Rescuers search block by block for survivors of the hurricane with death toll rising to 35.
Crosby(Texas)/Lake Charles (Louisiana): Explosions at a chemical plant near Houston posed a fresh worry for storm-battered Texas on Thursday while rescuers searched block by block for survivors of Hurricane Harvey and the death toll rose to 35 people.
The explosions in Crosby, Texas, were the latest aftermath of the historic flooding brought by the most powerful storm to land in Texas in a half-century, which drove tens of thousands from their homes around the U.S. energy hub.
Portions of the state’s southeastern coast, including Beaumont and Port Arthur, remained largely cut off because of flooded roadways, even as some commuters began to return to the streets of parts of Houston.
In Crosby, about 48 km northeast of Houston, a sheriff’s deputy was taken to a hospital after being exposed to the 40-foot high smoke plume that erupted when chemicals stored at a Arkema SA plant erupted into flames after the refrigerator cooling the truck trailer they were stored in failed. After the multiple blasts, local public safety and company officials insisted there was no risk to the public outside the 2.4-km safety perimeter, even though they said eight more trucks storing the same chemicals would eventually catch fire.
“They are going to burn with intensity,” said Bob Royall, assistant chief of emergency operations at the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office. “Most of the material is going to be consumed by a very hot fire.”
That was no comfort to Frances Breaux as she pleaded with police at the perimeter to check on an elderly married couple that live two streets from the plant.
The couple, Leo and LeJane Opelia, both in their late 70s, were evacuated from their home but returned Wednesday night to check on their cats and belongings, Breaux said.
“I keep trying to call them and I can’t reach them,” she said through tears. “I just want to make sure that they are OK.”
Police said the potential for more blasts made it too dangerous to check on the couple. “The plume is incredibly dangerous,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long told reporters.
An Arkema company official described the smoke as a noxious irritant created after refrigeration systems on a truck used to store the chemicals failed, causing them to overheat.
By Thursday, Harvey was downgraded to a tropical depression, located about 24 km south of Monroe, Louisiana, but there was potential for more flooding in the brimming rivers and reservoirs it left behind in Texas.
The Houston Fire Department will begin a block-by-block effort on Thursday to rescue stranded survivors and recover bodies, assistant fire chief Richard Mann told reporters.
Nine members of the ad-hoc “Cajun Navy” — volunteers towing boats behind pickup trucks — gathered in Lake Charles early on Thursday deliberating whether they could safely get in to badly flooded parts of coastal southeastern Texas, including Orange, Port Arthur and Beaumont.
“You can’t get anywhere by vehicle,” said Troy Payne, 56, who had driven in from Atlanta. “To me, this is a helicopter function from here on out unless the water level falls.”
Nearly 30 inches of rain hit the Port Arthur area.