Rescue Operations Continue In Houston Coast Guard, local law enforcement and private citizens have rescued thousands of Houston residents from rising and swiftly moving floodwaters in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey.
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Rescue Operations Continue In Houston

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Rescue Operations Continue In Houston

Rescue Operations Continue In Houston

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Harvey has made landfall in Louisiana. It is expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain in the west and center of that state. And though the rain is letting up here in southeast Texas, totals are now topping 50 inches in some places, 50 inches from one storm. That sets a new rainfall record for the continental United States. This morning here in Houston, people are waking up from the first overnight curfew that was announced by Mayor Sylvester Turner yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVESTER TURNER: No one needs to be on the road or out from 10 to 5, but there are too many people from across our city, too many residents that are out of their homes and they are in shelters. And I don't want them to have to worry about someone breaking into their home or looting or doing anything of that nature while they are away.

GREENE: Now, state and federal officials are meanwhile keeping a very close eye on the city's main reservoirs, the Addicks and the Barker, which have hit record levels. The Army Corps of Engineers has begun releasing water from the reservoirs to ease pressure on the dams that protect downtown Houston.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So with all that as a backdrop, let's check in on the second wave of Harvey's search and rescue operations that are underway now. Federal and local agencies have plucked more than 13,000 people from rising floodwaters. Private citizens have pitched in, too. And for more, let's go to NPR's John Burnett, who is in downtown Houston now.

Hi, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: We've been watching for days as people are being rescued and brought to higher ground. Do we have any idea how many people are still waiting to be rescued?

BURNETT: Well, I wish we knew. There's really no way to know at this point how many people are still in need of help. But clearly it's in the thousands. And the reason, as you said, is this sort of second wave. The first wave were people fleeing for their lives from high water. These are the folks that officials told to take an ax into the attic or wave a white towel from their rooftop for a rescue chopper. Now we're getting Houstonians who waited out the storm. They waited for the water to go down, waited for the power to come back on, and neither one is happening and they want out. They're surrounded by water. They're isolated. In many cases, the water's too deep to wade out of or it's too - the current is too swift.

I should add that the rain stopped yesterday afternoon and late in the day the sun even came out briefly, and last night as I was driving back to the hotel I saw dry streets for the first time since Harvey hit five days ago. But Houston is still in peril. As you said, those dams are overflowing and there was a levee that was breached, and so there's still concern for more flooding in some parts of the city.

CHANG: So who are these people carrying out these rescues?

BURNETT: Well, there's sort of a boatlift going on in Houston. It's like a Dunkirk on the bayou. A huge cadre of private citizens have taken time off from their jobs, and they're coming in from all over Texas and Louisiana towing their fishing boats. Some of them call themselves the Cajun Navy, and they've even created their own online dispatching system that pairs rescuers with people who need rescuing. They used the smartphone app Zillow.

I want to play a cut of tape here, Ailsa. This is Troy King (ph). He works at a big lumber plant making plywood in Carthage, up in east Texas, and he towed his aluminum fishing boat down to Houston. I met him while he was piloting his flat-bottomed boat around some really tricky obstacles trying to pick up a large family that was stranded at a flooded neighborhood in northeast Houston.

TROY KING: Sunday morning I started seeing a lot of the news, and I just couldn't get it off my heart, man. It just gripped me. I knew I could do something. I had a boat for it. So I told my wife, I said, I got to go. Man, she just said, well, I understand. So I've never done anything like this, never had anything close enough where I could. And I just - I called my boss and told him what I was wanting to do and they okayed it. So we left. Made my mind up about 5 o'clock Sunday, and we drove in here.

BURNETT: In fact, there's so many citizens like Troy King that are towing their boats to Houston, the police are telling some of them to go back home. There are even boat jams on some of these launching ramps. I should also mention that the Coast Guard has a massive operation going on down here. You see their big, orange choppers landing on elevated freeways and dropping off people they've rescued. The evacuees join the 20,000 people estimated to be in shelters around the city.

Also the Texas State Guard is going out in big high-clearance trucks to pick up people, and the Houston police have conducted hundreds of rescues. Officials last night said they hope the break in the rain, now that this tropical system has moved off toward Louisiana, allows them to ramp up search and rescue patrol by air.

CHANG: So much of the city is still underwater. How are search and rescue teams navigating that?

BURNETT: You know, the currents are really dangerous and unpredictable. These bayous and creeks are trying to float toward the Gulf, but they're not clear channels. There's all these obstructions - trees, bushes, highway signs that you can't see under the murky water. One Houston police officer, Sergeant Steve Perez, 60 years old, was driving to work early in the morning in the darkness, and he drove straight into an underpass that had 16 feet of water in it. He drowned in his patrol car. Conditions were too risky for the dive team at first, and they had to wait hours to recover his body.

CHANG: And, lastly, you've had a chance to get out and around. What does it look like out in the flooded neighborhoods that are completely cut off from high ground?

BURNETT: It's surreal out there, Ailsa. Yesterday when I went out on this rescue with Troy King and another boat man, at one point we saw a big horse wandering down a U.S. highway stopping to eat grass over the concrete wall. There was a couple wading through waist-deep waters towing an air mattress with two little drenched Chihuahua dogs on top. They said they were on the second floor of their apartment running out of food and going stir crazy. When they realized the floodwaters weren't receding, they grabbed their dogs and went to look for dry ground.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Ailsa.

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