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Tropical Storm Harvey continues to devastate the Gulf: What we know

We’re just starting to understand the toll of the widespread flooding.

People come out to visit the flooded areas near their homes on August 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Tropical Storm Harvey broke all records for rainfall from a single storm in the continental United States, and its consequences are likely to be felt for years. While the worst of the storm has cleared out of the Houston area, know that this story is not yet over.

It’s just beginning. Tens of thousands are displaced from their homes, search and rescue operations are still underway, flood waters have not yet receded, and the total cost of the storm has yet to be fully tallied. Cleanup and rebuilding efforts will likely take years.

And the storm itself continues to dump rain over East Texas and Louisiana.

“While the threat of heavy rains has ended in the Houston/Galveston area, catastrophic and life-threatening flooding will continue in and around Houston eastward into southwest Louisiana for the rest of the week,” the National Hurricane Center writes in a Wednesday morning forecast. “The expected heavy rains spreading northeastward from Louisiana into western Kentucky may also lead to flash flooding and increased river and small stream flooding.”

Harvey is a huge unfolding disaster, impacting the millions of people living in the fast-growing region of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Here’s the latest.

Where the storm is now

After days of stalling and wobbling over the Texas coast, Tropical Storm Harvey is on the move. On Wednesday, Harvey made a second landfall in West Louisiana and brought its devastating rains to cities near the Texas-Louisiana border. It’s now moving towards the Northeast at around 10 miles per hour. For the past few days, it’s traveled at closer to 2 mph.

As it approached its second landfall, Harvey brought its drenching rains to the Beaumont-Port Arthur area of East Texas, about 90 miles from Houston. In this area — home to 388,745 people — 26 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period. That not only breaks a single-day record for rainfall in the area, but it breaks this area’s record for the amount of rain in a single month, the Washington Post points out.

“The worst is not yet over for Southeast Texas, at least as rain is concerned,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Wednesday press conference, adding that flooding in the Beaumont region can be expected for the next few days.

The scenes out of Beaumont and Port Arthur reveal a flooding disaster comparable to what Houston experienced. Overnight on Tuesday, conditions got so bad that rescue operations had to be put on hold, CBS News reports. In Port Arthur, even a flood shelter had to be evacuated due to flooding.

"We're getting 911 and rescue calls but there's nothing we can do," Zena Stephens, Sheriff of Jefferson County, which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, told local media Tuesday night. "We can't take the boats out right now. The water is rising and it's coming there and it's no way to get to them." Rescue operations continued in the morning.

“Our whole city is underwater right now but we are coming!” Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman wrote on Facebook Tuesday night. “If you called, we are coming.”

Port Arthur is also home to the nation’s largest oil refinery, which shut down because of the floods. And many of the roads in Beaumont are still impassible.

The storm is expected to downgrade to a tropical depression later Wednesday and make its way northeast. Then, finally, rains along the Gulf Coast will peter out.

Meanwhile, back in Houston

After four days of soaking rains and flooding, Houston is finally catching a break. But it’s still a dangerous situation. Floodwaters have not yet receded. It’s still unsafe for many to return to their homes. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has issued a curfew from 10 pm to 5 am for the city until further notice, out of public safety concerns.

It’s going to be some time before the scope of the devastation is fully counted. And even though the rains have ceased, it’s still unsafe for many Houstonians to return to their homes. But here’s what we know so far:

  • During the storm, 13,000 people were rescued from Houston and the surrounding area.
  • There are more than 32,000 people sheltering throughout Texas, Gov. Abbott said Wednesday. Nine thousand are at Houston’s downtown convention center (initially, CNN reports, the convention center prepared for 5,000). There are several other locations in the Houston area for people seeking shelter. Find a list here.
  • Anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 homes in the area may have been destroyed, the Harris Country director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told ABC. US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said around half a million people will have their homes impacted “in some way.”
  • At a Wednesday press conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a total of 14,000 Texas National Guard members have been activated, and 10,000 more have been requested from other states to help deal with the ongoing disaster. Thirty-three Texas counties are now included in the federal disaster declaration, the governor said, opening up FEMA aid for governments and individuals. In all, Abbott said recovery efforts “should be far in excess” of $125 billion.
  • The death toll from the storm is not yet clear and will likely rise as search efforts continue and the city becomes more accessible as the flood waters recede. The Associated Press reports there are at least 20 deaths. The New York Times reports 30. Reports of individual deaths are tragic. One family lost six members as their car was swept up in the floodwaters. A Houston police officer drowned while trying to get to work. A baby was found in the flood clinging to her mother, who drowned. Expect more tragic stories like these.
  • Dangerous situations exist throughout the city: A chemical plant has flooded and there’s a risk of an explosion, prompting a 1.5-mile radius evacuation away from the facility. The chemicals in the plant need to be kept refrigerated, but the power is out, and they risk explosion. Dams, levees, and reservoirs are stressed beyond capacity. There’s still risk of spillovers and increased floods.
  • Thirty percent of Harris County — which contains Houston, America’s fourth largest city — is underwater. “That's at least 444 square miles, an area six times the size of the District of Columbia,” the Washington Post reports.
  • The cleanup and recovery is likely to take years, as FEMA director Brock Long told reporters Sunday. The damage is likely to cost tens of billions of dollars.