Return to Transcripts main page


Harvey Leaves Devastation In Its Wake; Former Houston Mayor Evacuates Flood-Ravaged Home. Reported Blast at Chemical Plant; Beaumont Loses Drinking Water; Water Rescues Continue in Texas; Reservoir Nears Record Levels; Harvey Weakens to Tropical Depression. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

New concerns this morning in Texas with dangerous increasing, even as some flood waters recede.

A violent chemical reaction sparked a fire overnight at a chemical plant near Houston. Now, the area had already been evacuated because of fears of the plant's stability. Authorities insist there was no explosion, their words, but there is obviously a clear risk here and concern for first responders. Some 15 deputies were treated at a hospital after inhaling what is being called a non-toxic irritant. We are watching this very closely.

Meanwhile, there are new mandatory evacuations around one of Houston's major reservoirs. That reservoir in eminent risk right now of spilling over.

Up the coast in Beaumont, the flood waters have knocked out the pumps that supply the city's drinking water. The crews cant' start repairs there until the water goes down, which just isn't happening yet.

We have a very busy morning for you. We want to start with CNN's Paul Vercammen near the evacuation zone of the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas.

Paul, what's going on there?

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, I'm sorry we're having some communications issues out here.

Here's what we know.

This plant had some sort of chemical reaction or ignition at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Two of them in the morning. It's not that the Arkema officials didn't predict this would happen.

Because this plant was ringed by water due to the flooding, six feet of water, first it lost its electricity and, second, its backup generators. What this did was, there are chemicals inside there that are highly flammable that need to be refrigerated. When they were no longer refrigerated and heated up, basically they degraded and they ignited.

Now, that sent a plume of smoke some 30 to 40 feet into the air. They had evacuated the neighborhood in advance and got rid of a few -- I mean told a few hundred citizens to leave.

We also understand some Harris County sheriff's officials that some first responders, both sheriff's deputies and some emergency personnel, were treated at a local hospital. Eight of them have been released. Seven of them are being observed right now. The nature of their injuries are said to not be serious at this point. And they say that these fumes are not toxic. They likened it to basically leaning over a camp fire.

Now, this Arkema company makes these chemicals used in everything, you know, basically from pharmaceuticals to construction. And they're predicting that there will be more of these ignitions.

If you look over my shoulder to the left, a couple miles in the distance, that's where this plant is. We do not see any of these plumes of smoke right now. We have talked to some people who live near the plant. They said they were given a lot of warning and told to get out. A lot of horses around there. And so they are all just waiting word as to when they can return. But with this prediction of more of these ignitions, that does not seem likely soon, John.

BERMAN: They say it's not too dangerous, the smoke. On the other hand, more than a dozen deputies did end up in the hospital.

And, Paul, we are looking at live pictures right now. We're expecting a news conference right now about this situation at this plant. Again, with more fires expected, maybe even immanent.

Paul Vercammen, thanks so much.

I want to shift gears now and move up the coast to Drew Griffin, who's in Fannett, just outside Beaumont.

And, Drew, a new kind of water problem where you are.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The city of Buford's water is out. The pump -- the main pumping station in the Neches River just stopped working last night, John. So when people woke up this morning and turned on their faucets, nothing was coming out. It is a real emergency.

City officials just not sure what the fix is going to be. They're warning it could be several days. And that's because the pump station is at the Neches River. The Neches River is flooded to the point where they can't really get to it to see what the problem is. We're expecting much more on that later this morning as the city deals with that.

FEMA bringing in water. I don't think water's a big issue at the moment. But, obviously, as the days progress, it will be.

We're in Fannett, and we're up with our drone to show you. We were here on Tuesday. This roadway was covered with five and a half feet of water. It has gone down somewhat. But as we look to the drone, you can see just beyond us, these are schools in this community, and many of the homes here that are also continuing to be flooded, water stubbornly just will not go away. And, of course, the cleanup and the move back in can't take place until you get rid of this water.

John, the problem is, many of the bayous and the creeks and the rivers around here are either cresting now or have yet to crest. So as this all -- the system drains, you know, people are just waiting, hoping their supplies can hold out until they can finally get back in and start rebuilding from this storm.


[09:05:13] BERMAN: You can see the nature of the double problem here. People need to stay where they are. They can't get home. In the meantime, running out of supplies with water now -- at least water from the taps -- not available.

Drew Griffin for us outside Beaumont. Drew, thanks so much.

Members of the Coast Guard right now flying over Texas looking for people still stranded in the water. These, I believe, are live pictures from Sulphur, Louisiana. Helicopters taking off -- a steady stream of helicopters taking off and landing. This from moments ago. It is happening all night, all morning right now.

Joining me right now, Lieutenant Commander Matt Shafer. He is at the command post in Houston.

Commander, thank you so much for being with us.

Do you have a sense of the area, and I mean geographic area, right now of greatest need?


Right now currently I'm still stationed in Houston and we're flying missions out of here. But I do know that our Coast Guard's, you know, deployed in all areas of need and we're responding as best as able.

BERMAN: How many people do you have out there now searching?

SHAFFER: I'm not sure on the exact number. I know here out of Houston, last I checked, we had 20 helicopters operating. But I know the other areas have units as well.

BERMAN: What's the condition right now of the people that you are encountering? Who still needs to be rescued?

SHAFFER: You know, right now, the weather's nice. But, you know, the last few days, we've encountered some pretty rough weather and some of the people we've -- we've encountered have just been in great need. The -- probably the best moment of my life was when we got to hoist a mother and her three small children just two days ago. And seeing them come up in the basket and then dropping them off when we landed and seeing the mother just, you know, mouth "thank you" to us over the roar of the engines and the rotor blades was probably one of the most memorable things in my life.

BERMAN: Ys. And then you had to turn out, I'm sure, and go back out to find more people to rescue. Just the nature of your job.

You, sir, you've been out there. You're a pilot. You've been flying these missions. Just talk to me about what it's been like the last few days.

SHAFFER: Yes, sir.

Well, ultimately, this kind of flying is what we live for. We train hard to operate in the worst conditions. The good thing is right now the weather's getting better, so flight conditions are improving at all times. It's definitely been a steady stream of flights, but we have a whole cadre of pilots, rescue stormers (ph) and flight mechanics that are primed and ready to go. And we've been training, you know, pretty much our entire careers for an event like this.

BERMAN: All right, Lieutenant Commander Matt Shaffer, thank you so much for doing this with us, taking a break from what has got to be an incredibly busy time for you. And thank you for all the work you're doing.

SHAFFER: Thank you for having me.

BERMAN: All right, we want to shift gears now to yet another danger, a mandatory evacuation order for residents living near the Barker Reservoir. That is at record levels right now. One of the two main reservoirs looming over Houston, literally.

CNN's Rosa Flores joins us now. She is near that reservoir in Katy, Texas, standing in the floodwaters.



Right now, in this neighborhood, we're hearing from residents is that they're (INAUDIBLE) confusion, then panic. They tell us that they are very confused by the evacuation that was (INAUDIBLE) --

BERMAN: All right, there appears to be a short in the microphone there. It didn't sound too bad. Hopefully we can get back to Rosa in just a second there.

But the situation is, there is the Addicks Reservoir and the Barker Reservoir. You've seen the pictures. They are right over Houston. And they have been overlapping their banks. We are told by officials there that the banks of those reservoirs are structurally sound. There is no risk, they insist, of them breaking or bursting or breaching in any way.

The problem is the water is just higher than the banks in some areas. It is spilling over and flowing back down into Houston. And then behind the reservoirs, the reservoirs are filling up so much that the communities that have been built around there, built over the last several decades, very close, they have been inundated with water. Those are some of the areas that are now under mandatory evacuations. You're looking at some aerial pictures of the situation right now.

Our Chad Myers, who, by the way, has been doing stunning work now for a week on this in really helping us understand what's going on, joins us at the Weather Center now.


CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: John, the rain has moved away, but the flooding is, obviously, not over. That's the key. And that's what you need to take out of this. It's going to be raining in Memphis and Nashville today. It may be four to six inches of rain there.

[09:10:04] But the damage is already done in Houston is going to take a long time to get to the ocean. This will cause some brief flooding today, but not like we're seeing here, with over 30 rivers, creeks or bayous in major flood stage or in some cases record flood stage.

The bayou that you're talking about here or the reservoir that is overflowing or backing up, actually, into neighborhoods is the Barker Reservoir. We've been talking about the Addicks Reservoir all week. Water going down here. All this area flooded because they're letting so much water out of Addicks here. But they have to because the neighborhoods back here are flooded, homes back there, and the water is high enough that it's going around the levee anyway on the top and on the northeast side.

Now, let's get back down here and show you Barker. Here's what's going on in Barker. All the people live back here. Water is rushing out here. Again, flooding this entire neighborhood here, as you go down the Buffalo Bayou all the way to Houston. It is backing up because they can't let the water out fast enough.

Now, let me show you what this neighborhood looks like right now. There are hundreds if not thousands of homes that are right at the top of the levee mean (ph) sea level or in some cases as much as six feet lower than sea level there. Mean sea level about 108 feet above.

When this was built, there was nothing back there. There was ranch land. There were some oil fields. There was nothing to worry about. So if it flooded, that was not a problem.

Now, this is what it looks like and there are significant people, significant numbers of people, that are living in this neighborhood. Let me draw the levee again. Here's Barker. Here's where the water comes out, right there, into the Buffalo Bayou. Up here, this is Addicks and it's combined right here at the Buffalo Bayou.

But all back through here is kind of a backside levee at about 101 feet above sea level. Back here, these neighborhoods are around 97 feet above sea level. So once the water would breach this back levee, all of a sudden you would backfill the neighborhood. Now, let's move you in and I'll zoom -- show you the neighborhoods that are going to be in trouble later today. That's why they have to be out. This is what the water will look like. Now, the rooftops will still be there, but back out farther to the west where it's slightly higher, these -- think about this neighborhood. The houses are built high. The streets are low. All the streets will be flooded, but the houses will still be fine. But, obviously, they want people out of there anyway because they don't want you driving through the streets, walking through he streets or whatever else is in that water because it's just a mucky mess.

BERMAN: All right, Chad Myers for us, helping us understand visually what's going on.

Rosa Flores back in the Barker Reservoir right now, or right up next to it, to give us a sense of what's going on there. Rosa, the equipment in order, hard to work in these conditions.

What are you seeing?

FLORES: Yes. Our hard wire this time. Hopefully it works, John.

The story here this morning that we're hearing from residents is the confusion, because, as you know, there was a mandatory evacuation that was issued overnight. All the people in these neighborhoods were asleep and all of a sudden they were woken up by the neighbors telling them that there was a mandatory evacuation.

Now, if you look around, these people did see a lot of water. You can see a minivan in the middle of a green space and we don't know exactly the story behind that, but we know it's not supposed to be there. You can see the high water.

This Jeep has been going in and out of this neighborhood, getting cars out. We've seen people in canoes as well. And so there was a lot of confusion because they were afraid that that meant that either the Barker Reservoir was going to break, or that waters were going to rise very quickly.

So we called the Fort Bend Office of Emergency Management so get some clarity here. They say that this mandatory evacuation is not related to rapid rising waters. Now, that's important because people here were afraid. They thought that that was the case. And, again, you can see more of this activity today as people try to get into their homes.

This is the reason why the mandatory evacuation was issued, because the sheriff in this area was afraid that people were going to try to get into their homes. That was going to create a lot of safety issues because of live wires, and the chemicals that you were talking about just now in the water. That's why the mandatory evacuation was issued, because authorities here don't believe it's safe for people to go back into their homes.


BERMAN: Not yet. All right, Rosa Flores for us, right near the Barker Reservoir. Thanks

so much, Rosa.

We have a live picture right now from on top of Houston. You can see the flood waters still very much in play, rising in some places, receding in others. We'll take a much closer look at the situation is there.

[09:14:58] BERMAN: -- he was the mayor of Houston. He welcomed Katrina evacuees by the hundreds of thousands into his city. Now he himself, as you can see right here, pushed out of his own home. Former Mayor Bill White joins us next.


BERMAN: All right. Some live pictures right now over Houston. You can get a sense of how much water is still there. Muddy, thick water filled with all kinds of dangerous debris.

And don't forget, you know, so much of the city, most of the city in fact hasn't lost power yet so power lines down and electric currents still a major, major concern. Thousands of people still vulnerable and it could stay away for weeks.

Of course, the Buffalo bayou which you've heard so much about, filled with water, still flowing, more than flowing, still gushing. CNN's Alisyn Camerota right on the banks for us in Houston -- Alisyn.

[00:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: John, you and I spoke exactly 24 hours ago. So, I will give you my own time lapse report on what has transpired in the past day in terms of how the conditions here in Houston are just ever rapidly changing.

I was in this spot when I talked to you yesterday, but if I were in exactly this spot, I would have been chest deep in water. So, the water has receded and let me just walk you around for a minute because I'm about to be standing here on what is now, today, a sand dune.

There's not normally sand here. This is normally just a walkway in downtown Houston, but obviously the bayou has brought the sand all the way down here. You can see at what a clip these rapid flood waters are still moving.

Over to my left, what is normally a parking lot, is today, a duck pond. That -- all of that water is not supposed to be here but again, it will be receding if yesterday's conditions are any indication.

And then this, you can see, John, all of the garbage that is strew in this tree you can see the garbage bag up at the highest point of this tree that means that the water line was up there.

In fact, the locals here tell us that the trees in the distance, those much bigger trees that those, the tops of those trees were only peeking out over the water. That's how flooded this city was just a few days ago. Also, they say that this spot that I'm in is exactly what cities need, green space, park space, that can become a flood plain if the worst comes to pass.

I want to bring in right now General Russell Honore. He headed up all of the efforts needed during Katrina. He is here to help us figure out how Houston is going to come back from Harvey. So General, thanks so much for being here. What do you think is most pressing this morning?

LT. GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE: The search and rescue to go to every home. It's going to be 93 degrees today. The good news is the power grid in and around the community is still up.

CAMEROTA: In Houston it's still up, but we've seen it starting to fail in Beaumont.

HONORE: As it failed that's going to go immediately to a disaster because you don't have running water, air-conditioning, sewer working, now you got to bring in porta potties for all of the shelters that they have.

It makes life really miserable. The people who are hanging out at home lose the ability to communicate, can't watch television. It creates a lot of stress on people, but, the power grid I'm very concerned about and we have to do everything we can to keep it up.

And the biggest threat now is those two dams. If they can continue to release that water without a maximum failure, because if they fail, that could cut the power grid. That could be a threat to this greater metropolitan area.

But we have to speed up the deployment of troops. Every town needs National Guard troops. What you can do when you bring the federal troop in, they can continue with the search and rescue because the National Guard has authority to go in and work with the sheriffs in every town and help secure towns and get water and distribute food.

CAMEROTA: So, we are going to see all of that starting today. General Honore, thank you very much. So, John, obviously, the real work of the fire chief going door to door for these searches of people who stayed behind. That's starting this morning and obviously we will bring up updates as soon as we have that.

BERMAN: Alisyn, if we can have your camera man swing by. That urban debris dune is one of the most telling sights I've seen. That pile of sand from where the water has pushed it even as the waters recede.

That is what will be visible all over around the Texas coast in the days and weeks and that is what will have to be dealt with, Alisyn Camerota, remarkable images, thank you very, very much.

I have another picture I want to show you that's really illustrative of what's going on here. That man wading through the water, the former mayor of Houston, Bill White having to evacuate his home. He fled there with his briefcase filled with documents, carrying it out above the water and dragging some of his belongings behind. A remarkable image for how democratic this storm really is affecting everyone in that city.

The former mayor, Bill White, joins me now to share his story. Mayor White, thank you so much for being with us. If you can, just tell me what was going through your mind when this picture was taken with your brief case up above the water, dragging your belongings behind?

BILL WHITE, FORMER MAYOR OF HOUSTON: Well, it's a tough thing. If you're in a house where you've raised kids and lived with your wife for 18 years, and you see water bubbling up from underneath the floorboards, but, in front of me, there, what you don't see was a lot of neighbors who had gathered around who were worried about me, and they were there willing and trying to help.

So, I was able to move to a neighbor's so somebody looked at the photograph carefully and said well, you're smiling. I was smiling because of the neighbors who were applauding as I was being able to leave my house.

[09:25:14] BERMAN: I have to tell you in some ways I've never seen as many neighbors as we've seen in the Houston over the last five or six days, people just coming out to help wherever and however they can.

You know, Mayor White, it was 12 years ago when you were in your charge of Houston and you made the then controversial decision to welcome some 200,000 evacuees from Katrina, from the New Orleans area, from Louisiana.

At the time, the decision was controversial. You welcomed them into your city and there is a sense of karma now, you know, full loop here where you're now going through what they went through.

WHITE: Right. It's also just goes to show you something that I repeated every day numerous times, which was the policy of the city of Houston during that Katrina evacuation and reconstruction, which is we were simply trying to treat our neighbors the way we would want to be treated.

And by the way, I was a Sunday school teacher and that's not an original line. And I mention that because those of us along the gulf coast, or anywhere, whether it be the west coast, that has a fault line, you saw what happened with Hurricane Sandy.

No portion of the east coast is exempt. All Americans could be vulnerable to a natural disaster, and in that case, we want to treat our fellow Americans like we would want to be treated.

BERMAN: Is the water out of your own house now?

WHITE: Well, the water has receded from my house and downstairs, so the noise doesn't interfere with this interview. There's a bunch folks starting to tear out the walls and sheetrock of the house so we don't get mold. BERMAN: And that's going to be a problem that's going to face tens of thousands of people in Texas right now. Mayor, while I have you, I just want to get your take on what has been a subject of discussion now which was the fact that the current Mayor Sylvester Turner did not order any mandatory evacuations from the city of Houston. Hindsight now, looking back, do you think that was the right decision?

WHITE: Well, with hindsight, you have to look with hindsight back to what they knew at the time. The rain storms are much more difficult to predict than the trajectories of hurricanes 72 hours, 96 hours out.

For a city the size of Houston, you can't have an evacuation that begins 48 hours out. Otherwise people would be stuck on the freeways, but, it is clearly a warning to all of us that some of the flood plain maps we ought to look at very carefully.

It's a reminder to the community as was pointed out in the segment earlier that we need more green space like the island parkway project that I and others helped contribute to. And we need to do a better job of making sure that there's a targeted communication with people who are in h the direct flood plain about their risks.

BERMAN: You can learn from every disaster to prepare for the next one. Former Mayor Bill White, we're glad you're back in your house. We wish you the best of luck going forward and best of luck to those walls getting torn out. See a lot of that in the coming weeks. Thank you, Mayor.

WHITE: Take care.

BERMAN: All right. This disaster not just localized to Texas as well. Drivers as far away as New York may feel the impact before the bell this morning, the Colonial pipeline, which carries huge amounts of gas and other fuel from Houston to the east coast is shutting down.

Colonial says it is dealing with outages at its pumping points and lack of supply from refineries. The company has not given a timeline yet from when that pipeline will come back on line.

All right. Four mega shelters housing thousands of people still in Houston. Our Scott McLean is at one of them -- Scott.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John, the flood waters falling in many parts of Houston and so is the number of people taking shelter at the convention center. But ahead, I'll tell you why the shelter manager says that number may rise again.