Harvey hits Louisiana as Texas rescuers race against clock

AFP , Wednesday 30 Aug 2017

Local residents wade through flooded streets after Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Crosby, Texas on August 30, 2017. (AFP)

Monster storm Harvey made landfall again Wednesday in Louisiana, evoking painful memories of Hurricane Katrina's deadly strike 12 years ago, as time was running out in Texas to find survivors in the raging floodwaters.

The fresh hit comes five days after the monster storm slammed onshore as a Category Four hurricane, pummeling the US Gulf Coast with torrential rains that turned neighborhoods into lakes in America's fourth largest city, Houston.

While Harvey is technically packing less of a wallop as a tropical storm, heavy rains are still drenching parts of southeastern Texas and neighboring southwestern Louisiana, complicating rescue missions and compounding the misery for millions of Americans.

So far, only a handful of deaths have been formally confirmed, but when combined with suspected deaths, US media reported that the toll could be 30 so far -- and still rising -- as floodwaters recede in some areas and bodies are found.

Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for, though officials stress they may simply have no access to phones or power.

More than 30,000 people found refuge in shelters across the Lone Star State, from the giant Houston convention center to small churches, according to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Brock Long.

"We are in this for the long haul," acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke told reporters in a Wednesday briefing on emergency operations.

"We'll continue to support the people of Texas as long as necessary."

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner issued an nighttime curfew aimed at aiding search efforts and thwarting potential looting in the flood-ravaged city.

At least a quarter of Harris County, which includes Houston and the immediate surrounding area, is now under water, affecting tens of thousands of homes, local officials have said.

"After witnessing first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!" President Donald Trump said after visiting the storm zone.

Trump was planning a second trip to Texas on Saturday, and may go to Louisiana as well, the White House said.

So far, parts of Texas have seen more than 50 inches (1.27 meters) of rain, while in Louisiana, the top total 18 inches so far -- was increasing.

Harvey made its second landfall just west of the Louisiana town of Cameron, not far from the Texas border, packing maximum sustained winds nearing 45 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.

Forecasters are predicting another five to 10 inches of rain in the region, with the downpour finally expected to stop on Thursday.

For now, southwestern Louisiana was taking the hardest hit, but New Orleans proper appeared to have dodged a bullet, with minimal rain.

The arrival of the storm was nevertheless bittersweet for many in New Orleans, coming just one day after the 12-year anniversary of Katrina, which ravaged the vulnerable city famous for its jazz music and cuisine.

"I began to pray for the people in Texas after having gone through that same experience myself as a Katrina survivor," said Crystal Harris, who works for the Second Harvest Food Bank, which was taking donations for storm victims.

"It brings back memories," she said. "When you see images like... Houston, it reminds you of where you were 12 years ago."

In Texas, emergency crews were still struggling to reach hundreds of stranded people in a massive round-the-clock rescue operation, as the National Weather Service predicted weather conditions there were to improve at last.

But the damage wrought was staggering -- Enki Research put its "best estimate" at between $48 billion and $75 billion.

Sheryl Kunai, a 57-year-old accountant from Rosenberg, southwest of Houston, left her home and was staying at a hotel in Winnie. She said her home was fine, but she was wary about heading back.

"I still don't want to chance it. I'll just go ahead and give it one more day," she told AFP. "I'm more scared about driving in the water than anything else."

At least one bridge had crumbled, one levee had breached and dams were at risk in Texas.

A Houston police officer was one of the latest confirmed victims of the storm -- the body of Steve Perez, who went missing after reporting for duty in the early hours of Sunday, was recovered by divers on Tuesday.

The US Gulf Coast is a major hub of America's oil industry, accounting for 20 percent of the country's crude production.

Harvey sparked the closure of several major refineries. Many rigs were also knocked out. On Wednesday, crude prices were down at the opening in New York.

Residents living around a chemical plant in the county that includes Houston were evacuated as a precaution over fears that some of the chemicals at the facility -- which produces organic peroxides -- might react or cause an explosion.

Highways were swamped and homes were rendered uninhabitable across Houston, a city of 2.3 million people, and its wider metropolitan area of six million.

Federal officials estimate up to half a million people in Texas will ultimately require some form of assistance.

"Recovery is a slow process," Long, the FEMA chief, said Tuesday as he welcomed Trump to Corpus Christi.

"We've got a long way to go."

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