HOUSTON, Texas (Reuters) – Emergency crews raced to pull people from cars and homes as flood waters rose across southeast Texas on Sunday, rescuing more than 1,000 people around Houston as Tropical Storm Harvey pounded the region.
Harvey came ashore late Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years and has killed at least two people. The death toll is expected to rise as the storm lashes the U.S. state for days, triggering more floods, tidal surges and tornadoes.
Harvey has caused chest-deep flooding on some streets in Houston as rivers and channels overflow their banks. After up to 30 inches (76 cms) of rain in some parts of the fourth most-populous U.S. city, the storm is expected to dump 12 to 25 more inches (30-63 cms) over the next few days, the National Weather Service forecast. The total could reach 50 inches in some coastal areas of Texas by the end of the week, or the average rainfall for an entire year.
“This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced,” the government’s National Weather Service said on Twitter.
The centre of Harvey is still 125 miles away from Houston, and forecast to arc slowly toward the city through Wednesday.
Flooding closed many roads and residents hunkered down inside houses and apartments as authorities sent flash flood and tornado alerts to cell phones.
The swift rise of flood waters surprised authorities and residents with boats were asked to help with rescues.
The Ben Taub Hospital in Houston’s Medical Centre was being evacuated on Sunday. An American Red Cross emergency shelter was forced to shut due to flooding and the group opened two more, including one in a convention centre in downtown Houston.
“Within less than a half hour, we had 7 to 8 inches of water in our first floor,” said Brian Hoskins, 25, a petroleum engineer who lives in Houston.
“I was worried about losing all our furniture and our cars.”
Emergency services told people to climb onto the roofs of their houses rather than into their attics to escape rapidly rising waters, to avoid being trapped if waters rose more.
Authorities warned the city’s more than two million residents and people across Texas not to leave homes even if they flooded because roads were impassable.
Many people were stuck in vehicles on raised highway sections with dips in the roads ahead of them flooded.
The Twitter account of the sheriff of Harris County, which includes most of Houston, was inundated with rescue requests and his team were unable to respond quickly to all of them.
“All agencies care but everyone simply operating at maximum capacity,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted at one point.
Gonzalez said his deputies responded to unconfirmed reports of a deceased woman and child inside a submerged vehicle on a highway near Houston.
Another resident described seeing a woman’s body floating in the streets during a flash flood in west Houston. The flood was several feet high, the resident told local TV station abc13.
Houston’s Bush International and William P. Hobby airports cancelled all commercial flights on Sunday. Hobby had standing water on the runway and said the arrivals area was flooded.
“The flooding in Houston is dramatic,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in an interview on Fox News on Sunday.
The second confirmed fatality from Tropical Storm Harvey came on Saturday evening when an elderly woman drowned attempting to drive through flooded streets in west Houston, said city police Sergeant Colin Howard.
Authorities evacuated flooded apartment complexes and warned residents to heed warnings not to leave flooded residencies unless asked to do so as up to 5 inches (12.7 cm) of rain fell per hour.
“There are a number of stranded people on our streets, calling 911, exhausting needed resources. You can help by staying off the streets,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Twitter.
On Friday night, a man died in a house fire in the town of Rockport, 30 miles (48 km) north of the city of Corpus Christi. Another dozen people in the area suffered injuries including broken bones, another official said.