'The water is swallowing us up': Harvey leaves hundreds in Texas pleading for help

Rescuers answered hundreds of desperate calls for help Sunday in areas of Texas as floodwaters from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey climbed high enough to begin filling second-storey homes, and authorities urged stranded families to seek refuge on their rooftops.

Areas of Houston at greatest risk as floodwaters from hurricane high enough to reach 2nd-storey homes

Moses Juarez, left, and Anselmo Padilla wade through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday in Houston. (Associated Press)

Rising floodwaters in Texas from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey chased thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday in Houston, overwhelming rescuers who fielded countless desperate calls for help.

A fleet of helicopters, airboats and high-water vehicles confronted flooding so widespread that authorities had trouble pinpointing the worst areas. Rescuers got too many calls to respond to each one and had to prioritize life-and-death situations.

The murky water rose high enough to begin filling second floors. Authorities urged people to get on top of their homes to avoid becoming trapped in attics and to wave sheets or towels to draw attention.

Some people used inflatable beach toys, rubber rafts and even air mattresses to get through the water to safety. Others waded while carrying trash bags stuffed with their belongings and small animals in pet carriers.

Areas south of Houston appeared to be at greatest risk. Some flooding was reported in downtown Houston and in the Texas Medical Center.

Alexa Ortiz, left and Lucas Garcia walk through their destroyed home in Refugio, Texas, on Saturday. Garcia, Ortiz and six other family members along with seven animals rode out the storm in a room in their home. (Olivia Vanni/The Victoria Advocate via Associated Press)

Harvey spun deeper into Texas and unloaded extraordinary amounts of rain Saturday after it crashed into vulnerable homes and businesses along the coastline in a blow that killed at least two people and injured up to 14.

Reports say at least five people have died, but only two deaths have been confirmed.

Throughout the region between Corpus Christi and Houston, many people feared that toll was only the beginning.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez used Twitter to field calls for assistance for people trapped inside homes, attics and vehicles. Among those seeking help was a woman who posted: "I have 2 children with me and the water is swallowing us up."

Officials urged people not to crawl into attics but to get on top of them.

Business owner and resident Carlos Lopez assesses damage from Harvey after arriving at his electronics repair shop in Rockport, Texas. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Police evacuated two apartment complexes overnight in the Greenspoint neighbourhood, rescuing more than 50 children from rising water.

At a news conference Sunday, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said authorities have made more than 250 vehicle rescues in the storm.

"Stay off the roadways when we get heavy downpours. It's difficult to see. It's difficult to manoeuvre. Those low spots will disable your car and then you are a sitting duck," said Pena.

Pena said officials have responded to 2,500 calls and have 1,000 waiting.

      1 of 0

      Officials urged people to stay at home, taking to rooftops if water rises dangerously, rather than trying to relocate on foot or in a vehicle.

      During the news conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner defended his decision not to ask residents to evacuate before the heavy rain swamped roads and neighbourhoods across the nation's fourth-largest city.

      Turner said there was no way to pinpoint which neighbourhoods would be worst hit. He said every neighbourhood has received at least some flooding.

      He said, "If you think the situation right now is bad and you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare."

      "You can't put 2.3 million people on the road."

      Mikhail Bachynsky hugs her dog Lily after they were rescued from their home Sunday in the Friendswood area of Houston. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle/Associated Press)

      Houston officials have used dump trucks, city buses and boats to move residents to higher ground. The city is opening additional shelters in libraries and community centres, for those forced out of their homes.

      Houston's William P. Hobby Airport shut down its airfield early on Sunday due to standing water on the runway, cancelling all flights. The arrivals section of the airport was also closed as waters rose.

      In Friendswood near Houston, authorities asked people with flat-bottomed airboats or fuel for them to help rescue people from flooded homes, KPRC-TV in Houston reported Sunday.

      A road remains flooded after Harvey ripped through Rockport. (Nick Wanger/Austin American-Statesman/Associated Press)

      In the island community of Port Aransas, population 3,800, officials were unable to fully survey the town because of "massive" damage. Police and heavy equipment had only made it into the northernmost street.

      "I can tell you I have a very bad feeling and that's about it," said Mayor Charles Bujan, who had called for a mandatory evacuation but did not know how many heeded the order.

      Anxiety ran high throughout the region between Corpus Christi and Houston because some of the areas with the greatest hurricane damage were inaccessible to rescuers. And the forecast for days of steady rain threatened to inundate the region's flat landscape with as much as 100 centimetres.

      Officials in Victoria, Texas, said Sunday on Facebook that the city of 85,000 has no water service and limited power.

      They said Harvey had a "devastating" impact on the city, a part of Victoria County that was under mandatory evacuation, and that it could be weeks before all electric service is restored. They also warned those who decide to return to bring enough food and water to last several days. 

      Some of the worst damage appeared to be in Rockport, a coastal city of about 10,000 that was directly in the storm's path. The mayor said his community took a blow "right on the nose" that left "widespread devastation," including homes, businesses and schools that were heavily damaged. Some structures were destroyed.

      Two people walk down a flooded section of Interstate 610 in floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday in Houston. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

      Rockport's roads were a mess of toppled power poles. A trailer blocked much of one major intersection. Wood framing from ripped-apart houses was strewn along Route 35 on the town's southern end.

      Harvey's relentless wind tore the metal sides off the high school gym and twisted the steel door frame of its auditorium.

      "We're still in the very infancy stage of getting this recovery started," said Aransas County spokesman Larry Sinclair.

      Rockport Mayor Charles "C.J." Wax told The Weather Channel that the city's emergency response system had been hampered by the loss of cellphone service and other forms of communication.

      A day earlier, Rockport Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios offered ominous advice, telling people who chose not to evacuate to mark their arms with Sharpie pens, implying that the marks would make it easier for rescuers to identify them.

      At least 2 dead

      One person was killed in Aransas County in a fire at home during the storm, County Judge C.H. "Burt" Mills Jr. said. A second person died in flooding in Harris County, where Houston is located.

      Gary Norman, a spokesman for the Houston emergency operations centre, said late Saturday the person was a woman who appeared to have gotten out of her vehicle in high water, though authorities had not confirmed a cause of death. She was found by neighbors about 25 metres from her vehicle, and Norman said she was pronounced dead at the scene by a doctor who was in the area.

      Mills also said as many as 14 people suffered minor injuries in his county, including slips and falls, scrapes and a broken leg.

      About 300,000 customers were without power statewide. Gov. Greg Abbott said it would probably be several days before electricity is restored.

      Hurricane Harvey has hit Texas with high winds and floodwaters causing damage to homes and vehicles. It has since been downgraded to a tropical storm 2:46

      Elsewhere in the storm's immediate aftermath, Coast Guard helicopters rescued 18 people from boats and barges in distress, said Capt. Tony Hahn, commander of the Corpus Christi sector.

      The Corpus Christi port was closed with extensive damage. Because the city is the third-largest petrochemical port in the nation, the agency will be on the lookout for spills, Hahn said.

      The fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in more than a decade came ashore late Friday about 48 kilometres northeast of Corpus Christi as a mammoth Category 4 storm with 209 km/h winds.

      Harvey weakened to a tropical storm by midday Saturday. 
      Traffic lights were knocked down on Friday in Corpus Christi, Texas, as Hurricane Harvey approached. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

      By 4 a.m. Sunday, the National Hurricane Centre said Harvey continued to cause "catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas." Harvey's maximum sustained winds were about 72 kilometres per hour, but the storm was practically stationary as it dumped torrential rain over an area that included Houston.

      The hurricane posed the first major emergency management test of President Donald Trump's administration.

      Trump commends FEMA

      Trump met with his Cabinet and other senior administration officials to discuss the federal response to the damage and flooding, the White House said Saturday in a statement.

      The president held a video conference from Camp David in which he instructed departments and agencies to "stay fully engaged and positioned to support his number one priority of saving lives," the statement said.

      Trump, who on Friday signed a federal disaster declaration for coastal counties, also reminded department heads that the full impact of the storm will not be apparent for days. On Twitter, he commended the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for his handling of the disaster.

      ​In Corpus Christi, the major city closest to the storm's centre, wind whipped palm trees and stinging sheets of horizontal rain slapped against hotels and office buildings along the seawall as the storm made landfall.

      Daybreak revealed downed lamp posts and tree limbs and roof tiles torn off buildings. Along Interstate 45 leaving Galveston, the rain was so intense that drivers stopped under bridges because they could not see in front of them.

      Fiercest hurricane to hit U.S. in 13 years

      The turbulent weather extended into southern Louisiana, where motorists were cautioned about the potential for high water, road hazards, high winds and tornadoes.

      Harvey came ashore as the fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since 1961's Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record.

      The last Category 4 storm to hit the U.S. was Hurricane Charley in August 2004 in Florida.

      With files from CBC News