "We just want to be ready to help."

Amanda Picard, 35, a CrossFit trainer, said that they live behind a creek and that all their neighborhood lakes were flooded. They said they were doing a grocery run in case the storm goes on for days.

"It's gonna be a long haul," said Picard, who was shopping for spring mix and frozen pizza with her husband and 6-year-old.

The small coastal town of Rockport, which took a direct hit from the storm, as search and rescue operations continued in ravaged areas that are still largely inaccessible. Officials said Rockport could receive as much as 60 inches of rain through midweek.

"We've been devastated," Rockport Mayor C.J. Wax said in a telephone interview. "There are structures that are either significantly disrupted or completely destroyed. I have some buildings that are lying on the street."

To the west, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged residents to continue to stay off the roads as Harvey neared the city and brought wind gusts of 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 storm made landfall at 10 p.m. Central Time on Friday with 130 mph winds — the first Category 4 storm to hit the United States since Charley in 2004. By late morning Saturday, it 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.

Farther east, the hurricane has put officials in New Orleans and across Louisiana on alert, and Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) 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.

Trump signed a disaster proclamation for Texas on Friday night after 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 Trump will visit Texas soon.

Trump said in tweets Saturday morning that he is closely monitoring the situation from Camp David, Md., 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!"

Sullivan reported from Houston, Galveston and Victoria. Baddour reported from Houston. Samuels reported from Washington. Tim Craig in Rockport and Corpus Christi, Brittney Martin in San Antonio, Ashley Cusick in New Orleans, Mary Lee Grant in Port Aransas, Tex., Sofia Sokolove in Austin, Emily Wax in Katy, Tex., and Joel Achenbach, Sandhya Somashekhar and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.


Kevin Sullivan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Post senior correspondent who covers national and international affairs. He is a longtime foreign correspondent who was based in Tokyo, Mexico City and London and has reported from nearly 80 countries. He has written two books and also served as the Post’s Sunday and Features Editor.

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.

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