Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle
Tropical Storm Harvey officially became Houston’s worst storm on record overnight, dumping heavy rains across the city and overflowed bayous, leaving swaths of the city submerged in floodwater.
“It’s catastrophic, unprecedented, epic — whatever adjective you want to use,” said Patrick Blood, a NWS meteorologist. “It’s pretty horrible right now.”
The unconfirmed death toll by the National Weather Service reached five, but authorities expected that to climb as the waters recede.
Harvey, downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, sent bands of thunderstorms over Houston Saturday night and dumped 5 to 20 inches of rain on already saturated streets, prompting evacuations of apartment complexes and dramatic rescues.
The entire Texas Gulf coast is under a “catastrophic” flash flood warning until 10:45 a.m.
“I know for a fact this is the worst flood Houston has ever experienced,” Blood said. “Worse than (Tropical Storm) Allison. It’s so widespread.”
And the forecast for the next few days remains dire, with computer models showing continued rounds of thunderstorms spawned by Harvey, which has been downgraded from a hurricane to tropical storm.
Blood said the Houston area can expect at least an additional 15 to 25 inches over the next few days.
Emergency workers are overwhelmed with calls for water rescues, having responded to “hundreds” as of early Sunday. Houston police officials also evacuated two apartment complexes in Greenspoint, rescuing more than 50 children from rising flood waters overnight.
Authorities stressed people should only use 911 in dire emergencies, as dispatchers were struggling to keep up with the calls.
“Difficult to get to everyone right away,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted. “Hang tight.”
Gonzalez tweeted at 2:41 a.m. about an unconfirmed report that a woman and child were inside a submerged vehicle along Interstate 10 near Lathrop. He later tweeted that they were still unable to reach the vehicle to confirm the death.
Another woman died Saturday night near the Buffalo Bayou after reportedly trying to get out of her flooded car, authorities said.
“It breaks your heart,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said via a livestream on Twitter, as he stood in waist-high water in north Houston. “But, it’s Texas, we’ll get through it.”
Houston TranStar listed 158 high-water locations on the roads, which were lined with stalled and stranded motorists. Hobby Airport closed because of flooding. Metropolitan Transit Authority suspended all service. Harris County Toll Road Authority ceased tolling, so those forced to avoid high water could use the tollways.
As of 5:30 a.m., CenterPoint said more than 57,000 people in their Houston coverage area were without power.
In Harris County, the heaviest rainfall over the past 12 hours were around Webster, where the county flood control gauge on the Galveston County line registered 19.3 inches since 5:30 p.m.
Blood said the computer models show no signs of the rain letting up soon.
“Harvey is not going to move much over the next few days,” he said.
Water everywhere: Hurricane Harvey rains flood roads and waterways
The west and northwest parts of the county, like upper Little Cypress Creek and Mayde Creek near Greenhouse, already had high water and were especially at risk, Jeff Lindner, the county flood control district’s meteorologist, said Saturday.
Underscoring Harvey’s breadth and unpredictability, a series of tornadoes happened up to 140 miles away from the center of the downgraded tropical storm.
One in Cypress skipped like a stone on water, leaving a random, broken trail of damage.
Hurricane Harvey location
Charles Crittenden, 43, stared at the rain from his house in the Lone Oak Village subdivision when a funnel cloud dropped out of the sky and hit his roof, peeling off shingles, plywood, and tarpaper.
He yelled “get in the hallway,” to his wife, Beth, 51.
“That’s where everything went flying,” he said, pointing at a muddy patch in his yard. It tossed his ATV and two 500-pound logs into the air.
A tornado also hit Lone Star College and the nearby Berry complex, with an event center and stadium, scattering trees and debris.
Michael Miller, 32, who lives several blocks over, looked out of his house around 4 p.m. and saw stadium seats flying. “It was huge,” he said, as his phone blared yet another tornado warning. “Everything was up in the air.”
Across the subdivision, where other homes had also been hit, roofers scaled roof lines, throwing down tarps, plywood, and other materials to block the rain.
The weather service logged seven tornadoes, and there were several more probable twisters that were not officially confirmed. Two struck Galveston, Texas City and La Marque on Friday, four hit northwest Harris County between 4 and 5 p.m. Saturday, and one downed trees and ripped up parts of homes in the Missouri City subdivision of Sienna Plantation early Saturday.
That tornado hit around 12:50 a.m.
In Katy, a suspected tornado at about 5:30 a.m. Saturday tossed trailers like toys and pushed over a billboard at a boat and RV storage business.
“We have two businesses here on the property – or we did,” said manager B.J. Prendergast as he surveyed the damage at Boat and Storage and Trailer World of Katy on Interstate 10 near FM 1463.
Prendergast said a bystander told him he saw the twister cross a road and slam into the building.
“And out of nowhere, debris just exploded,” Predergast said.
The high winds sheared off the front section of the warehouse like a tin can. A tree branch flew about 500 feet and slammed into the wrought iron fence.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales said on Twitter that four tornadoes touched down in the Cypress area during the 4 p.m. hour, but some of those reports were likely the same twister, other officials said. The weather service confirmed the first tornado touched down at 4 p.m. near Cypress Ranch High School and moved toward Hockley, Waller and Todd Mission.
Some homes suffered “extensive damage” in the Lone Oak Subdivision, and other buildings in Black Horse Ranch; Fry Road at Cypress North Houston Road; and between Tuckerton and West roads also had damage, Gonzales said.
The National Weather Service issued about 70 tornado warnings in the area Saturday.
Harvey’s strong winds set in motion smaller vortexes, resulting in frequent but brief tornadoes, which will continue through Monday, said Melissa Huffman, a weather service meteorologist in Houston.
NOAA radar shows Hurricane Harvey moving over the coast. A hurricane warning is in effect for the counties shaded in red on the map.
Created by Data Journalist Rachael Gleason
No injuries were reported in the tornadoes, and the lone confirmed fatality from Harvey remained a person who was trapped in a home in Rockport as the storm made landfall Friday night on the coast about 190 miles southeast of Houston, according to Aransas County Judge Burt Mills.
Among the greatest dangers facing the Houston region, the Brazos and Colorado rivers and their tributaries are expected to surpass decades-old records with life-threatening floods in an area swamped just 14 months ago.
FROM THE SCENE: Hurricane Harvey rips roofs off Fort Bend County homes
Brazoria County officials expect the Brazos to crest at roughly the same level it did in June 2016, when hundreds of residences were flooded, some for nearly two weeks. It all but spared the most populated parts of central and southern Brazoria County – Angleton, Lake Jackson, Freeport – but left residents in more rural areas stranded. Those regions are home to a mix of trailers, dilapidated small houses and larger single-family residences.
Federal projections show the river near Rosharon is expected to reach 51 feet by Monday morning, cresting at about 52.5 feet on Monday night. It was at 26 feet Saturday night, having risen nearly 20 feet in the past day.
State prison officials evacuated about 4,500 inmates by bus from the Ramsey, Terrell and Stringfellow units in Rosharon, sending them to other prisons in East Texas.
Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta told residents along the river to evacuate. Holiday Lakes, a town of 350 households west of Angleton, issued a mandatory evacuation order. About 95 percent of Holiday Lakes households were flooded last year.
“We’re just going to do what we can and hope they miss their prediction,” Holiday Lakes Mayor Norman Schroeder said.
The San Bernard River in western Brazoria County is also under voluntary orders. The river is expected to hit 34.2 feet – 10 feet higher than the previous record – by Thursday.
As the storm briefly quieted Saturday morning, fearful residents recalled the havoc of 2016.
Megan Turney, 60, said she didn’t leave her home for 12 days, at one point receiving bread, milk and beer from a neighbor who kayaked about 4 miles. Although her house, a few miles east of the Brazos River, avoided major damage, she could hear efforts to reach residents in flooded homes.
“It sounded like a war zone because everybody was going out with air boats and getting people out of Holiday Lakes,” Turney said.
The 2016 flood brought a thick film of mud that caked many homes, along with some unwanted guests, said Martin Schrott, who manages about 40 properties along Mann Lake.
“Last year, I stepped on a damn gator in the water,” he said. “I’m not walking around out here at night again.”
Disa Schulze, the mayor pro tem of Holiday Lakes, said some residents were able to rebuild using insurance money, but homeowners who skipped insurance plans were just starting to recover, “and now we’re fixing to have to start all over again.”
Raymond Romo, 55, lost his childhood home in the Rosenberg area last year to the flooding. He bought an RV, and had been living in it, parked in what was once the home’s driveway.
“Here we are again,” he said, eyeing the rising river.
Wharton County urged people to evacuate areas surrounding the Colorado, San Bernard and East Bernard rivers, the latter of which could top the 1960 record by 4 inches. The East and West Mustang creeks near Ganado also are projected to break records.
“If you have flooded in any past flood, this is higher than all of them,” the county’s emergency management office warned on social media.
In Houston, Greenspoint residents kept a nervous eye on the water coursing through their local bayou, remembering last year’s catastrophic flooding.
The low-income neighborhood of aging apartment complexes and charmless business parks south of Bush Intercontinental Airport is just now recovering from the 2016 Tax Day flood that inundated some 2,000 area apartments, some of which still await repair.
Harvey could bring a repeat, residents worried, but at least this storm left them time to prepare — buy food, move cars, clean ditches.
Maurice Lewis, 35, worried mostly about his car as he stood in his apartment’s parking lot, watching water course down Greens Bayou.
“I can’t even say the feeling, just wishing that it’s all going to get over with,” said Lewis, who moved from Humble to his second floor Greenspoint apartment two weeks ago.
A mile downstream, Nora Martinez, her 11-year-old son and their neighbor pressed their faces against a chain link fence, estimating how much Greens Bayou could rise before overflowing.
Several feet to go, the 46-year-old mom thought.
“Truth is,” Martinez said in Spanish, “I’m not afraid because I’m a woman of faith. I trust the lord will have mercy on his people.”
Minutes later, however, memories of the deluge that displaced many of her neighbors crept back.
“I’m a little scared because I already went through this,” Martinez admitted.
Some Houstonians defied recommendations to stay indoors, like a woman dancing through Buffalo Bayou Park, and Jason Hurns, who exercised nearby.
“This is the best time to work out,” he said. “Everybody is home, and I am here with the park just for myself.”
Hundreds of thousands of homes on Texas’ Gulf Coast were still without power on Saturday afternoon, while more than 170,000 customers in Houston had their lights back on after Harvey was downgraded, according to transmission companies and the state’s grid operator.
United Airlines announced Saturday afternoon that it is suspending flights out of Houston to non-hub airports. That represents about 300 departures.
Officials at the city’s two major airports reported more than 500 cancelled flights and dozens of delays.
Southwest Airlines said it is operating about 50 percent of its normal schedule Saturday and Sunday.
Both Southwest and United have travel waivers in place.
Katherine Blunt, Rebecca Elliott, Lindsay Ellis, Emily Foxhall, Mike Glenn, Ryan Maye Handy, John D. Harden, Andrew Kragie, Brooke A. Lewis, Andrea Rumbaugh, Olivia P. Tallet and Shelby Webb contributed to this report.