Chemicals ignite at flooded plant in Texas as Harvey’s devastation lingers – Washington Post

CROSBY, Tex. — The remnants of Hurricane Harvey carried its wrath up the Mississippi Delta on Thursday, but not before hammering the Gulf Coast with more punishing cloudbursts and growing threats that included reports of “pops” and “chemical reactions” at a crippled chemical plant and the collapse of the drinking water system in a Texas city.

Authorities warned of the danger posed by the plant in Crosby, located 30 miles northeast of Houston, and the French company operating the facility said explosions were possible. Still, officials offered differing accounts regarding what occurred at the Crosby plant, which makes organic peroxides for use in items such as counter tops and pipes.

The plant’s operators, which had earlier Thursday reported explosions, later said they believe at least one valve “popped” there, though they noted it was impossible to know for sure since all employees had left the site.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it had dispatched personnel to the scene, including aircraft to check the smoke cloud as well as other officials, and did not immediately detect issues regarding toxic material.

“EPA has emergency response personnel on the scene and the agency is currently reviewing data received from an aircraft that surveyed the scene early this morning,” Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. “This information indicates that there are no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time.”

As attention focused on the chemical plant, which Thursday sat under about 6 feet of water following Harvey’s relentless rains, other areas battered by the storm awoke to lingering flooding and the misery left behind.

The storm’s fury was far from over to the east and beyond, as flash flood watches were posted as far away as southern Ohio. The National Weather Service said 4 inches of rain was expected to soak parts of Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee with up to 10 inches possible in some isolated areas in western Tennessee.

Already, federal authorities believe around 100,000 homes were impacted by the storm, Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said Thursday at a White House briefing.

In Crosby, the chemical plant’s operators, citing local officials, initially said two blasts rocked the facility after it was rendered powerless by floodwaters.

“We were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center of two explosions and black smoke coming from the” plant, the company, Arkema, said in its initial statement.

Other accounts soon followed. The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office reported “a series of chemical reactions” and “intermittent smoke” at the facility; a county official said there weren’t “massive explosions,” and instead referred to the reactions as “pops” followed by fire.

William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had called the potential for a chemical plume “incredibly dangerous” at a briefing Thursday morning. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, said later Thursday that this view had shifted as more information became available from the EPA. She said the EPA is the lead agency on the situation and that FEMA would defer to them.

Still, the operators Arkema warned that there was still a potential for more danger in Crosby. “A threat of additional explosion remains,” said the statement.

Authorities on Wednesday set up an evacuation zone in a 1.5-mile radius from the plant, though the risks could also could be carried by the winds.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that one deputy was hospitalized after inhaling fumes from the plant, while several others sought medical care as a precaution. Some were still being evacuated at a local hospital, the sheriff’s office said, while others had been released.

The Crosby plant manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used in everything from pharmaceuticals to construction materials. But the stores must remain cold otherwise it can combust. A variety of federal agencies have warned about the dangers of organic peroxides the Crosby plant produces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that “contact of organic peroxides with the eyes should be avoided. Some organic peroxides will cause serious injury to the cornea, even after brief contact, or will be corrosive to the skin.”  It added that “many organic peroxides also burn vigorously.”

An earlier study done for the EPA found that organic peroxides are skin and eye irritants and could also cause liver damage.

Water will dilute the chemicals in the plant, but also make them difficult to contain; just as the plant was unable to keep water from flowing in, it will have trouble controlling water flowing out.

An industry safety guide notes that fire or explosion will release a variety of chemicals, including carbon dioxide, as well as flammable vapors including methane or acetone. This could accelerate the decomposition of the chemicals. The guide said that water is “usually the agent of choice to fight fire,” though warm water could accelerate the breakdown, and ignition, of the organic peroxides.

David Guillory, who lives in Crosby, said he was skeptical of local authorities warning people near the plant of the danger, because the region has seen intense flooding. He pointed out that people who remain trapped or haven’t yet evacuated because of road closures might not know about the danger.

Local police told him everyone was safely evacuated, but his brother, who lives right on the edge of the 1.5-mile radius, was still home when Guillory called Wednesday. Guillory’s destroyed home is closer to the plant.

“It’s in my backyard. Literally,” he said. Guillory is the safety director at another plant and said the safety radius established was also due to the possibility of ammonia inhalation, which is incredibly dangerous.

“There’s a lot of ammonia there if the radius is a mile and a half,” he said.

Elsewhere in Texas, seemingly endless water continued to create other issues. Police in Houston, still confronting flooded streets, carried out 18 water rescues overnight Wednesday into Thursday, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“Crisis ebbing but far from over,” Turner tweeted Thursday morning.

Other cities emerged from pummeling rain to find different water problems. In the flooded city of Beaumont, Tex., the water system pumps failed after being swamped by spillover from the swollen Neches River. City officials said in a statement that a secondary water source from nearby wells was also lost.

Beaumont, home to more than 118,000 people, had lost its water supply. In a statement, the city said it was not clear when the water could recede, officials could examine the damage and make repairs.

After Beaumont’s water supply shut down, the CHRISTUS Southeast Texas Health System said it had limited resources and only “essential medical staff caring for patients.” Non-essential, non-medical people were being moved to shelters, the system said in a statement.

To the east — in the town of Orange, Tex. — the water rose so high and so fast that people had to rush from their homes.

“It was unbelievable,” said Robin Clark, who was ferried, along with her mother and three dogs, out of her home on a volunteer’s boat.

Dozens of rescued residents stood in a pelting rain outside a Market Basket supermarket waiting for what was next.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Keeleigh Amodeo, 15, who was waiting with her sister and mother.

She and others had been told they would be getting on a bus and be taken to a shelter. Where? No one knew. And the buses had failed to show yet. Several people noted that another shelter in town had to be evacuated after it was flooded.

Leonard Teal, however, refused to evacuate his flooded home in Orange. The reason: Someone had to keep watch over all the pets abandoned by neighbors as they fled the flooding.

“It’s shocking but I’ve got several dogs and cats here,” said Teal, whose was huddled with animals on the second floor of his home. He said he would keep the animals for as long as possible.

Orange and other small Texas communities were rendered islands as Harvey dumped record amounts of rain. Interstate 10, which runs close by, was closed to everyone but volunteers in pickup trucks with boats and emergency personnel. Two to three feet of water covered parts of the interstate, while the storm’s death toll had risen to at least 37 people and was expected to increase.

Particularly hard-hit was the coastal city of Port Arthur, which local officials said is now largely underwater. Officials estimated that water had entered a third of the city’s buildings.

Max Bowl, a bowling alley and arcade, had become a way station for residents fleeing the rising water — a dry place with food, water and donated clothing. Getting to the building required a boat on one side to navigate the deep waters. On the other, all it took was a good pair of boots to wade through ankle-deep water.

Overhead, Coast Guard and military helicopters flew past.

“It’s been chaotic, to say the least,” said Mason Simmons, a mechanical engineering student at Lamar University, standing with a group of friends and family on the curb of Max Bowl. They were working as volunteers to help people off boats or out of pickup trucks.

Simmons said he’s seen hundreds of people in the roughly six hours he’d been at the bowling alley. Someone nearby said one boat rescued 60 people.

“I think the most incredible part is it’s been community organized, really,” he said. “There’s no one person leading anything. We’re just doing what we can.”

Inside Max Bowl, some people slept at the edge of bowling lanes. Luggage and plastic bags filled with clothing competed for space with racks holding bowling balls.

In nearby Beaumont, roads flooded and businesses shuttered as large parking lots were eerily empty. The carpet of a fifth-floor Hampton Inn was soggy after strong winds blasted rain through the inner workings of the room’s air conditioner Tuesday evening.

Fast-food restaurants and other eateries were closed around the hotel, leaving evacuees wet, stranded and hungry.

Hotel staff laid out impromptu ingredients of the classic Texas dish of Frito pie: chili, ground beef, Fritos and tortilla chips, canned cheese and jalapeños, sending its guests back to their rooms full and earning gratitude the next morning. A Hampton Inn employee confirmed Wednesday the chili was served without beans, a faithful rendering of the traditional Texas recipe.

Others still sought supplies elsewhere. The Energy Department said Thursday it would release 500,000 barrels of crude oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help with fuel supplies in storm-ravaged areas. It is the first emergency release from the reserve since 2012, the Reuters news agency reported.

Even as Harvey moved away from the Gulf, leaving behind as much as 52 inches of record-breaking rain, forecasters warned of another possible storm that could emerge near Texas early next week.

It hasn’t yet formed, but there are early indications that yet another tropical storm is possible in the western Gulf of Mexico next week. Though rainfall is impossible to predict in a storm that hasn’t yet developed, any additional rain would be significant for the already-devastated region. Not only would it impact and delay recovery efforts, but it could also lead to additional flooding.

“If this system does develop, it could bring additional rainfall to portions of the Texas and Louisiana coasts,” the National Hurricane Center said on Thursday.

New Orleans officials on Wednesday expressed relief that Harvey spared their city, and they encouraged residents to support for those impacted by the storm in Texas. Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted that Houston welcomed many displaced New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“This week marked the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Landrieu said. “No city was more welcoming for the citizens of New Orleans than the people of Houston. … This is our opportunity to begin to pay it forward and support those who stood by us.”

Landrieu said that, since Katrina, the city had erected among world’s largest storm surge barriers and most powerful pumping stations. Though pumps had failed in days before Harvey made landfall, city officials said 93 percent of the city’s drainage pumps are now operable.

Officials announced that the 2017 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff game, which was set to take place in Houston and feature the Louisiana State University and Brigham Young University football teams, will instead be held this Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Proceeds from tickets, concessions and parking will still go to organizers in Texas, said Stephen Perry, chief executive of New Orleans’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We’re not doing this for us. We’re doing this for Texas,” Perry said.

But the state of Louisiana did not escape Harvey’s deluge completely. Mike Steele, communications director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said 368 evacuees are being sheltered in the Lake Charles area, with that number growing as people are brought in from communities on the Texas-Louisiana border.

Officials opened Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles to handle the overflow of people displaced from their homes, including Texas residents.

State officials said Louisiana has offered to provide additional shelter space to Texas and is prepared to take on as many as 3,400 Texans in Shreveport.

Louisiana residents themselves were suffering from power outages, and Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said hundreds of roads across the state were flooded.

“Southwest Louisiana, for now, remains the center of gravity as it relates to this storm in Louisiana,” Edwards said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I would again remind people in Louisiana that we have another 24 hours or so before this storm is out of our state.”

Berman reported from Washington. Todd C. Frankel in Orange, Tex., Lee Powell in Port Arthur, Tex., Ashley Cusick in New Orleans, Leslie Fain in Lake Charles, La., and Brian Murphy, Steven Mufson and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report, which will be updated throughout the day.

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