Hurricane Irma strengthens in the Atlantic as Harvey recovery efforts continue
CORPUS CRISTI, Texas - For the first time since Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, the Coast Guard did not have to carry out rescue missions in storm-ravaged southeast Texas on Sunday. Instead, the service began moving a number of helicopters out of Texas and into Puerto Rico, Florida and Georgia, in anticipation of another landfall threat brewing for the U.S. coast: Hurricane Irma.
"As soon as one ends, we need to make sure we are ready for the next event," Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said Monday as Irma, which had become a Category 4 hurricane by late in the day, churned in the Atlantic.
It is still too early to determine exactly where and when Irma will hit, but model forecasts indicate it is increasingly likely to affect the United States. The National Hurricane Center warned in a 5 p.m. update Monday that Irma could impact the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Cuba. A significant percentage of model forecasts have Irma striking the U.S. East Coast as early as Saturday or Sunday, with tropical storm winds arriving in Florida as soon as Friday.
Predictions will become more accurate in coming days, narrowing in on exactly which part of the coast will endure the season's next major hurricane.
With an eye on the weather report, southeast Texans also will be waiting for action from Congress.
The House is set to take up legislation Wednesday to provide aid, according to House leaders. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on a $7.85 billion aid package that was introduced Sunday night by House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. He said the bill contains the amount of Hurricane Harvey funding requested by the White House, which includes $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief fund.
The bill is to be considered as a stand-alone measure; it does not include a provision to raise the federal debt limit, something that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Fox News Sunday interview that the Trump administration supported.
But multiple congressional aides acknowledged that the debt-limit provision could be added later in the process - most likely, they said, after the bill passes the House and goes to the Senate.
Texas is still assessing the destruction Hurricane Harvey left behind. As of Monday afternoon, officials across the state had confirmed at least 60 deaths related to the storm, a tally expected to increase as floodwaters recede and recovery efforts continue.
Among the bodies recovered over the holiday weekend was that of Alonso Guillen, 31, according to the Houston Chronicle. Guillen's family had been searching for his body since Wednesday, when he had set out to rescue people from the flooding. The boat he was riding in slammed into a bridge and capsized.
Thousands of people remained in shelters in Texas and Louisiana on Monday. Those who had been housed in smaller shelter locations, such as churches and schools, have been bussed to larger facilities, such as the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, where more than 7,000 people are being sheltered. One shelter that had been packed with people a week ago - Gallery Furniture in Richmond, Texas - was now packed with customers. An employee said the store had a line out the door on Monday. It was running a Labor Day sale, and thousands of people needed to buy furniture to replace what flooding had destroyed.
But for many, returning home was no longer an option. The Texas Department of Public Safety said localities have estimated that more than 200,000 homes have been damaged, with more than 13,500 destroyed, with estimates expected to rise as the hardest-hit areas become accessible.
Katie Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said the organization's caseworkers are trying to find stable housing for Texans who might not ever be able to return to their homes - a process that could take months or even years.
"Our first priority is to make sure that people are safe and that they have a place to go," Wilkes said.
Included in those returning home on Monday were residents of Crosby, Texas, where a 1.5 mile evacuation zone around a disabled chemical plant had been lifted. Chemicals at the plant had been combusting, causing large fires and sending up long plumes of smoke as a result of flood-damaged power systems.
In other regions, environmental concerns lingered. In the week after Harvey hit, more than 1 million pounds of dangerous air pollutants have been released from oil refineries and chemical plants on the Texas Gulf coast, according to public regulatory filings that were pulled together by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The filings only covered the first week after Harvey, so the number could rise. The chemicals included toxic air pollutants, some of which are known to cause cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday reported that it had conducted "initial assessments" at 41 Superfund sites in Harvey's path. The agency found that 28 sites do not appear to have "damage or excessive flooding" from the devastating storm. But 13 Superfund sites were flooded or might have been damaged in Harvey; officials have inspected two of those 13 sites and decided that the locations do not need emergency cleanup. The EPA said that 11 other sites "have not been accessible by response personnel."
"Teams are in place to investigate possible damage to these sites as soon as floodwaters recede, and personnel are able to safely access the sites," the agency said.
Safe drinking water remains a concern for thousands across southeast Texas. The EPA said that more than 160 drinking water systems have been placed under boil-water notices as of Saturday, and 50 have been shut down.
Officials also warned returning residents to be cautious of mold and other environmental threats that might lurk in their homes after Harvey's waters recede. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has distributed 15,000 booklets urging people to be vigilant about mold.
FEMA has published a list of rumors and scams online, which include concerns about the spread of certain diseases, such as the Plague - which does not spread through floods. Exposure to the floodwaters does not mean that a person would have an increased risk of getting tetanus, either, but Texas health officials have urged people to get booster shots for tetanus, a disease that enters the body through cuts.
Hurricane Katrina could offer some insight into what residents and officials might expect after Harvey. For example, after Katrina, the CDC reported several cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacterium in a group of evacuees from New Orleans.
The challenges of disease, air pollution and housing will remain daunting in the coming days, but for officials, attention can't be focused only on Texas, as Hurricane Irma draws closer to the U.S. FEMA already has sent resources eastward. Staff and supplies have been deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, including more than 700,000 liters of water and 500,000 meals.
The Red Cross is no longer sending volunteers from the mid-Atlantic region to Texas, instead keeping them in place in case they are needed for a response to Irma. Regional Executive Officer Barry Porter said the organization is assessing whether it is prepared for another storm after utilizing so many of its resources for Harvey.
"What supplies do we still have? What do we need to order?" Porter said. "If now we have to deploy for another hurricane landfall, we have to be ready to act."