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Harvey Causes Catastrophic Flooding in Houston; Thousands Seek Shelter in Houston Convention Center. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired August 28, 2017 - 07:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: The flood disaster is expected to get worse today and in the coming days. Rescuers are working around the clock in the Houston area to save hundreds of people, maybe thousands, stranded in the high water. Roads and highways are impassable. Officials are asking anyone with a boat to help with these rescues. Forecasters say an additional 15 to 25 inches of rain may fall this week.

[07:00:27] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And there's been a major development that just shows how dicey the situation is. The Army Corps of Engineers is now working to prevent greater risk by releasing water from two flood-controlled dams.

In just minutes, federal officials are going to hold a briefing to give us the first big response about what this situation is on the ground. We're going to bring it to you live. President Trump says he's going to visit the region tomorrow.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Alex Marquardt, live in suburban Houston. The big concern that we keep hearing, Alex, is that there's going to be more and that the water that's there is going nowhere any time soon. What do you see around you?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Chris. In the last few moments the rain and wind have picked up. There is catastrophic flooding all across this city, scenes just like this one.

Now, take a look right here behind me. This is an on-ramp to the Interstate 610 which is right there. You can still see there are cars driving along it.

But right here behind me, there's an SUV that's almost completely submerged. So that's four feet of water right there. Around 20 to 25 inches of rain have fallen on this area.

In Harris County, which is part of Houston, 30 inches, it's going to go up to 50, they think, in the coming days. So things will get worse.

There is an all-hands-on-deck response to this catastrophe. Local authorities, the Coast Guard and all sorts of folks going out there in their own boats, volunteers, to try to rescue as many people as possible. The Coast Guard tells us they have carried out some 250 water rescues, rescuing some 1,000 people. But that major development this morning, as you noted, is the release

from those two reservoirs, Barker and Addicks. Now what they're doing there is they're trying to prevent more catastrophic flooding to downtown Houston. But all that water is going to go into the Buffalo Bayou, swelling the bayou and threatening the homes along that area. So thousands of people are being asked to evaluate. A lot of people are going to be needing a lot of help today -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: All right. Obviously, following it for us, please stay safe, Alex. We'll check back.

Meanwhile, the flooding in Houston evokes images, of course, of Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of people seeking refuge in the city's convention center. Look at all of these cots lined up. It is now operating as a shelter. City buses, even dump trucks dropping off evacuees who had been plucked from their swamped homes.

CNN's Rosa Flores is live in Houston with more on this. What's the latest there, Rosa?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, that bayou that Alex Marquardt was talking about is right over my shoulder. So all that water is going to come right through downtown Houston. And you can already see the water levels here. So that is going to be devastating for this area as more water continues to flow out towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, all of this water testing the system, testing the infrastructure here in Houston and also testing the decisions made by city leaders and state leaders. Initially, the governor of this state recommended for people to evacuate. Then the city leaders came back and said that city leaders knew best what was best for residents of Houston. It's been a huge debate. The city mayor here defending his position. Take a listen.


SYLVESTER TURNER, MAYOR OF TEXAS: The decision that we made was a smart one. It was in the best interests of Houstonians. It -- it was the right decision in terms of their safety; and always we must put the interests of the city of Houston and Houstonians first. That's exactly what we did. Absolutely no regrets.

We did what was the right thing to do. And we are acting according to the plan that we've -- that we've laid out.


FLORES: Now, overnight we did learn of mandatory evacuations in southwest Houston in the area of Fort Bend County, the area of the Brazoria River. That area is expected to be at 56 feet, that river level at 56 feet.

We're also learning about voluntary evacuations in North Houston, because the water there is supposed to surpass I-45. So again, lots of water, more water coming. And like you mentioned, Alisyn, we're expecting more rain.

CAMEROTA: Rosa, they sure are. So we're going to get a forecast right now. Thank you very much for all that.

So at this hour, nearly 13 million people are under flood warnings and watches in Texas and Louisiana. And forecasters do say the flooding will only get worse. Harvey could dump up to two additional feet of rain this week.

[07:05:11] CNN meteorologist Chad Myers has the latest forecast. How is this possible, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's possible, because Harvey is about to emerge back into the Gulf of Mexico, not very far from where it came off the Gulf of Mexico and regain some strength. Today Houston gets two inches of rainfall.

The real bogey today is Beaumont, Port Arthur and over to about Lake Charles. That's where the rain is going to be heaviest today. Houston, you get two inches today. Beaumont gets ten inches. So a slight reprieve. You don't need two, but you don't get ten. As the storm eventually moves by Thursday and Friday up into parts of Arkansas.

Here's the forecast for today. Until midnight, there's the circle right there of purple. That is east of Houston, thank goodness and back to Houston a little bit less. We are still going to see this Buffalo Bayou go up. It already is a record. It may be four feet above record before we're finally done.

Chris, I just checked Center Point Energy, the power company in Houston. Eighty-six thousand or somewhere around there, people are without power. But 2.3 million people still have power. So these people that are going into these homes to rescue other people have to understand that that power may still be on. So there's another real danger there: that the power is still on for 96 percent of Houston, and the water is going up.

CUOMO: So it's the good-bad news. Right? And we'll be monitoring those numbers. Because the longer that water stands and the more wind you have that comes into it, the more you can have people losing power. But you're right. It's a risk when you go in there. But people always are trying to save lives. It's the beauty of the human condition.

Chad, thank you very much. We'll check back with you in a little bit.

Right now let's bring in Colonel Lars Zetterstrom, commander of the Galveston district of the Army Corps of Engineers in Houston. Thank you very much for joining us. We know you're very busy. But this news about the releasing in part of some of the flood dams, why did that happen and what does that mean? What's the plus-minus on that move?

COL. LARS ZETTERSTROM, COMMANDER, GALVESTON DISTRICT, ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS (via phone): The plus-minus of that move is we are doing controlled releases from both dams to minimize the volume of uncontrolled releases, in this case specifically around the northern end of the Addicks Dam.

Based off our current modeling, we no longer believe that we're going to have water flowing around the ends and spillways of the Parker Dam. So I totally understand that the great citizens of Harris County and Houston are worried about us releasing this water. But I think the thing that might help clarify why we're doing this is the water is going to go in the Buffalo Bayou, no matter what we do because of what Mother Nature is doing. The uncontrolled releases around the spillway of the Addicks Dam are still ultimately flowing around the Buffalo Bayou watershed and, therefore, ultimately are going to flow into Buffalo Bayou.

So we're not -- the corps is not the ones that are, unfortunately, forcing the exacerbation of the Buffalo Bayou watershed. It's just the sheer amount of water that's flowing into these structures. And for perspective, just a little while ago, we exceeded our record pools that were set last year in the tax-day flood. So in the 70-plus-year history of these two dams, we've now, for the second year in a row, had a record pool.

And we're going to keep on growing, and some additional perspective is that both dams by design and by some modifications after construction are providing more than a thousand-year-level of flood risk reduction for the cities of -- citizens of Houston. And so the fact that water is going to go around the -- an uncontrolled manner or this spillway means that for Addicks, it's going to be more than a thousand-year flood event.

CUOMO: Jeez, that's some perspective that, you know, right now people just want to make it through this situation. Those dams built in the 1940s. Thank God that they're holding.

So it seems as though you're describing this as a bad or worse situation. You have to release some water right now to keep the level steady. That's going to create some additional flooding in some of these communities. But you're saying you're trying to stave off an even worse event.

Let me ask you: do you think that people need to get out of those surrounding areas right now?

ZETTERSTROM: Based off of our models and based off of what we're seeing with the realization of the weather predictions, people upstream of Addicks and Barker dams that are in the potential inundation zone need to monitor carefully the rate of rise and prepare for a voluntary evacuation that the local elected leadership have recommended.

[07:10:11] Again, the rate of rise in the two structures is between 2 1/2 and 3 inches. And so it's a slow rise, but it's a sufficient rise where homes up stream of the dams could either be impacted, meaning water on the property or inundated, meaning that there could be some water in their homes. People can contact the Galveston district headquarters, and we can

take their address information and put it into our AKS (ph) products and then give, at least, some kind of more detailed explanation of what we think is going to -- and how it's going to impact them. So that's for the citizens that live close to the Addicks and Barker dams, upstream of the dams, off of government-controlled land.

And then, for the citizens downstream, that live along the Buffalo Bayou, these two dams were built specifically to try to prevent -- or minimize flooding in Houston, but their purpose is to try to prevent water in the Addicks and Barker watershed, plus Cyprus Creek. In Cyprus Creek, the water is going to go over and jump the watershed and into these dams.

And so that's what we're trying to accomplish with these dams, and that's what it's currently doing. Even with releases are even going around, people need to know that all that water that's still in these dams. is still being contained that otherwise would go downstream.

CUOMO: Understood. Colonel, I appreciate the explanation. Please feel free to check back with us. We'll reach out to you, as well. Just see us as an extension of your ability to get the information to the communities that need it. Stay safe and thank you for helping the people in that area.

ZETTERSTROM: Thank you very much.

CUOMO: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Chris, we should let everybody know that we are expecting a briefing from FEMA, from federal officials to tell us what the plan is to combat Harvey. So that's just moments away, and we're watching this.

Meanwhile, joining us now on the phone is Texas Congressman Al Green. He represents Houston's 9th District, which is one of the hardest hit areas. Congressman, thank you for taking time with us this morning. Do you know the status of your constituents in your district? Are people still stranded at this hour?

REP. AL GREEN (D), TEXAS (via phone): Thank you for having me on. This is the way we do it in Texas, we help each other. I'm grateful to the first responders as well. And my sympathies and prayers to those who have been harmed, lives that have been lost. We are facing a major catastrophe.

I'd like to announce if I may, that my constituents, a good many of them, are still in harm's way. I spoke to the mayor of Missouri City, which is in Fort Bend County. This is where those tornadoes hit. In fact, our office out there has been damaged to the extent that we'll have to move out of that office. It's a satellite office.

But the mayor of Missouri City has indicated that there's a possibility of flooding that will take place in an area that would cause a good many people to have to move out. And some tough decisions are being made. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) things are happening. People are doing the best they can under unusual circumstances.


GREEN: You had water in one day that would be a record level than what we had before. You hear people talking about a thousand-year flood event. I think you have to realize that we've not dealing with anything that we faced before and making tough decisions; and I hope that people will understand it.

CAMEROTA: Well, Congressman, I mean, given that, given the unprecedented nature of this, do you think that the mayor of Houston should have evacuated more people?

GREEN: I'm in agreement with what the mayor did. I was here, and I remember Rita. I remember what happened when we had millions of people trying to exit the city without proper contra-flow lanes. I remember the heat strokes that some people suffered from. I remember that there were fights that took place out on the roadways. I remember a bus that caught on fire, and there were persons in there...

CAMEROTA: Congressman, I'm so sorry to interrupt you. The FEMA -- the FEMA briefing is starting for us, and we want to tune in. Stand by.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our speakers this morning include the acting secretary of homeland security, Elaine Duke; the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long; the National Weather Service director Louis Uccellini; and also joining to take questions will be the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Tsong; and the secretary of -- I'm sorry, Health and Human Services, Price.

Again, the first three speakers will provide opening remarks, and then we'll open up to your questions. Just to let you know in advance, Administrator Long will be immediately heading from here to make his way down to Texas, so we should end promptly at 7:45 to allow him to get to his airplane to make it down to Texas.

And with that, I will bring in our speakers, thank you.

CAMEROTA: This FEMA briefing, we should be updated on the number of people killed, the number of people who are still stranded, what the federal government is doing. Let's listen.

ELAINE DUKE, ACTING SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: ... FEMA headquarters today, home of the national response coordination center. I know everyone in this room and on the president's team has been moved by the images and stories of people who are suffering in Texas.

We want to make sure you all know that we are working right now to provide assistance as quickly as we can. Right now, we are focused on rescue operations and will move into recovery operations later in the week.

Today we are deeply concerned with those in Houston and surrounding areas who are stranded and in need of immediate assistance. People need help, and we are working to provide it. While the hurricane-force winds have diminished, I want to stress that

we are not out of the woods yet, not by a long slot [SIC]. Harvey is still a dangerous and historic storm. According to the National Weather Service, who you'll hear from shortly, rainfall amounts as much as two feet have occurred in the Houston metro area. And life- threatening flooding will occur over a large portion of south and -- south central and southeast Texas in the coming days. Rivers won't crest until later this week.

It is vitally important for those in Texas and Louisiana to monitor your local radio and TV stations for updated emergency information and, as always, listen to the direction of your local officials.

If you are in the affected areas, we are asking that you please only call 911 if you have immediate need for medical attention or evacuation assistance. If local officials deem it safe, please take time to check on your neighbors and friends, particularly the elderly, who may need assistance.

The department, through FEMA, has been working in close coordination with the state and local officials throughout the region for many days in preparing for Hurricane Harvey. And under the president's direction, we have made every resource available to respond to this historic storm. The partnership at every level of government has been exceptional, and I want to thank Governor Abbott and Governor Edwards for all they have done.

We understand that there are challenges before us, particularly in Houston, but we are committed to getting the resources local officials need as soon as possible.

Finally, I'd like to thank the thousands of civil servants, first responders and volunteers in Texas and around the country, including those here in D.C. at FEMA, who have worked tirelessly throughout the weekend and will continue to carry out our response and recovery efforts over the weeks and months to come. You have provided a tremendous service to your fellow Americans, and we thank you.

With that I'd like to turn it over to FEMA administrator Brock Long to walk us through our response efforts.

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Thank you, Madam Secretary. So emergency management, as I've been saying, is about partnership. My goal, as the emergency manager of FEMA, of the Federal Emergency Manager administrator, is to unify the efforts of all these agencies, not only these guys here, the agencies that they represent, but basically, the fire power of the federal government.

And what we want to do is be able to have a unified effort, coordinated effort, have the support and give the state of Texas everything they need to fill gaps, to bolster their operations and capability. They set -- they set the mission priorities right now. We fall in line to support those.

Right now, this is still an ongoing situation. We're not at recovery yet. We're thinking and planning for recovery. We have recovery teams down -- you know, down in Texas, but right now this mission, it's very important. This is a life safety, life sustaining mission. We're trying to help with -- bolster the efforts to do swift water rescue, search and rescue, over a huge county jurisdiction, over 30 to 50 counties possibly impacted in Texas.

Just because we see what's going on in Houston, this impact -- these impacts are not only across Houston, but 50 different counties within Texas. We're also going to see a tremendous amount of rainfall into southwest Louisiana. We're asking citizens to still listen to their local emergency managers, county judges or parish presidents for life -- lifesaving warning or communication.

So right now, in addition to search and rescue, the next objective is to stabilize disaster survivors. Once we move them, we're able to extract them from different areas and rescue them, we've got to get them into shelters.

This shelter mission is going to be a very heavy lift. We're anticipating over 30,000 people being placed in shelters temporarily to basically stabilize the situation and provide for their care.

Next, we are ready and already deploying essential life-sustaining commodities. We have a tremendous amount of supplies in the state, and the state is pooling our resources already to be able to put those out. It's occurring all over the state of Texas.

Through our partners at the Army Corps of Engineers, we are working to restore power. So we're providing emergency generators for critical infrastructure to support things such as 911 centers or other critical infrastructure within the state of Texas.

Finally, we're also providing emergency communications. We're trying to help the state reroute 911 centers, but also making sure that we are interoperable between the federal, state and local responders that are out there on the ground.

Security is also a main -- a main concern. The state, as you know, has mobilized a huge amount of National Guard, but we have also -- the secretary has been leaning forward. We've activated the DHS, what we call homeland security surge capacity force. We are putting law enforcement down to bolster that effort, as well, as well as other DOD assets that are going down.

Right now here's what I need you to know. The -- this -- helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA coordinating the mission of the entire federal government. We need citizens to be involved. Texas -- this is a landmark event. We have not seen an event like this. You could not draw this forecast up; you could not dream this forecast up. It's been a very challenging effort for the National Weather Service, who's putting out great information. We've been telling people that this is coming; it's still ongoing. But you couldn't -- you couldn't draw this situation up.

The bottom line is, is that it's going to continue on. We need the whole community, not only the federal government forces, but this is a whole community effort from all levels of government and is going to require the citizens getting involved.

So here's what it want you to know as a citizen if you're wanting to help. Right off the bat, we have a website: That's N- VO-AD dot org. N-V-O-A-D dot org. If you are looking to help, start there. It will have a whole host of non-governmental and religious organizations that are seeking help in being able to support Texas. We have to make sure that donations and volunteers are managed correctly to be effective down to the state and local levels. That's one way to start.

Underneath the president's disaster declaration, we -- we have turned on what we call individual assistance programs. We're expecting, you know, based on this event, over 450,000 potential registers of disaster victims. That is a huge number, but we are ready to go to process. We've already processed nearly 15,000 calls over the last 24 hours of getting citizens registered.

You know, what we want to do is to be able to get you in. Hopefully, you qualify for disaster assistance; and we'll start processing and setting up your case management to go forward there.

To do that, we would -- if you have access to a website, go to Again, If you do not have access to a website and you do have a phone, call 1-800-621-FEMA, 1-800-621-FEMA.

Again, I'm asking for all citizens to get involved here. Donate your money, figure out how you can get involved as we help Texas find a new normal going forward after this devastating disaster.

Right now what I would like to do is also, I would like to push it over to the National Weather Service director, Louis Uccellini.

LOUIS UCCELLINI, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DIRECTOR: So just to give a short update here on what's happening and what we expect over the next five days, the circulation of Harvey has been drifting southeast toward the coast. It's currently located over Matagorda Bay.

The official track of -- if you bring up slide one, the official forecast has the tropical storm moving up the coast of Texas, toward the Texas-Louisiana area within the next five days.

There is still uncertainty as we're dealing with this track. The storm itself is creating its own -- its own circulation even aloft, so the -- this track forecast still represents a difficult forecast for us. So we have to pay attention as we move forward.

[07:25:13] Very heavy rains are currently associated with an intense band of rainfall extending north-northwest over Beaumont and Port Arthur and into southwest and western Louisiana. Earlier this morning, there were reports of five to six inches of rain per hour associated with this band, and there were some unofficial reports of up to eight inches.

With respect to Houston, we're in a lull right now. The bands that had been sitting over Houston, one has now shifted off to the northeast. We have a report of over 30 inches of rain so far near -- near Houston. There's a broad area of 15 to 20 inches and even greater in that whole south central part of Texas. If we can have the rainfall map, this is a one- to five-day forecast. As I noted, Houston is in a lull right now but will get back into the moderate to heavy rains later today and the into tomorrow, and we'll see how long it lasts. It all depends on that track.

And there's about a 15- to 20-inch rainfall still -- still forecast, associated with that max. And notice also the shift towards the east, southwest Louisiana, western Louisiana and going into northeast Texas is included. And we need to watch that area very carefully.

If we go to the last map, we -- this is a map of the current flooding. We have major flooding occurring already And you see that area blossoming in the Houston area. The peak flow and depth of this flood will max out in the Wednesday, Thursday time frame. And this does include the projected rainfall that we're expecting.

Also, and we're -- even though we see on this map that currently we don't see flooding in eastern Texas and western Louisiana, this was as of 4 a.m. with these heavy rainfalls now occurring, this will quickly change.

And we should also emphasize, in this case the flooding will be very slow to recede. So we are seeing catastrophic flooding, and this will likely -- likely expand and will likely persist, as it's slow to recede.

I just want to emphasize from a weather service perspective, we're working in partnership with the federal, state and local emergency management and water resource management community. We've been working with them since last weekend in anticipation of this storm as the models and forecasters started showing the potential for this storm. And we're standing here today to emphasize that you listen to your local officials. They're there to save your life. So please listen to them as the storm unfolds. Thank you.

LONG: All right, folks, I will departing after this news conference now to be with Governor Abbott in Texas to make sure I put boots on the ground and understand the situation. It's a -- constantly, it's a dynamic situation that's going to be constantly developing.

One thing with the director of the National Weather Service, we're having to rescue -- local officials are having to rescue a lot of people getting in their cars and driving into flooded areas. You're doing a couple things. One, you can kill yourself. Two, you're going to put the commandant's people in danger. Not only his, but we have customs, Border Patrol. We have Department of Interior assets, all out there, trying to support the state and locals. We've got to stop doing that, folks. And it's pulling resources away from the people that truly need it by doing that.

We are also in the process, we're evaluating and putting forward -- hopefully, we're evaluating a -- Governor John Bel Edwards has asked for a disaster that was put into. So, hopefully, we will expedite that coming up soon. Yes, Joe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are you going exactly today? Who's in charge of the response? Who's coordinating everything?

LONG: Excellent question. So all disasters begin and end at the local level. And the way emergency management works is, I am not the incident commander over the state of Texas. The bottom line is, is that it starts at the local level. When a local government's capacity has been exceeded to handle the -- to handle the disaster and what they are facing, then they call upon either county to county mutual aid or they call upon their state resources, which you're already seeing.

The governor declares a state of emergency. He's put -- which basically gives the governor the ability to mobilize all state resources down to support his counties. And then, once the state's capacity was exceeded over several days ago, they ask for a presidential disaster declaration. The president moved in an expedited and very swift -- one of the quickest time frames I've ever seen to approve the disaster declaration so that we can mobilize our resources to help.

Yes, ma'am.