AUSTIN — Texas officials said Thursday that they believe at least 82 people died as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the intense flooding it brought to Houston and coastal areas, although it could take weeks to determine the exact death toll.
The picture could have been much bleaker, given the amount of flooding and that entire communities were cut off for days. Hospitals had to be evacuated as water rose into buildings that had never before flooded; some residents found themselves trapped in their homes while chest-deep floods took over their streets; and emergency responders along the Texas coast were overwhelmed, leading civilians with watercraft to rescue one another.
Some worried that when floodwaters receded, the number of deaths would mount, but that didn’t materialize.
“The mass casualties have absolutely not happened,” John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in an interview Thursday.
In a typical week in Harris County, which encompasses Houston and its 2.3 million residents, there are about 4,300 deaths, Hellerstedt said. “The deaths that are attributable to this disaster is a very small portion,” he said.
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State officials said Texas was prepared for the worst when the hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast, and they said those preparations appear to have paid off. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Thursday that crews continue to search house by house for victims but that “the risk to lives has now been reduced, if not completely eliminated.”
Receding waters reveal how much work remains to be done to rebuild and repair, Abbott said. The first task is clearing the 200 million cubic yards of debris — enough to fill the football stadium at Texas A&M University 125 times — left in Harvey’s wake.
The American Red Cross reported that 5,258 people spent Wednesday night in 28 shelters strewn across the Texas coast, mostly in Houston and Harris County — down from more than 30,000 at the height of the flooding. The sheltered population is declining, officials said, as Texans relocate to other types of temporary housing. About 21,000 households are living in 2,000 hotels in 33 states, according to Tony Robinson, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regional director.
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Some shelters also house pets, but the Texas Animal Health Commission has been housing the state's affected livestock. Thousands of animals — including 45 potbellied pigs, 985 horses, 563 cattle and 1,210 dogs and cats — remain in 92 independent shelters. Earlier this week, livestock stranded in water received 210,000 pounds of hay, delivered by the Texas Army National Guard.
Federal funds, including the $15 billion disaster relief package passed by Congress last week, have been immediately allocated: Already last week, Houston and Harris County received $91 million and $44 million, respectively, to help pay for debris removal. Abbott said he expects federal lawmakers to pass more supplemental budgets to help Texas recover throughout the year.
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The Red Cross has disbursed $46.4 million to 116,000 people, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Robinson said 735,000 individuals have applied for FEMA assistance and that the agency has doled out $378 million in direct payments. Meanwhile, small-business and home-loan processors are working as quickly as possible.
“We are really looking at innovative solutions in housing, with the primary goal of getting people back into their homes as quickly and safely as possible,” Robinson said.
Even now, though, two weeks after the eye of Harvey hit the Texas coast, about 3,900 homes and facilities remain without power, including many where meters — and the homes to which they were assigned — “no longer exist,” Abbott said. The state’s water structures are improving, but 77 boil-water notices remain in effect, 19 water systems are down and 31 wastewater systems remain offline.
Harvey’s hit to Texas came just as students were heading back to school, and “the overwhelming majority of schools are back open in Texas,” said Mike Morath, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. Of the 964 campuses damaged in the storm, 52 suffered “catastrophic damage” and will take a significant amount of time to reopen, Morath said.
With mass casualties seemingly avoided, the state’s health resources are now focused on fighting infections, both from bacteria in floodwaters and from mosquitoes. Hellerstedt said that 2.4 million acres have been sprayed for mosquitoes, and health officials dispatched to the affected region are armed with vaccines.
The disaster response is under the purview of Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, whom Abbott appointed as “hurricane recovery czar,” overseeing the Commission to Rebuild Texas. Under Sharp, the commission is focused on rebuilding infrastructure, but state officials are leaving most decisions on how to spend recovery funds up to county judges, mayors and state lawmakers.
“We simply act as an extension,” Sharp said, adding that the commission fields at least 30 requests or reports of problems from local officials every day. “It’s really, I think, going to be a model for a lot of disasters in the future.”
Read more: With floodwaters rising and a rescue boat waiting, the urgent question: What to bring?