Flooded Streets, Full Reservoirs Capture Attention In Houston

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on August 30, 2017 7:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tropical Storm Harvey has now made landfall in Louisiana just as southeast Texas is getting a break from the relentless rain. Yesterday, in the early evening, for a brief moment, we even saw the sun break through here. But the crisis is not over, and we can't stress that enough. Let's talk through the latest developments with NPR's Nathan Rott, who is also here in Houston. Hi there, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So we should say just to orient people, you are downtown. I'm up north in the Spring area. Maybe 25 miles separate us, but it would take hours to actually meet and navigate around neighborhoods that are still submerged under water. These are places where so many frightened families have been fleeing.

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, if it's possible at all, know, like, 15 miles as a crow flies here could be untold miles just trying to get there. The rain and conditions, I mean, they certainly lessened last night. And it seems to be that way so far today. But, I mean, David, as you well know, this is not the Houston that it was just a week ago. I mean, there are thousands of people sleeping on a concrete floor in a crowded convention center, you know, literally not more than 200 yards from where I'm talking to you.

So this is still a very real, a very happening and very tragic event. But it was markedly different in a number of ways yesterday kind of driving around. Many of the roads and freeways that had been closed were open. I saw people who were able to get to grocery stores or retail stores to pick up supplies. Folks were able to check up on family that had decided to ride out the storm in some areas.

And I know this might not sound remarkable to people in other parts of the country - maybe it will to you, David - but I saw a McDonald's that was open. And it seems simple, but it was really striking to see people doing something just as normal as going through a drive-through after the madness of the last few days.

GREENE: Yeah. It was amazing to start seeing some level of normalcy return. But, I mean, we went to a Wal-Mart. And it was open. And I thought that's an incredible development, but then there was this line of people just wrapping around the store. And they were only letting 10 people in every 10 minutes to keep control because they were worried about, you know, disorder and so forth. So tell me exactly where you spent time yesterday.

ROTT: So most of our focus yesterday was on these two, like, perilously full reservoirs. They're both in the northwest part of Greater Houston. And the concern with both is that they could breach, which would just be catastrophic for the homes, businesses, neighborhoods that are downstream and below. We were able to get to Addicks Reservoir yesterday, the parts of it that weren't flooded, at least. And it was shocking. I mean, this thing is just filled to the brim. The first thing that we saw when we got there was a big emergency response team that had gathered on this roadway that runs parallel to the southern lip of the reservoir. A little further down that road was totally flooded out. There was an abandoned car with water up to its windows, kind of a common sight in a lot of these areas. We walked towards that car in the wind and the rain and saw a rescue operation that was under way. Let's take a quick listen.

And around the corner, just out my view, a big group of search and rescue guys just came around. And they're pulling what looks like a raft with some people in it. They're wearing life jackets and wading through what's about waist-deep water.

Inside the raft are two figures wearing bright red life jackets. We stand back out of their way as the search-and-rescue team pulls the raft into shallower water so they both can exit.

There's a little kid that just got out. It's a father and son.

They don't want to be interviewed, but the dad does say that they had been hoping to ride out the floods in their home before search and rescue came and got them. With the reservoir at a historic high, pushing water not only over the top of the levee but out either side and even back upstream against the water's flow, emergency crews are trying to move people out from under its downstream path. There's a hotel across the street that the father and son go to. Inside, there's a group of tired-looking people that are sitting and standing in a corner of the lobby watching a broadcast of a press conference about the very reservoir across the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Properties upstream of Addicks and Barker are experiencing and expected to experience flooding starting yesterday.

ROTT: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it's trying to bring the water in the reservoir down by opening the gates of the dam, sending torrents of water downstream. The problem with that is that means more flooding in the homes and neighborhoods directly below it. Vickie Kubena and Alyssa Ruiz, two neighbors, just evacuated from one of those neighborhoods. Ruiz says that initially, they had hoped to stay in their homes.

ALYSSA RUIZ: And so the fire station across the street from us said, hey, guys, stay put. You're going to be OK, just, you know, as long as you're on the second floor and up. Well, the water never stopped rising. I It just kept getting higher and higher.

ROTT: And by the morning, Ruiz says, you could barely make out the tops of the cars outside the building. Kubena says boats showed up not long after, manned by citizens, and said it was likely their last chance to go, so they took them up on the offer. Now, some people in the city have been expressing frustration that their homes might be flooded because officials are dumping water from the reservoirs above. I asked Kubena if she felt that way at all.

VICKIE KUBENA: No. I'm - you know, it's unfortunate and it's horrible that people are flooding, but if it breaks - if the levees breach, it's going to be even worse.

ROTT: It's better some is lost than all, she says, even if what's lost is hers.

GREENE: And that was Nathan Rott reporting there. Nate's still with us. Any idea when these families might be able to return to their homes, Nate?

ROTT: It's going to be a long time. I mean, lowering these reservoirs is going to take months. And the flooding below Addicks is so bad that even that hotel that we were in, where I was talking to those women, it's since flooded. I saw videos last night of water covering the lobby floor. I did check in with both Vickie and Alyssa. They both said they made it out safe. But they're only two of thousands who are still displaced. And as you well know, David, some of these places are just not going to be reachable for a while unless you've got a boat.

GREENE: Yeah. I have to tell you, we actually went on a boat yesterday, and it's surreal. We were near Cypress Creek, a neighborhood that's completely underwater. We went out with some rescuers on a fishing boat. And, I mean, it literally felt like we were on a lake. You forget you're passing over streets until you see something like a stop sign barely peeking out of the water. And one of the volunteer rescuers we were with, Bill Dan (ph), he told us that they are trying to evacuate as many people left as they can but some people are just not going.

BILL DAN: Some people just want to stay in their homes and ride it on out. But, of course, yesterday, we had people that said they wanted to stay, and then they call later that night scared. And then the fire department had to go back out and go get them at night time, which makes it even more dangerous for the people trying to rescue them.

GREENE: Getting around in Houston, trying to meet as many people as we can who are going through a very difficult time. Also getting around the city was our colleague Nate Rott. Nate, thanks.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.