Storm-hit Houston strains from influx of evacuees, crime outbreak
HOUSTON — Houston strained under the arrival of tens of thousands of people fleeing submerged homes and flooded roads on Wednesday, while some incidents of looting and armed robberies forced a midnight curfew.
City and regional officials showed signs of tension after working nonstop for a week or more on storm preparations and response, with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner bluntly telling the U.S. government to quickly approve aid for victims of Tropical Storm Harvey.
The storm that came ashore on Friday near Corpus Christi was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. It has killed at least 22 people and forced 30,000 people to flee to emergency shelters. Damage has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars.
The Houston City Council voted on Wednesday to allocate $20 million to storm recovery efforts, pulling the money from a rainy-day fund, though that is an initial step and far more will be needed, officials said.
The move came as Houston police and other first responders transition from rescue operations and back to law enforcement, with Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg vowing to vigorously prosecute looters. At least 14 have been arrested for looting in the past two days, Ogg’s office said.
The surge in evacuees has been stressing resources in the fourth-largest U.S. city. As of Wednesday morning, Texas officials said close to 49,000 homes had suffered flood damage, with more than 1,000 destroyed. Thousands of other homes were threatened by two reservoirs swollen by as much as 52 inches of rain in some areas.
Officials ordered evacuations in several areas around levees or dams, but opted not to call for a mass evacuation, which could have led to chaos during the storm.
As Harvey began to dump rain and cause flooding, the city opened the George R. Brown Convention Center last weekend. It planned to house 5,000 people, operating with the help of American Red Cross volunteers and others. The center’s population quickly grew to double that capacity, as people streamed in from areas south and west of Houston.
Officials opened two more “mega” centers late Tuesday at the Toyota Center, home of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, and NRG Park, part of the complex that hosted the 2017 Super Bowl.
As police responded to scattered incidents of looting and armed robberies, the mayor ordered a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m., which residents respected. There were no arrests for curfew violations on Tuesday night, police said.
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There were at least 20 missing people as of midday Tuesday in Houston, and a family of six, including four children, drowned inside a van in Houston during the storm, law enforcement officials said.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said would-be looters impersonating police officers knocked on doors in at least two parts of the city telling residents to evacuate their homes.
“There’s still some significant threats out there,” Acevedo told a special session of the Houston City Council on Wednesday.
Late Tuesday, Harris County officials opened the shelter at NRG Park, which can house 10,000, and will be staffed in part by members of the National Guard.
As the ordeal wore on, Texas Governor Greg Abbott complained at one point that he had tried in vain to reach the mayor. The two have clashed in the past, especially on the issue of immigration.
When a levee broke on Tuesday morning in Brazoria County south of Houston, the county’s chief administrator urged residents to “get out now.”
Mandatory evacuation orders covered Brazoria, Galveston and Fort Bend counties south and west of Houston, and officials issued calls for others to leave voluntarily.
On Wednesday afternoon, about 8,000 were at the nearly 2-million-square-foot Houston convention center, which had hosted evacuees in at least three prior storms. The population had dipped somewhat as other centers opened and some evacuees moved on.
“We are happy to operate the building as a shelter as long as needed,” said Rob Jackson, an official of Houston First, which operates the convention center.
A long-term solution for evacuees has yet to be formulated, officials said.
“Right now we’re just working in 12-hour increments,” said Tom McCasland, Houston’s housing and community development department director and head of the convention center shelter.
Some criticized the decision not to order a mass evacuation, but officials noted that a 2005 evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita turned into a nightmare for many in Texas and Louisiana who became trapped in vehicles that ran out of fuel on clogged roadways.
Area churches and aid organizations donated clothing, bedding and food for evacuees. The Red Cross brought at least 1,000 volunteers to staff the convention center, and provided cots, blankets and food for 34,000 across the region, officials said.
Turner, the mayor, called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send cots, food and other supplies, as well as send staff directly into damaged communities, not just into shelters.
“I can’t think of one district where there are not tremendous needs,” said Turner. “People are looking for results.”
Maria Davila, 56, her husband, daughter, and two grandchildren, were among those who arrived at the convention center Monday night after swimming away from their flooded home.
“We left our cars and belongings and started swimming,” she said. “We don’t know how long we will be here.”
Several had been ferried to the convention center on Sunday morning after spending Saturday night trapped by floodwaters in their cars, then eventually making their way to a nearby fire station.
City officials would not say how many evacuees they expected, or how many the city could hold.
“We are going to have to take folks. We have no choice,” said Darian Ward, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
Lakewood Church, the nondenominational Houston megachurch that holds televised services in a former basketball arena, announced on Tuesday it would take up to 300 people in side rooms, though it would not open its massive sanctuary for more.
The church, led by celebrity pastor Joel Osteen, was criticized for being slow to open its doors to evacuees. It is now collecting and sorting supplies for other centers and providing on-site health checks.
Church spokesman Donald Iloff Jr. called the criticism a “completely false” narrative, saying the church’s first floor was nearly flooded.