Levee breaches in southeastern Texas are worrying officials already contending with swarms of evacuees taking refuge from one of the worst storms ever to hit the state.
As Hurricane Harvey, now downgraded to a tropical storm, continued to lash the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, levee breaches were reported near Houston, which is staggering under the weight of rain and flooding. At least 14 people are dead and around 50 inches of rain have been recorded in Texas by the National Weather Service—breaking the record for total rainfall from a tropical system.
That number is set to climb. Water in the Addicks Reservoir, not far from the city’s downtown, flew over the containment’s 108-foot wall early in the day, the first time in history that such an event has occurred. Overflow at the reservoir is intended to enter drainage ditches and flow into Buffalo Bayou, which winds through Houston’s downtown area. But efforts to drain the water haven’t stopped it from rising, and with the city only equipped to handle so much excess, the situation is quickly becoming untenable.
Houston isn’t the only source of extreme concern for those monitoring reservoirs and dams. On Tuesday, officials in Brazoria County posted an urgent warning to residents to “GET OUT NOW!!” following the breach of a levee at Columbia Lakes:
— Brazoria County (@BrazoriaCounty) August 29, 2017
The warning was likely expected by residents. Columbia Lakes, a small resort village some distance from Houston, is surrounded by levees on all sides. That fact means the community is in extreme danger as the Brazos River, which has risen more than 30 feet since Harvey struck, continues to absorb rain. With levees topping out at 32 feet, and experts predicting water levels will rise several more feed before Wednesday, another breach seems inevitable.
The levee breaches are heightening anxiety in the wider area, where evacuees are already growing by the day. Officials warned residents in six neighborhoods around reservoirs to evacuate early Tuesday before rising waters endangered them. Houston facilities are already filled with evacuees, including nearly 10,000 currently staying in the city’s convention center. Workers at the center said busloads of evacuees were no longer being accepted, but walk-ins would be given shelter. Officials have also speculated that more than 30,000 Texans might be without permanent housing in the months to come.
That number could be significantly worsened. Two of the most precarious dams in the United States stand between Houston and Harvey: the Addicks, where water overran Tuesday, and the Barker Dam. Both are under intense pressure from Harvey’s waters, something terrifying Houstonians. Were they to burst, the devastation could unite Houston’s biggest bayous, creating an enormous river and imperiling thousands of people.
Jim Blackburn, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at Rice University, told the Daily Beast that such an event has always been unlikely; now that it’s a possibility, the severity can’t be overstated.
“That would dwarf anything that has happened so far,” said Blackburn. “The Army Corps of Engineers is very hesitant to release their maps of what that would look like, because it would be absolutely devastating.”
Preparing for the possibility of even more evacuees is weighing heavily on officials. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) announced at a press conference Tuesday that the city has requested supplies for 10,000 more people from FEMA.
“We need to expand our capabilities,” the mayor said, adding that the city was looking to open a “mega-shelter” to house more evacuees.
As of Tuesday, it was unclear just how many more evacuees might need shelter if area levees were to break. With more rain expected to fall throughout the week until Friday (hitting neighboring Louisiana as well), the worst is arguably still to come. Forecasters said the the storm likely would not weaken until after Wednesday, when it moves further inland and away from the coast.
Contending with overflow from reservoirs and dams isn’t the only crisis plaguing concerned officials as Harvey continues to wreak havoc. Another source of concern is a lack of water people can actually drink. Three plants supply water to Houston, but one of them, the Northeast Water Purification Plant, is flooded. If it ceases to function, many residents could be surrounded by water—but unable to drink any.