Texas governor Greg Abbott says hurricane Harvey damage could reach $180 bln

Abbott, who is advocating for U.S. government aid for his state’s recovery, said the damage would exceed that of Katrina, the storm that devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005, and Sandy, which overwhelmed New York city and the U.S. Northeast in 2012. (AP/File) Related News

Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Sunday estimated damage from Hurricane Harvey at $150 billion to $180 billion, calling it more costly than epic hurricanes Katrina or Sandy and fueling a debate over how to pay for the disaster. Harvey, which first came ashore on Aug. 25 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in 50 years, has killed an estimated 47 people, displaced more than 1 million and damaged some 200,000 homes in a path of destruction stretching for more than 300 miles (480 kms). Abbott, who is advocating for U.S. government aid for his state’s recovery, said the damage would exceed that of Katrina, the storm that devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005, and Sandy, which overwhelmed New York city and the U.S. Northeast in 2012.

“Katrina caused if I recall more than $120 billion but when you look at the number of homes and business affected by this I think this will cost well over $120 billion, probably $150 to $180 billion,” Abbott told Fox News, adding, “this is far larger than Hurricane Sandy.” The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for an initial $7.85 billion for recovery efforts, which Abbott called a “down payment.” Even that amount could be delayed unless Congress quickly increases the government’s debt limit, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Sunday. The United States is on track to hit its mandated debt limit by the end of the month unless Congress increases it.

“Without raising the debt limit, I am not comfortable that we will get money to Texas this month to rebuild,” Mnuchin told Fox News. Beyond the immediate funding, any massive aid package faces budget pressures at a time when Trump is advocating for tax reform or tax cuts, leading some on Capitol Hill to suggest aid may be released in a series of smaller appropriations. The head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) called federal aid a “ray of hope” but said state and local officials also needed to do their part. “They can’t depend only on federal emergency management,” FEMA Administrator Brook Long told CBS News.

FORCED EVACUATIONS

Houston was still struggling to recover on Sunday, when the city forced the evacuation of thousands of people on the western side of town to accommodate the release of water from a pair of reservoirs that otherwise might sustain damage. The storm stalled over Houston, dumping more than 50 inches (127 cm) on the region in a matter of days. The city cut off power to homes on Sunday morning to encourage evacuations, but conflicting information about who must leave angered some residents.

The area was barricaded and military vehicles were stationed on the periphery to take people out. Some living near the reservoirs were told their homes were in danger of new flooding and would not be allowed to return if they left. “It’s hard to get the real story. We’re having to make decisions on what we do day by day. Do we stay or go?” said Todd Kellenbenz, who lives in the affected area.

About 37,000 refugees stayed overnight in 270 shelters in Texas plus another 2,000 in seven Louisiana shelters, the highest number reported so far by the American Red Cross. Some 84,700 homes and businesses were without power on Sunday, down from a peak of around 300,000, according to the region’s major electric companies. But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city was making progress on several fronts, resuming city services and helping get people into housing and out of emergency shelters.

“This is a can-do city. We’re not going to engage in a pity party,” Turner told CBS News. Colonial Pipeline expects on Monday to reopen a segment of its system to transport distillates from Houston to Hebert, Texas, the company said on Sunday, and the line would be ready to move gasoline on Tuesday. Colonial Pipeline’s 5,500-mile (8,850 km) pipeline system begins in Houston and ends in Linden, New Jersey, serving seven airports and other facilities.

Trump visited Houston on Saturday to meet evacuees and rescue workers, an opportunity to show an empathetic side after some criticized him for staying clear of the disaster zone during a previous visit on Tuesday. Trump had said he did not want to hamper rescue efforts. Trump and his wife Melania marked a national day of prayer for hurricane victims on Sunday by attending church services at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House.

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Stricter building rules, rejected by Donald Trump, helped Harvey-hit communities

Trump rescinded the Obama standard as part of an executive order aimed at speeding up the permitting process for federally funded infrastructure. Related News

As Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Gulf coast in Texas, the city of Seabrook had an edge over flood-swamped nearby towns and the devastation in Houston, just a half-hour drive away. Years ago, the city imposed higher elevation standards for buildings that were stricter than existing federal guidelines on construction in flood-prone areas. Before leaving office, President sought to toughen those national rules, to bring them more in line with those in communities like Seabrook. President Donald Trump, however, revoked Obama’s executive order last month.

Harvey, which has displaced around a million people and flooded swaths of Houston, has proven an early test of that decision. Floodplain experts wrote to Trump this week, urging him to rethink his reversal of Obama’s order. “As we come to the conclusion of Harvey, we have suffered some damage to our community, but not to the extent that some of our neighboring communities have. That is partly because of our (elevation) requirement,” said Seabrook deputy city manager, Sean Landis. Although Obama’s order had not yet come into effect when Trump rescinded it, some communities had been concerned about the cost of elevating existing buildings to comply with the new rules. But Landis said more stringent rules have paid off in Seabrook. “We feel more resilient,” he said.

Seabrook’s experience illustrates how some American coastal municipalities, fearing more intense storms and rising seas, have gone beyond federal standards for building in flood-prone areas. Those federal rules largely have not changed since the 1970s, when there was less evidence of the effects of global warming. In Texas and Louisiana, for instance, communities comprising two-thirds of the nearly 8 million people affected by Harvey have updated their flood protection standards beyond federal requirements since 1990, as part of a federal program that in return discounts their flood insurance, according to a Reuters review of municipal codes.

Trump rescinded the Obama standard as part of an executive order aimed at speeding up the permitting process for federally funded infrastructure. It was the latest in a series of moves by Trump to repeal Obama-era rules aimed at girding the United States against climate change, which Trump has described as a hoax by the Chinese government. Public assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency currently require structures to be built at or above the “100-year” flood elevation: the level that waters would reach in a flood that had a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

“REBUILD HOUSTON SMARTER”

In its Aug. 29 letter to Trump urging him to rethink his decision, the Association of State Floodplain Managers called on the president to “rebuild Houston smarter.” Chad Berginnis, the association’s executive director, noted that federal funding for rebuilding of communities hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2013 came with strings attached – new structures had to be elevated a foot (31 cm) higher than the normal federal standard.

“Thousands of structures have been rebuilt under that standard, and we haven’t heard any complaints at all in terms of it being something difficult or impossible to do,” Berginnis said. When asked whether the administration might require post-Harvey disaster relief recipients to use the Obama-era standards when rebuilding, Roy Wright, the director of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, said, “That is a conversation for another day … I’m sure informed decisions will be made.”

Obama’s order would have required federally funded structures to be built at one of three elevations: the level that waters would reach in a flood that had a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a year, 2 to 3 feet above the federal requirement, or at a level to be devised based on climate science projections. The city of Seabrook in 2008 raised its standard to one foot above federal levels, according to municipal records. Last November, the city council voted to raise it 6 inches higher than that.

Seabrook’s former mayor, Jack Fryday, now works as a city building official for Taylor Lake Village, another community near Seabrook in the Galveston bay area, where he said the elevation requirement is 3 feet above the federal level. After Hurricane Ike struck the area in 2008, most people who lived along Taylor Lake raised their buildings, except for a handful of houses, according to Fryday. “Those five or six that hadn’t elevated are the ones that got water in their houses during Harvey,” Fryday said.

HIGHER STANDARDS

When Obama first issued his executive order, it drew fierce criticism from the National Association of Homebuilders, a housing trade group. The new standards had a “chilling effect” on builders because they would have raised the costs of any building using federal mortgage insurance, according to the association’s chief executive officer, Jerry Howard. “The rules, as they were put out for comment, were overly intrusive,” he said.

In some of the areas hardest hit by Harvey, however, local officials say the increased upfront costs save them far more in rebuilding costs after a major flood event. In 2002, the year after Hurricane Allison ravaged much of the Gulf coast, Texas’s most populous county, Harris, adopted new requirements that regular buildings be built 18 inches higher than federal elevation requirements.

Critical facilities – such as police departments, schools, and fire stations – must be 3 feet higher. Houston is in Harris County, but the city’s elevation requirements are slightly lower than the county’s rules, which apply to Harris County communities that do not have their own city governments.

“We have much higher standards than the feds,” said John Blount, the county engineer for Harris County, as Harvey raged outside his office. Blount said he had not closely studied Obama’s executive order before it was revoked, but he thought it looked more like a bureaucrat’s wish-list than an actual flood management standard – in part because it had not yet been turned into policy. “Obviously we’re not concerned about having stronger regulations, because we have some of the strongest in the country. Some of the provisions in the (Obama) act made sense, but it also had a lot of fluff,” he said.

Building officials for communities that have not raised elevation requirements beyond the federal level were harder to reach during Harvey’s rampage across southeastern Texas, but Galveston County engineer Michael Shannon answered Reuters’ questions by email. The county had not recently considered adopting a higher standard, he wrote in a brief message. “As flood levels are rising at my home, I may be evacuating today,” he added.

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Harvey floods US refineries, roils global fuel markets

Floodwaters from the San Jacinto River inundate condominiums in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Kingwood. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP) Related News

Tropical Storm Harvey inflicted more damage on the heart of the US energy industry on Wednesday, churning into Louisiana after flooding the biggest US refinery in Texas, causing major fuel pipelines to Midwest and East Coast markets to suspend operations and threatening to squeeze supplies across the country for weeks.

Benchmark US gasoline prices and margins surged to two-year highs as Colonial Pipeline, the biggest US fuel system, said it would shut its main lines to the Northeast by Thursday due to outages at its pumping points and lack of supplies from refiners.

At least two East Coast refineries have already run out of gasoline for immediate delivery as they scrambled to fill barges to markets typically supplied by the Gulf Coast, two refinery sources said. Others were seen operating at higher rates in order to boost profitability by meeting supply shortages.

The Explorer Pipeline, which has a capacity of 660,000 barrels a day (bpd), said it shut its main fuel line from Houston to Tulsa, Oklahoma as supplies dwindled.

Refinery damage from Harvey has driven gasoline futures prices up nearly 20 percent over the past week, and prices at the pump are rising too, particularly in the US South. More refineries could close now that Harvey has made landfall in Louisiana, where refiners can produce 3.3 million barrels per day.

The Gulf accounts for nearly half of total US refining capacity. As the United States is the world’s largest net exporter of refined petroleum products, effects of the disaster are starting to ripple through global flows.

Traders in Europe and Asia were working to reroute cargoes to the United States and Latin America to fill the gap left by refining and shipping closures in the Gulf.

The outages and limited supplies have hit wholesalers. The premium for Chicago-area gasoline above benchmark futures is at the highest since June 2016, while the Gulf Coast price is at its widest above futures since August 2012.

About 4.4 million barrels of US refining capacity have been shut by Harvey, based on company reports and Reuters estimates. That is about 24 percent of US refining capacity and almost equal to the national daily consumption of Japan.

That includes the biggest US refinery, Motiva’s Port Arthur facility, which can handle more than 600,000 barrels a day. Portions of the refinery were flooded after more than a foot of rain dropped overnight.

Other Port Arthur refineries also shut overnight, including Total’s plant, where sources familiar with operations said they expected water to recede by the weekend.

“The refineries shut down as a precaution might be able to restart. The others in a worst-case scenario could take weeks and months to repair,” said Antoine Halff, director of Global Oil Markets at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

More rain fell on the area in the last 24 hours than any other part of the region since the storm began last week, according to David Roth, meteorologist at the US Weather Prediction Center.

The coast took a step forward and a step back on Wednesday. Refiners further south on the Texas coast, including Marathon’s Galveston Bay, were beginning restarts, while Citgo’s 425,000 bpd Lake Charles refinery, on the Louisiana coast in the path of the storm, cut capacity in half.

DANGEROUS RESTARTS

Restarts after a storm are especially dangerous for refiners, though the Corpus Christi area received much less rain than the Houston metro area.

“The continued increase in flooding creates high uncertainty on the amount of damage that U.S. refineries will incur, the pace at which the shutdown will reverse and the magnitude of capacity that will be impaired over the next few months,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a note.

They added that they would expect about 10 percent of what is currently offline would stay shut for several months.

Just last week, refiners pushed output to their highest percentage of capacity since 2005 as gasoline demand hit an all-time weekly record of 9.85 million barrels, according to US Energy Department data on Wednesday.

Gasoline futures gained 7 percent on Wednesday alone. Refinery shutdowns and fuel shortage worries have also boosted retail fuel prices, particularly in the US South and Southwest.

Overnight, the AAA said retail gasoline prices were up 6 cents from a week ago at $2.404 per gallon of regular gasoline nationwide. Some states, like Georgia, have seen prices rise as much as 12 cents a gallon. In addition, shale production has been sharply curtailed in the Eagle Ford region of Texas due to the storm.

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Hurricane Harvey: Six family members found dead in missing van, says Houston police

Several hundred people had already been rescued from their homes in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where floodwaters were knee-deep in places, Mayor Nic Hunter said. (AP Photo) Related News

Police in Houston said they have recovered the bodies of six family members whose van was swept away in flooding unleashed by Harvey over the weekend. Manuel and Belia Saldivar and four of their great- grandchildren ranging from six to 16 years in age went missing Sunday as they were attempting to escape from rising waters. Their relatives returned to the scene of the tragedy today as floodwaters subsided and alerted police that the van was now visible, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.

“We were able to retrieve the van, pull it out of the water,” he said. “We have a total confirmed six dead here at the scene inside this van.” “Our worst fears have been realized,” he said. The white van became stuck in muddy water in a wooded area Sunday morning, and started floating away in the current, according to accounts by police and Rick Saldivar, whose brother Sammy was driving it at the time.

Sammy Saldivar was able to climb out of the driver’s seat, but was not to extricate his relatives, Rick Saldivar said. “The bad thing is he said he kept hearing the kids screaming,” Saldivar told television station KHOU. “That’s what he’s hearing in his head over and over.” Police officers called to the scene on Sunday were unable to help the other family members as the van was already submerged in at least four feet of water, said Gonzalez, adding that the area between the front and back of the van was blocked by a metal mesh typical of work vans.

A chaplain and the medical examiner were at the scene today, and the family had asked for privacy, police said. “Obviously, they are devastated, as we all are as well,” Gonzalez said. “They’re struggling with it.” US media have counted approximately 30 deaths attributable to Harvey, and the death toll was expected to rise as floodwaters subside. “I’m fearful that more will be found,” said Gonzalez.

Police in Houston said there were 17 people reported missing and unaccounted for.

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Harvey soaks Louisiana as Houston paralyzed by flooding

Several hundred people had already been rescued from their homes in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where floodwaters were knee-deep in places, Mayor Nic Hunter said. (AP Photo) Related News

Tropical Storm Harvey bore down on Louisiana on Wednesday, pouring down more water after setting rainfall records in Texas that caused catastrophic flooding and paralyzed the U.S. energy hub of Houston. The storm that first came ashore on Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years has killed at least 17 people and forced tens of thousands to leave their deluged homes.

Damage has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars, making it one of the costliest U.S. natural disasters. There is some relief in sight for Houston, the fourth most populous U.S. city, with forecasters saying five days of torrential rain may come to an end as the storm picks up speed and leaves the Gulf of Mexico region later in the day.

Harvey made landfall early Wednesday and was about 32 miles (52 km) south of Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was expected to bring an additional 3 to 6 inches (7.5 to 15.24 cms) of rain to an area about 80 miles east of Houston as well as southwestern Louisiana, where some areas have already seen more than 18 inches of rain.

Several hundred people had already been rescued from their homes in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where floodwaters were knee-deep in places, Mayor Nic Hunter told CNN.

“We are a very resilient people down here. We will survive. We will take care of each other down here in Texas and Louisiana,” Hunter said. “But we do need some help from the federal government, these homeowners and these people who have been displaced. That’s going to be our biggest need.”

Harvey is projected to weaken as it moves inland to the northeast, the National Hurricane Center said. “We aren’t going to be dealing with it for too much longer. It’s going to pick up the pace and get out of here,” said Donald Jones, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Lake Charles.

But nearly a third of Harris County, home to Houston, was under water, an area 15 times the size of Manhattan, according to the Houston Chronicle newspaper. It may take days for all flood waters, which have spilled over dams and pushed levees to their limits, to recede, local officials said.

City officials were preparing to temporarily house some 19,000 people, with thousands more expected to flee. As of Wednesday morning, state officials said close to 49,000 homes had suffered flood damage, with more than 1,000 destroyed.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner imposed a curfew from 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. amid reports of looting, armed robberies and people impersonating police officers.
U.S. President Donald Trump visited Texas on Tuesday to survey damage from the first major natural disaster to test his crisis leadership. The president said he was pleased with the response, but too soon for a victory lap.

“We won’t say congratulations,” he said. “We don’t want to do that … We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.” Moody’s Analytics is estimating the economic cost from Harvey for southeast Texas at $51 billion to $75 billion. The storm has affected nearly one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity, sparking concerns about gasoline supply. The national average gasoline price rose to $2.404 a gallon, up six cents from a week ago, with higher spikes in Texas.

The unprecedented flooding has left scores of neighborhoods in chest-deep water and badly strained the dams and drainage systems that protect the low-lying Houston metropolitan area whose economy is about as large as Argentina’s. The National Weather Service has issued flood watches and warnings that stretch from the Houston area into Tennessee.

DIED TRYING TO RESCUE PEOPLE

Harvey has drawn comparisons with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans 12 years ago, killing more than 1,800 people and causing an estimated $108 billion in damage. Among the confirmed fatalities was Houston Police Sergeant Steve Perez, a 34-year veteran of the force who drowned while attempting to drive to work on Sunday.

In Beaumont, northeast of Houston, a woman clutching her baby daughter was swept away in raging flooding. The baby was saved but the mother died, Beaumont police said. Ruben Jordan, a retired high school football coach died when he was helping rescue people trapped in high water, the Clear Creek Independent School District said.

In all, 17 people have perished, according to government officials and the Houston Chronicle. Four volunteer rescuers also went missing after their boat was swept in a fast-moving current, local media reported. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and boats have rescued more than 4,000 people. Thousands of others have been taken to safety by police, rescue workers and citizen volunteers who brought their boats to help, local officials said.

The National Hurricane Center on Tuesday afternoon said a record 51.88 inches (131.78 cm) of rain had fallen in Texas due to Harvey, a record for any storm in the continental United States. This breaks the previous record of 48 inches set during tropical storm Amelia in 1978 in Medina, Texas, the NHC said. Medina is west of San Antonio. The island of Kauai was hit with 52 inches of rain from tropical cyclone Hiki in 1950, before Hawaii became a U.S. state.

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