Rescuers are continuing to search waterlogged neighbourhoods in Houston, Texas, as officials turn their attention to finding temporary housing for those in shelters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Authorities raised the death toll from the storm to 39 late on Thursday, and the latest statewide damage surveys revealed the staggering extent of the destruction.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said more than 37,000 homes were heavily damaged and nearly 7,000 were destroyed, figures that did not include the tens of thousands of homes with minor damage. About 325,000 people have already sought federal emergency aid in the wake of Harvey.
More than $57m in individual assistance has already been paid out, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials said. Harris County FEMA director Tom Fargione said the agency was looking for ways to house people who lost their homes to Harvey, with 32,000 people reported in shelters across Texas.
Some evacuees have begun returning to their homes – the George R Brown Convention Centre, where 10,000 people took shelter, housed 8,000 evacuees late on Thursday. The priority is to get those who are not able to return to their homes into some form of temporary housing, Mr Fargione said.
“Right now, nothing is off the table. This is a tremendous disaster in terms of size and scope.”
The street-by-street search of tens of thousands of Houston homes that rescuers began on Thursday is expected to be completed by Friday.
Fire chief Sam Pena said his department had responded to nearly 16,000 calls since the storm hit on Saturday, more than 7,600 of them for water rescues. Elsewhere, the loss of power at a flood-crippled chemical plant set off explosions and a fire, and the city of Beaumont, near the Texas-Louisiana line, lost its public water supply.
The remnants of the storm pushed deeper inland, raising the risk of flooding as far north as Kentucky.
More than 200 firefighters, police officers and members of an urban search-and-rescue team fanned out across the Meyerland neighbourhood looking for survivors or bodies.
“We don’t think we’re going to find any humans, but we’re prepared if we do,” said district chief James Pennington, of the Houston Fire Department. Unlike during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans, crews used GPS devices to log the homes they checked rather than painting neon Xs on the outside.
That avoided alerting potential thieves to vacant homes. The blasts at the Arkema plant north-east of Houston also ignited a 30ft to 40ft flame and sent up a plume of acrid black smoke that stung the eyes and lungs.
The blaze burned out at around midday, but emergency crews held back because of the danger that eight other trailers containing the same compound could blow too. No serious injuries were reported.
Although it has been downgraded to a tropical depression, Harvey is still expected to dump heavy rain on parts of Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky throughout Friday.
Forecast totals ranged from 4in to 8in, with some places possibly getting up to a foot.