HOUSTON — The death toll from Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath in storm-ravaged Texas has climbed to 39.
A spate of unexpected disasters is plaguing Texas cities nearly a week after Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast.
The entire city of Beaumont has no running water after both its water pumps failed, forcing a hospital to shut down.
In Crosby, two blasts rocked a flooded chemical plant, and more blasts could come.
And in Houston, authorities are searching door-to-door for victims, hoping to find survivors but realizing that the death toll could rise.
Trump taps emergency U.S. oil reserve after Harvey
The Trump administration has tapped an emergency stockpile of crude oil in response to the major refinery outages in the U.S. Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Harvey.
The Energy Department said it will send 500,000 barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the Phillips 66 refinery in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Officials said the refinery, which hasn’t been shutdown by the historic flooding, requested the release of emergency oil.
The oil reserve is made up of a complex of tanks and deeper underground storage caverns. It can hold more than 700 million barrels of oil, making it the largest emergency oil reserve in the world.
The move is aimed at shielding Americans from higher gasoline prices, which have begun to rise sharply due to a shortage of gasoline caused by refinery shutdowns, port closures and oil production outages.
The Energy Department said it will “continue to provide assistance as deemed necessary,” including more potential drawdowns from the emergency reserve.
The decision to tap the oil reserve follows the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which normally carries a huge amount of gasoline between Houston and the East Coast. The key pipeline was knocked offline because there isn’t enough gasoline flowing for it to operate.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry noted the Colonial Pipeline outage is driven by limited gasoline supplies, not damage to the pipeline itself.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get those (refineries) back on,” Perry told reporters on Thursday aboard Air Force Two with Vice President Mike Pence.
Matt Smith, director of commodities research at ClipperData, said the emergency stockpile release is likely aimed at helping to fill up the Colonial Pipeline.
“There’s a huge logistical challenge going on at the moment because those refineries up and running don’t have access to the oil they need,” said Smith.
The Energy Department is also trying to ease fears about a severe gasoline shortage.
“This release sends a message to the market that the U.S. government is willing to address any kind of supply shortages. There’s definitely a psychological impact,” said Joe McMonigle, a former Energy Department official who now serves as senior energy analyst at the Hedgeye Potomac Research Group.
The widespread disruption in the U.S. Gulf Coast has lifted the average price of a gallon of gasoline by 10 cents to $2.449 on Thursday, according to AAA.
McMonigle predicted the Energy Department will take more steps because refinery recoveries are likely to be slow.
Historic flooding caused by Harvey knocked one-fifth of the nation’s refining capacity offline, according to S&P Global Platts. Thirteen oil refineries in Texas have shut down or are in the process of closing, while others are operating at reduced rates.
“The situation on the ground is even worse than what is being reported. This may not be a quick turnaround. it could take some time for the industry to get back on its feet,” McMonigle said.
The U.S. dipped into the strategic oil reserve during other disruptions, such as the 2011 turmoil in Libya and during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Earlier this year, President Trump proposed selling off half of the oil sitting in the reserve to raise revenue. Some analysts at the time criticized the proposal as risky.
‘Threat of additional explosion remains’
A pair of blasts at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby sent plumes of smoke into the sky Thursday morning, and the company warned more blasts could follow.
“We want local residents to be aware that product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosion remains,” Arkema said in a statement. “Please do not return to the area within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so.”
The twin blasts Thursday morning happened after organic peroxides overheated. The chemicals need to be kept cool, but after the plant lost power Sunday, the temperature rose, officials said.
That led to containers popping, including one container that caught fire — sending black smoke 30 to 40 feet into the air.
The thick black smoke “might be irritating to the eyes, skin and lungs,” Arkema officials said in a statement.
Fifteen Harris County sheriff’s deputies were hospitalized, but the smoke they inhaled was not believed to be toxic, the department said. By midmorning Thursday, all of the deputies had been released.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said nothing toxic was emitted and there was no imminent danger to the community.
Three other containers storing the same chemical are at risk of “overpressurization,” said Jeff Carr of Griffin Communications Group, which is representing Arkema.
Arkema shut down the facility as Harvey approached last week. The company evacuated everyone within 1.5 miles of plant as a precaution after it was flooded under more than 5 feet of water.
The company has said there’s a small possibility that the organic peroxide, which is used in the production of plastic resins, will get into floodwaters. “But it will not ignite and burn,” Arkema said.
Many chemical or oil plants have shut down operations due to Harvey, including the Colonial Pipeline, which carries huge amounts of gasoline and other fuel between Houston and the East Coast. Valero and Motiva, the largest refinery in the country, have also closed some facilities.
‘People are freaking out’ in Beaumont
Extreme flooding caused both of Beaumont’s water pumps to fail, meaning the city of 118,000 has no running water.
“We will have to wait until the water levels from this historical flood recede before we can determine the extent of damage and make any needed repairs,” the city said in a statement. “There is no way to determine how long this will take at this time.”
So residents lined up at stores hours before they opened Thursday in hopes of getting whatever bottled water they could find.
“It’s crazy,” said Khayvin Williams, who started waiting in line at Market Basket at 6:50 a.m. “People are freaking out.”
At a local Walmart, Jeffrey Farley said the store is only allowing 20 people in at a time and is rationing water to three cases per customer. He got in line at 6:30 a.m. and waited until 8:30 to get his water.
“It’s an insult to injury for a lot of folks,” Farley said. “The water situation has made things dire for everyone here.”
Beaumont, along with Port Arthur, was devastated after Harvey made another landfall Wednesday.
The catastrophe has even forced the closure of Beaumont-based Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas.
“Due to the failure of the city’s water pump, it is in the best interest of our current patients to transfer to other acute care facilities,” the hospital system said in a statement Thursday morning.
“Due to the city-wide lack of services, we have no other alternative but to discontinue all services which will include emergency services. This is being done immediately.”
‘I have no food. I have no water.’
About 20 miles southeast of Beaumont, the pleas for help keep growing in Port Arthur.
Julia Chatham and her neighbors are trapped in her home, with virtually no supplies.
“All I have in my house is power. I have no food. I have no water. I only have power in my house. I don’t have no way of getting around,” Chatham said.
“I’m stuck upstairs. It’s just me and my dog. And I’m upstairs with my other neighbors. It’s like five of us up here.”
Even those lucky enough to get to a shelter in Port Arthur were deluged again, when murky brown floodwater filled an evacuation shelter.
Electrocuted man tried to warn off friend
Countless stories of heroism have emerged in the aftermath of Harvey — including from some of the victims.
Andrew Pasek was walking through 4 feet of water trying to get to his sister’s house when he accidentally stepped on a live electrical wire.
“He felt the charge and knew something was wrong right away and tried to shake it off right away,” said his mother, Jodell.
The 25-year-old quickly asked a friend to get away from him “because if you do, you know, you will go too,” he told his friend.
Pasek was electrocuted and died. His mother said no one tried to resuscitate him for an hour until the electricity was turned off.
“It could have been anybody,” she said.