By Ruthy Munoz and Gary McWilliams
Houston: Emergency crews raced to pull people from cars and homes as floodwaters rose across south-east Texas on Sunday as Tropical Storm Harvey pounded the region.
Harvey came ashore late on Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years and has killed at least two people.
The death toll is expected to rise as the storm lashes the US state for days, triggering more floods, tidal surges and tornadoes.
Harvey is forecast to arc slowly toward Houston through to Wednesday. The centre of the storm is still 201.17 kilometres south-west of the fourth most populous city in the United States.
Emergency services told people to climb onto the roofs of their houses rather than into their attics to escape rapidly rising waters. Authorities warned the city’s more than two million residents not to leave flooded homes because many of the city’s roads were under water.
The Twitter account of the sheriff of Harris County, which includes most of Houston, was inundated with rescue requests.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his deputies had responded to unconfirmed reports of a deceased woman and child inside a submerged vehicle on a highway near Houston.
Another resident described seeing a woman’s body floating in the streets during a flash flood in west Houston. The flood was several feet high, the resident told local TV station abc13.
Rescue teams were struggling to deal with requests for help.
“All agencies care but everyone simply operating at maximum capacity,” he tweeted at one point.
Despite the stretched resources, US President Donald Trump – facing the first big natural disaster of his term – said rescue efforts were going well.
Mr Trump signed a disaster proclamation on Friday, triggering federal relief efforts.
“Great coordination between agencies at all levels of government,” he tweeted. “Continuing rains and flash floods are being dealt with. Thousands rescued.
“Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen. Good news is that we have great talent on the ground.”
He said he would visit the area as soon as he could do so without causing more disruption.
The disaster is far from over for residents of Houston and other areas in the path of the storm. Local officials continued to warn residents about the risk of flash flooding and tornadoes.
“The flooding in Houston is dramatic,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in an interview on Fox News on Sunday.
“We are working to save lives and to keep as many people safe as possible.”
Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport cancelled all inbound and outbound flights early on Sunday due to standing water on the runway. The airport said its arrivals area was flooded, and the National Weather Service issued a flash flood alert for the surrounding area.
The second confirmed fatality from Harvey came on Saturday evening when an elderly woman drowned attempting to drive through flooded streets in west Houston, said Sergeant Colin Howard, of the Houston police department.
Houston police officials said officers were evacuating two flooded apartment complexes.
Authorities have urged residents to stay off the streets of cities right across south-east Texas as rain fell at up to 12.7 centimetres an hour.
“There are a number of stranded people on our streets, calling 911, exhausting needed resources. You can help by staying off the streets,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Twitter.
On Friday night, a man died in a house fire in the town of Rockport, 48 kilometres north of the city of Corpus Christi. Another dozen people in the area suffered injuries including broken bones, another official said.
Energy production in the heart of the country’s oil and gas industry was disrupted as several refineries and offshore platforms closed down, triggering a rise in gasoline prices.
Exxon Mobil said on Sunday it was shutting down the second largest refinery in the United States at Baytown in Texas.
More than 45 per cent of the country’s refining capacity is along the US Gulf Coast, and nearly a fifth of the nation’s crude oil is produced offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gov. Abbott said on Sunday he expected disruption to the energy industry to last one or two weeks.
Harvey slammed into Texas as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 210 kilometres per hour, making it the strongest storm to hit the state since 1961.
The storm ripped off roofs, destroyed buildings, flooded coastal towns and had cut off power to nearly 230,000 people in Texas as of Saturday night.
Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday because its winds had slowed, but authorities issued stark warnings on the threat posed by days of torrential rain.
“This rain will lead to a prolonged, dangerous, and potentially catastrophic flooding event well into next week,” the National Weather Service said.
‘It was terrible’
Gov. Abbott said 1,800 members of the military would help with the statewide cleanup. Another 1,000 people were conduct search-and-rescue operations.
The coastal town of Rockport took a direct hit from the storm, leaving streets flooded and strewn with power lines and debris on Saturday.
A dozen recreational vehicles were flipped over on a sales lot, one blown into the middle of the street. A convoy of military vehicles arrived in the Rockport area on Saturday to help in the recovery efforts, and town officials announced an overnight curfew for residents.
“It was terrible,” said resident Joel Valdez. The storm ripped part of the roof from his trailer home at around 4am, he said as he sat in a Jeep with windows smashed by the storm.
“I could feel the whole house move.”
Before the storm hit, Rockport’s mayor told anyone staying behind to write their names on their arms for identification in case of death or injury.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it was forced to evacuate about 4,500 inmates from three state prisons near the Brazos River because of rising water.
The US Coast Guard said it had rescued 20 people from distressed vessels on Saturday, and was monitoring two Carnival Corp cruise ships carrying thousands of people stranded in the US Gulf of Mexico.
“This is going to be a landmark event,” said Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates the response to major disasters.
The size and strength of Harvey dredged up memories of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that made a direct hit on New Orleans as a Category 3 storm, causing levees and flood walls to fail in dozens of places.