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Storm-hit Houston strains from influx of evacuees, crime outbreak


REUTERS

Storm-hit Houston strains from influx of evacuees, crime outbreak

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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 officials prepared to vote to allocate $20 million to storm relief, said city Controller Chris Brown. “Houston will have enough money to handle this storm,” he vowed.

City and regional officials showed signs of tension after working nonstop for a week or more on storm preparations and response. The storm that hit shore on Friday near Corpus Christi, Texas, was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. It has killed at least 17 people and forced 30 000 people to flee to emergency shelters. Damage has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars.

The surge in evacuees has been stressing resources in the fourth-largest US city. More than 3 000 Houston homes were underwater and thousands more were threatened by two reservoirs swollen by as much as 52 inches (132 cm) 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 Tropical Storm 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 centre’s population quickly grew to double that capacity, as people streamed in from areas south and west of Houston.

Officials opened two more “mega” centres 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, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m.

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, about 10 000 people were at the nearly 2-million-square-foot Houston convention centre, which had hosted evacuees in at least three prior storms.

“We are happy to operate the building as a shelter as long as needed,” said Rob Jackson, an official of HoustonFirst, which operates the convention centre.

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 centre 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 organisations donated clothing, bedding and food for evacuees. The Red Cross brought at least 1 000 volunteers to staff the convention centre, and provided cots, blankets and food for 34 000 across the region, officials said.

LARGE NEED

Turner called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send cots, food and other supplies.

Maria Davila, 56, her husband, daughter, and two grandchildren, were among those who arrived at the convention centre 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 centre 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 criticised for offering prayers but being slow to open its doors to evacuees. It is collecting and sorting supplies for other centres and providing on-site health checks.

“When the city needs us, we try to help,” said associate pastor Paul Osteen, brother of the Lakewood pastor who was widely criticised on social media.

Church spokesman Donald Iloff Jr. called the criticism a “completely false” narrative, saying the church’s first floor was nearly flooded. (Reuters)

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