Oil Refineries Shut Down As Harvey Floods Fuel Contamination

Ten oil refineries in the impact zone of tropical storm Harvey have been shut down as a precaution against potential contamination from flooding in the region, as the storm began to move away from Houston late Wednesday, the US department of energy announced.

Hundreds of people were feared cut off by flood waters on Wednesday as the storm moved east, inundating the industrial Texas cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur and making landfall again, coming to shore in south-west Louisiana.

Six refineries have begun the process of assessing damage and restarting, while two refineries in the Gulf Coast region are operating at reduced rates, the department said.

A major refinery in Port Arthur was closed on Wednesday after cutting its output to 40% a day earlier. Refineries operated by Exxon, Shell and other companies have released pollutants as torrential rains damaged storage tanks and other industrial facilities on the Texas Coast, the Associated Press reported, although it is not clear the significance of the environmental risk they pose.

Meanwhile, Arkema, an industrial chemical manufacturer, has warned that its plant, in a rural area near Houston, could explode and that there was “no way to prevent” it. It is unclear how big an explosion might be, and officials have not disclosed the amount of chemicals on site. Employees and nearby residents have been evacuated.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the facility lost power from its primary supply and backup generators late Monday night. While the company moved highly volatile organic peroxides into back-up containers to keep them cool, if the chemicals became too hot, they could cause explosions or fires, the paper reported.

The Houston city center appeared to have relatively little flooding damage, officials said, but the storm leaves mass destruction in its wake. More than 32,000 people are in shelters across Texas, and there are about 107,000 power outages statewide, governor Greg Abott said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the official death toll rose to 23 after authorities reported that a married couple who drove a pickup truck into floodwaters drowned after a current from a nearby creek swept the vehicle away. Earlier, the Harris County sheriff’s office confirmed two drowning deaths north of Houston. The toll is expected to rise.

Also on Wednesday, a submerged van believed to hold six members of a Houston family was located in a muddy water about three meters deep. Efforts to recover the bodies were under way. Separately, officials reported that a three-year-old girl who was found clinging to the body of her drowned mother was likely to be released soon from hospital.

A retirement home outside Beaumont was evacuated by airboat, with agents from the Gulf states of Florida and Louisiana participating. The veterans’ administration moved nurses from Dallas, 250 miles north, to relieve nurses in Houston.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said 48,700 homes in the area have sustained flood damage, including 17,000 with major damage and 1,000 that were destroyed. The state estimated that 700 businesses had been damaged.

Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County flood control district, told the AP that in the Houston area, “the water levels are going down. And that’s for the first time in several days”. But in Port Arthur, near the coast, rescue teams struggled to reach desperate residents.

“Hundreds, if not thousands of people are stranded because of high water,” Jeff Branick, a senior administrator in Jefferson County, told the Beaumont Enterprise. “There are people that have crawled into their attic, are on top of the cars because they were not physically able to get on to their roofs.”

Cots and belongings were abandoned on the floor of a civic centre in Port Arthur that was serving as a shelter for at least a hundred people when a foot of water rushed in, the Associated Press reported. Evacuees took to bleacher seats; another shelter in Beaumont had reached its 600 capacity.

The area, already enduring heavy rain before Harvey’s latest landfall, appeared overwhelmed by flash floods.

“Our whole city is underwater right now but we are coming,” Port Arthur mayor Derrick Freeman posted on Facebook overnight.

More than 400,000 people live in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, which is home to numerous industrial facilities, including the country’s largest oil refinery, which was shutting down because of conditions.

A meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center said on Wednesday that Harvey was “spinning down” but was expected to continue to drop rain on parts of Texas and Louisiana through Wednesday night.

Donald Trump tweeted his support on Wednesday morning. “After witnessing first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey,” the president wrote, “my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!”

Trump visited Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday. Corpus Christi was hit hard by Harvey when it made landfall on Friday night, but has not suffered serious flooding.

The president’s promise of aid was threatened by Republican-sponsored legislation to cut the disaster relief account of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) by $876m. The bill, which was floated before Harvey hit in order to help find money for Trump’s proposed border wall, appears likely to stall.

Officials also remained concerned that fear of prosecution among immigrants in the Houston area would discourage some from seeking shelter. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) assigned about 150 employees on Wednesday to help with disaster relief and announced it would not enforce immigration law in storm-impacted areas.

Even as the storm moved away from Houston, officials warned that a levee north of the city was in danger of failing, possibly sending water to the rooftops of homes in the immediate area. Some residents have remained despite an evacuation order.

The city’s two flood-control reservoirs have received 32in to 35in (81cm to 89cm) of rain since Harvey hit last weekend, according to the Associated Press.

“Catastrophic and life-threatening flooding continues in south-eastern Texas and portions of south-western Louisiana,” the National Hurricane Center warned in an advisory early on Wednesday.

The storm was forecast to weaken and track to the north-east, bringing rain to parts of Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky by early Saturday. A tropical storm warning was in effect for much of the Louisiana coast.

Many roads were impassable along the Texas-Louisiana border. Beaumont police said in a statement on Tuesday that after driving into high water and becoming stuck, a woman floated for about half a mile, holding on to her small child. They were pulled into a boat by first responders who were able to save the child, who had hypothermia, but the woman died.

The news was better in Houston, where a rare and welcome sight – blue – appeared on Tuesday afternoon. Residents of the country’s fourth-largest city also woke up, after a curfew period partly designed to guard against looting, to dry and sunny weather.

But the situation remained dire. Many streets remain under water and some will be so for days, if not weeks. More shelters have opened to handle the swelling numbers of people seeking refuge and to ease the pressure on the biggest shelter, a downtown convention centre that was operating at double its intended 5,000 capacity.

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