Catastrophic flooding is hitting Houston as ex-hurricane Harvey continues to stall onland. It has dumped as much as 26 inches (66cm) of rain in some counties in the past 72 hours and much more is expected through til Friday.
Thousands of people have fled to their rooftops or higher ground as warnings of flash flooding continue through the night. Rescuers struggled to keep up with calls for help. Houston emergency services have received nearly 6,000 appeals for rescues. The Coast Guard said it had rescued 1,200 people, of which 200 were from the air. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, has predicted that the aftermath of the storm would require the agency’s involvement for years. “This disaster’s going to be a landmark event,” Long said.
The US military has released water from two major reservoirs earlier than planned to protect central Houston, a move that could itself flood several thousands homes. Water is being released from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in western Houston. Residents nearby have been told to monitor water levels and evacuate if they are in danger, but to wait until daylight before they do so. The release is expected push up the Buffalo Bayou – one of Houston’s major waterways – by up to 6 inches (15 cm) an hour. The bayou is already suffering catastrophic flooding in the west of the city, at more than 7ft above flooding point.
The tropical storm has strengthened slightly and there are fears it could return to the coast, where it would gather more power, before coming back to land. The damage bill is already drawing comparisons to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which caused $108bn of losses (including $80bn of insured losses).
About 3,000 national and state guard member have been activated in Texas, and disaster relief crews have arrived from as far away as New York and South Colorado. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) has deployed more than 1,800 staff.
Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, has defended his decision not to evacuate the flood-prone city, saying he had “no regrets”. No one knew where the hurricane would go, so it was impossible to send people away from danger, Turner said. As of Sunday night, 54 counties in Texas have been declared state disaster areas by the governor, Greg Abbott.
A Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund has been set up to take donations from the public. It will be administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation. Donations can be made via its site. People have been urged not to return to Aransas County – where the hurricane hit – as emergency services continue the search for any missing people. The area has no water, power or communications.