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Houston firefighters begin block-by-block search for survivors, bodies

The Houston Fire Department began a block-by-block effort on Thursday to rescue stranded survivors and recover bodies, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann told reporters.

Fire, explosions rock nearby chemical plant but authorities assure 'no danger to the community'

Houses are seen on Wednesday submerged in floodwaters caused by tropical storm Harvey in northwest Houston. (Adrees Latif/Reuters )

The Houston Fire Department began a block-by-block effort on Thursday to rescue stranded survivors and recover bodies, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann told reporters.

The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that more than 37,000 homes have sustained major damage and nearly 7,000 have been destroyed by Harvey and its flooding. Another 50,000 homes received minor damage. 

Nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana and Texas were without power on Thursday, utilities reported.

A higher number of almost 300,000 was reported late Thursday during a media briefing. Brock Long, administrator of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said new outages will be reported as floodwaters recede and power companies work to take grids down to fix lines.

Harvey struck southeast Texas last Friday, slamming into the coast as a Category 4 hurricane, then weakening to a tropical storm that dumped record amounts of rain on the state, in particular the Houston area. The storm was downgraded to a tropical depression late Wednesday, centred just south of Monroe in Louisiana.

The confirmed death toll stood at 39 by Thursday night, though it is expected to rise. But by midday, the temporary command centre in a J.C. Penney parking lot had received no reports of more bodies from the searches, which are expected to take up to two weeks.

Explosions, fire at chemical plant

A Houston-area chemical plant that lost power after tropical storm Harvey engulfed the area in floods was rocked by fires and two explosions early Thursday, but local authorities said the resulting smoke presented "no danger to the community at all."

Arkema Inc. said in a statement on its website that the Harris County Emergency Operations Center reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant in Crosby, about 40 kilometres northeast of Houston, at about 2 a.m.

At a news conference Thursday, Assistant Harris County Fire Chief Bob Rayall said different grades of organic peroxides in a semi-trailer caught fire not long after midnight. Rayall said the fire emitted 9- to 12-metre flames and black smoke.

Warn residents not to breathe smoke, but say it's not toxic 1:15

Rayall did not refer to any blasts, but Harris County Fire Marshal spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said there had been "small explosions."

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said some deputies suffered irritated eyes from the smoke but insisted it wasn't dangerous, describing it as an "irritant."

"It is not anything toxic," Gonzalez said. "It is not anything that we feel is a danger to the community at all."

Arkema executive Richard Rennard told reporters the smoke is "certainly noxious." He also downplayed reports of explosions, attributing the noise to pressure valves in the storage trailer blowing. Rennard said the smoke came from burning hydrocarbons and incomplete combustion, "so any smoke is going to be an irritant."

At a separate news conference in Washington, D.C., Brock Long of FEMA told reporters that "by all means, the plume is incredibly dangerous."

The Arkema chemical plant is located in a rural area about 40 kilometres northeast of Houston in Crosby, Texas. (CBC)

A plant spokeswoman said late Wednesday that the flooded facility had lost power and backup generators due to the flooding, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises.

Gonzalez said the fire would burn itself out. Fire chief Rayall said the fire service was not monitoring the fire — "that's industry's responsibility" — and that the company hired a contractor to do aerial monitoring of the smoke to see which direction it was going.

An AP photographer at a roadblock about three kilometres from the scene could see no sign of a blaze in the direction of the chemical plant as the sun rose Thursday morning.

Arkema had warned that a fire was going to happen, saying it was inevitable because of the loss of power in the floods.

The flooded Arkema Inc. chemical plant is seen on Wednesday. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Arkema manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used for making a variety of products including pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

Beaumont loses water supply

Beaumont, near Port Arthur, said it had lost its water supply due to flood damage to its main pumping station and residents in the city of about 120,000 people would lose water pressure from Thursday morning.

Fort Bend County ordered a mandatory evacuation on Thursday for areas near the Barker Reservoir, which was threatening to flood. The reservoir is about 32 kilometres west from Houston. The county did not say how many people would be affected by the evacuation order.

Beaumont police spokeswoman Carol Riley said there were "some disturbances" in supermarkets because people were concerned about water.

The lack of water forced Baptist Beaumont Hospital to bring in ambulances and helicopters to move patients to other facilities, including some who had already been removed from flooded nursing homes. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Poole said other patients were able to be discharged.

In Port Arthur, the Coast Guard used baskets and harnesses to pull people out of a neighbourhood with chest-deep water.

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      School delayed, health concerns raised

      With widespread reports of gas shortages, the head of the Texas agency that regulates the oil and gas industry urged drivers to wait three or four days to fill up their tanks. Panic buying is causing a run on gas and empty fuel pumps, Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton said.

      Energy Secretary Rick Perry said he would release 500,000 barrels of crude oil from an emergency stockpile in a bid to prevent gasoline prices from spiking.

      Also Thursday, Houston public schools pushed back the start of classes by two weeks. Schools had been scheduled to reopen Monday but will now begin school on Sept. 11.

      A police officer lays down a safety flare while blocking the road leading to the flood-damaged Arkema SA plant, where explosions were reported early Thursday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

      Health experts warned that sewage in the floodwater could make people sick and that mosquito populations could explode in the coming weeks because stagnant water offers abundant breeding grounds.

      Trump pledges $1 million of his own money

      U.S. President Donald Trump is pledging $1 million in personal money to Harvey storm relief efforts.

      White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the announcement at a briefing Thursday. She said Trump is calling on reporters to help decide which specific organization he should give to.

      Trump has been criticized in the past for giving far less of his income to charitable causes than many other multi-billionaires. And he hasn't followed through on previous charity pledges.

      In one high-profile example last year, he failed to give a promised $1 million of his own money — plus another $5 million he said he'd raised — to veterans' organizations until reporters asked questions months later about who had received the charity.

      With files from CBC News