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Texas flood toll mounts amid chemical blast fears

  • Published at 09:14 am August 31st, 2017
  • Last updated at 11:59 am August 31st, 2017
Texas flood toll mounts amid chemical blast fears
New proof of the devastation wrought by monster storm Harvey emerged on Wednesday as the bodies of six family members were plucked from receding waters in Texas and flooding triggered fears of a chemical explosion near Houston. While clouds parted in America's fourth-largest city, bringing a welcome respite after the storm turned roads into rivers, rural areas of Texas were drenched as Harvey headed eastwards with the city of Port Arthur especially hard hit. Authorities in neighbouring Louisiana scrambled to safeguard their state from the impact of Harvey, whose onslaught evoked painful memories of Hurricane Katrina's deadly strike 12 years ago -- but New Orleans escaped with minimal rain. Taking advantage of a lull in the rainfall in Houston, rescuers recovered the bodies of six family members from a van which was swept away by the floods over the weekend. Manuel and Belia Saldivar and four of their great-grandchildren ranging from six to 16 years in age went missing on Sunday. "Our worst fears have been realised," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a press conference, confirming all six bodies had been found inside the van. So far, officials believe at least 33 people to have been killed in the storm, and there is little doubt the toll will rise further -- although many of those unaccounted for may simply have no access to phones or power [caption id="attachment_212711" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Rescue volunteers after clearing out all the evacuees from the Twin Oaks Estate in the Clodine district after Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Houston, Texas |AFP Rescue volunteers after clearing out all the evacuees from the Twin Oaks Estate in the Clodine district after Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Houston, Texas AFP[/caption] "To those Americans who have lost loved ones, all of America is grieving with you, and our hearts are joined with yours forever," President Donald Trump said in a speech, a day after viewing some of the damage for himself on a trip to Texas. More than 30,000 people have found refuge in shelters across the Lone Star State, from the giant Houston convention centre to small churches, according to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), Brock Long. In Houston, where Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a nighttime curfew to aid search efforts and thwart potential looting, the two major airports reopened on a limited basis, signalling a slow return to normality. Turner told a news conference Wednesday night that trash pickup and metro service will resume in some areas where flood waters have receded. "It's my hope that despite how massive this storm has been, that the city of Houston will quickly move to get back to where we were and then beyond that," Turner said. The National Hurricane Centre downgraded Harvey to a tropical depression Wednesday night, but warned that life-threatening flood conditions remain in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. But at least a quarter of Harris County, which includes Houston, is still under water -- and the operators of an organic peroxides plant outside the city warned they were bracing for the risk of an explosion after flooding caused them to lose all power. "Right now, we have an unprecedented six feet of water at the plant," Rich Rowe, president and chief executive of plant operator Arkema Inc, said in a statement. "We have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on site that could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire," he said. "The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it." As a precaution, officials had already ordered the evacuation of an area within 2.5km of the plant in Crosby, northeast of Houston, and Rowe said the facility itself had been evacuated for employees' safety.
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 Lessons learned

In Texas, the damage wrought is staggering -- Enki Research put its "best estimate" at between $48 billion and $75 billion. At least one bridge had crumbled, one levee had breached and dams were at risk, while Harvey sparked the closure of several major refineries across what is a major hub of America's oil industry. More than 4,500 people and 1,000 pets have been rescued from the storm zone by the Coast Guard, which expected to rescue an additional 1,000 people Wednesday in the Port Arthur area alone. The Coast Guard has deployed about 50 aircraft and two dozen boats, but the overall rescue effort, involving other military branches and state police, easily tops more than 100 aircraft. "We are certainly bringing lessons learned from Katrina," Admiral Paul Thomas, who oversees Coast Guard operations in 26 states, told reporters in New Orleans -- noting that several members of his team are Louisiana natives who are veterans of the 2005 disaster.