As efforts to rebuild have slowly begun in areas hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, officials continue to warn of lingering environmental hazards, including the health risks posed by receding floodwater.
In a news release Sunday night, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cautioned that floodwaters can contain bacteria and contaminants, and conceal downed power lines, large objects, and animals. Gov. Greg Abbott gave a similar warning in a Sunday interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” saying, “These waters are filled both with chemicals [and] waste, things like that, that can pose real health hazards.” He referenced a “multitude of dangers to public health because of the flooding waters.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to access 11 ultra-polluted Superfund sites damaged by the storm, raising concerns about the spread of toxins.
Thousands of people are still without drinking water, including some of the 120,000 residents of Beaumont – many of whom have queued in long lines for bottled water. The TCEQ, in its release, said 188 water systems in the state have boil-water notices, and 37 others have been shut down. Nearly 85,000 homes and businesses were still without power Sunday, Reuters reported.
More than 400 wastewater treatment plants are also not fully operational, and wastewater from some facilities has spilled due to flooding, according to the TCEQ release. The agency said it is “actively working to monitor facilities that have reported spills, conduct outreach, and provide technical guidance to all other wastewater facilities in flood-impacted areas.”
And in Crosby, a 1.5 mile evacuation zone that’s been in place since Tuesday around an Arkema Inc. facility was lifted overnight. With little notice, the company exploded its six remaining chemical containers Sunday in what was described by officials as a “controlled burn” and a “proactive approach to minimize the impacts to the community.” The company had initially said it would not destroy the remaining chemicals after flood-related damage caused a series of explosions at the facility. The Houston Chronicle reported that notice wasn’t given until after the ignition operations had already begun on Sunday.
At a news conference Monday morning, representatives for Arkema said soot from the ignition operations was being tested and that there was no expected impact on the area’s water supply. They confirmed that five of the company’s facilities in the Gulf Coast had been impacted by the storm, though not as badly as the Crosby plant, and could not say when the Crosby facility would reopen.
Local authorities advised residents returning to homes within the evacuation zone to drink bottled water and wear surgical masks, closed-toe shoes and gloves as a precautionary measure. In a news release, the Harris County Public Health Department said the same recommendation is given to those returning to flooded homes.
Swift Federal Funding Promised
U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy paid a visit Monday afternoon to Houston, where he announced the House will vote Wednesday morning on an initial relief package for Harvey victims. McCarthy, a California Republican, made the announcement at a news conference at the NRG Center, which is being used as a shelter.
“It won’t be the only relief package we vote on,” McCarthy said, flanked by members of the Texas congressional delegation. “What we want to do is make sure FEMA has the money going forward as the cities and the counties assess the damage.”
Abbott, McCarthy, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin), met Sunday, and the congressional leaders insisted then too that action would be swiftly taken to pass the funding measure, according to a release after their meeting.
Recovery Efforts Continue
Officials say Harvey has caused at least 60 deaths, many from drowning and indirect effects of the storm, the Associated Press reported Monday.
In a conference call, an officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said efforts had shifted from life-saving to recovery. John Long, the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer, said 550,000 families had registered for a FEMA assistance program and that more than 16,000 were staying in hotels as part of a transitional shelter program.
On Monday night, FEMA granted Abbott’s request for the agency to provide loans that will help Texas cities rebuild after the storm.
“The quick and focused work of our federal partners in response to Hurricane Harvey has been essential to the recovery in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice repopulated two Richmond prisons Monday, after the facilities were evacuated last week amid flooding from the storm. About 1,400 inmates were returned to the all-male Jester 3 and Vance Units.
Three other prisons, housing some 4,500 male inmates among them, remain evacuated. In an email Monday, the TDCJ said the Ramsey, Stringfellow, and Terrrell Units will continued to be assessed and, once safe, will also be repopulated.
The water supply at several federal and state prisons in Beaumont was impacted by flooding, the Chronicle wrote Monday. Correctional officers there were also reportedly unable to cross the Neches River to get to work.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.