Texas continues Harvey recovery efforts as Hurricane Irma looms in the Atlantic

  • Gaston Kirby, right, and Juan Minutella leave Kirby's flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) David J. Phillip

  • Mariko Shimmi, right, helps carry items out of the home of Ken Tani in a neighborhood still flooded from Harvey on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, in Houston. Some neighborhoods around Houston remain flooded and thousands of people have been displaced by torrential rains and catastrophic flooding since Harvey slammed into Southeast Texas last week. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) Gregory Bull

  • Jenny Killingsworth, right, holds the hand of Janeah Tieman, 10, while helping clean up a home damaged by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) David J. Phillip

  • This enhanced satellite image shows Irma in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday. In the wake of Harvey, meteorologists are already looking warily at Irma, which intensified from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in just 30 hours and is steadily moving west across the Atlantic. NASA/NOAA via AP

Washington Post
Monday, September 04, 2017

For the first time in the 10 days since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the Coast Guard did not have to carry out rescue missions in storm-ravaged Southeast Texas on Sunday. Instead, the service began moving a number of helicopters out of Texas and into Puerto Rico, Florida and Georgia, in anticipation of another landfall threat brewing for the U.S. coast: Hurricane Irma.

“As soon as one ends, we need to make sure we are ready for the next event,” Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said Monday as Irma, already a Category 3 hurricane, churned in the Atlantic. It is still too early to determine exactly where and when Irma will hit, but model forecasts indicate it is increasingly likely to hit the United States. The National Hurricane Center warned in a 5 a.m. update Monday that Irma could directly affect the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Cuba. A significant percentage of model forecasts have Irma striking the U.S. East Coast as early as Saturday or Sunday, with tropical storm winds arriving in Florida as soon as Friday.

Predictions will improve over the coming days, narrowing in on exactly which part of the coast will endure the season’s next major hurricane.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also deploying its resources eastward in advance of Irma, FEMA administrator William “Brock” Long said Sunday on CBS News’s Face the Nation. Hurricane Harvey, he said, should be a “wake-up call” for local and state officials. He urged them to give emergency management directors the full budgets they need to be prepared for the next disaster.

As of Monday, officials across the state of Texas had confirmed at least 57 deaths related to Harvey, a tally expected to increase as floodwaters recede and recovery efforts continue. More than 34,000 people were still in shelters, including nearly 7,000 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. As residents work to return to their homes, many will soon discover the extent of their losses. The Texas Department of Public Safety reported that more than 200,000 homes have been damaged, with more than 13,500 destroyed.

Meanwhile, the region is dealing with a daunting array of environmental problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported Sunday that more than 800 wastewater treatment facilities are not fully operational as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing floods, and that officials are aware of “releases of wastewater from sanitary sewers,” pollution that could cause health risks. The agency hasn’t had access to most of the 13 Superfund sites with toxic materials that were flooded or damaged as a result of the storm.

Thousands of people in Southeast Texas still don’t have safe drinking water, including in Beaumont, a city of 118,000 to the east of Houston. So far, the EPA has found that people who are served by 166 water systems are under boil-water orders as a safety measure and that another 50 water systems have been shut down completely.

On Sunday afternoon, executives of the disabled Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, had decided to hasten the burning of chemicals left on the site. The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office said the company decided to be pro-active rather than wait for the rest of the chemicals to ignite. Early Monday morning the company announced a 1.5 mile evacuation zone around the Arkema facility had been lifted, and it is safe for residents who live around the chemical plant to return to their homes.

Across Southeast Texas, the soundtrack of recovery is the growl of generators and the buzz of huge fans that are attempting to dry out flooded interiors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has distributed 15,000 booklets urging people to be vigilant about mold, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency tweeted, “As you clean up after #Harvey, mold control is critical.”

Signaling potential roadblocks to federal help for Texas, the Trump administration said Sunday that it wants Congress to attach aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey to a bill that would increase the federal debt limit. That puts the White House on a collision course with House conservatives who oppose raising the debt limit and want the Harvey money treated as a separate issue.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday that if the debt ceiling is not raised, funding to help Texas recover from the hurricane could be delayed.

“Our first priority is to make sure that the state gets money, it is critical, and to do that we need to make sure we raise the debt limit,” he said. “Without raising the debt limit, I’m not comfortable that we will get the money that we need this month to Texas to rebuild.”

If the debt ceiling isn’t raised soon, the U.S. government will not have enough funds to continue operations beyond Sept. 29, Mnuchin has told lawmakers. Appropriating emergency money to help with the Harvey response will accelerate that deadline by several days, he has said.

In addition to needing supplies, food, water and medicine, Houston-area residents also are faced with removing massive amounts of rubbish that needs to be cleared from their damaged homes.

Mattresses, carpeting, furniture, ripped-up drywall, and trash bags with ruined personal belongings sit in large piles on lawns and curbside in neighborhoods across this sprawling metropolis. The federal government will pick up most of the cost of debris removal under an amended disaster declaration from Trump, but on Sunday in some neighborhoods there was little sign that anything would be hauled away soon.

In affluent Kingwood Gardens, where homes line a golf course, sturdy fences had been flattened, exposing formerly concealed private patios and swimming pools. Inflatable alligators and inner tubes had been carried off by rushing water and now lay caught in thickets along local creeks.

In Houston, officials hope to have the city open for business as much as possible by Tuesday morning.

“I’m encouraging people to get up and let’s get going,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, D-Texas, said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “There is still tremendous need. Don’t want to downplay that ... but most of the city is dry, and I’m saying to people – if you can open, let’s open up and let’s get started.”

Turner said the focus this week will be on “housing, housing, housing,” especially for low-income and senior residents. He praised President Donald Trump for a “very positive” visit Saturday.

“Come and visit us in one year and I’ll show you a better city than it was before the storm,” Turner said.

On Lake Houston Parkway in Kingwood, Alspaugh’s ACE Hardware store was in cleanup mode after receiving four feet of water, but it was open for business. “ACE is open,” said a board spray-painted in red. “This store is going to be rebuilt better than it ever has been,” said owner Rick Alspaugh.

Alspaugh spray painted the top of two trailers with “God Bless ’Merica” so helicopters could see his store from overhead. Women working to clean up had placed Texas flags in their ponytails.

“Texas pride,” Alspaugh said. “We’ll get through this.”