Hundreds of people were rescued - and hundreds more waded to safety themselves - as perhaps the heaviest rainfall in Houston's history deluged the city, sparking widespread flooding and creating anxiety for millions.
Reports said at least two people had been killed and several others were injured, as officials warned residents to clamber onto their roofs and wait to rescued, as up to 30 inches of rain fell in just 48 hours. Thousands of people were evacuated to makeshift community shelters, while most hunkered inside their homes, stuck to their cellphones and the television news, with a watchful eye to the sky.
Heavy rain continues to fall on Houston and nearby Galveston, with Hurricane Harvey all but stalled over land and not expected to meander off the middle Texas coast until late on Monday. The National Hurricane Centre said it would continue to pose a threat to coastal communities into later in the week.
“The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before. Catastrophic flooding is now underway and expected to continue for days,” the National Weather Service said on Twitter.
On the news channels, and on the streets of Houston, discussions, sometimes with an edge, were already underway as to whether the city should have been evacuated before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas’s southeast coat. The State’s governor was in favour of such a move, the city’s mayor was against.
“You can’t just drop six million people on the road,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, defending his decision. “If you think this is bad, you imagine an evacuation.”
In truth, such discussions will wait for the days ahead. On Sunday, the true focus was on the flooded homes and streets of America’s fourth largest city, where police and emergency teams were using boats and high-clearance vehicles to reach those who were stranded.
The authorities asked for patience but said they would answer every emergency call. Local media interviewed scores of people as they were brought off rescue boats and were frequently too emotional to say more than a few words.
“The water was right at our door,” said Jasmine Melendez, a 23-year-old Houston mother of three, including a week-old infant, told the Associated Press “We were also worried about the kids, especially the baby.”
The storm made landfall on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of up to 130mph, coming ashore in Rockport, 30 miles from Corpus Christi, and then slowing in speed as it moved inland. By Sunday night, the storm was moving very slowly but still throwing out huge amounts of water.
Houston is used to flooding. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison devastated the area. There was also massive flooding in 2008 and 2015.
But experts said this storm may break all the records, and deliver up to 50 inches of water in a week - the same amount the city usually receives in a year.
“What we’re seeing is the most devastating flood event in Houston’s recorded history. We’re seeing levels of rainfall that are unprecedented,” said Steve Bowen, chief meteorologist at insurance firm Aon Benfield.
For the people of Houston, what has made the events all the more anxiety-inducing is that the weather has changed almost every few hours, from periods of dryness and sunshine, to torrential rain.
“Two hours ago, these streets right here were under two feet of water,” said Dustin Jesudason, as he and his partner, Esther Maldonado, was taking a walk to break the “cabin fever” after hours cooped up inside their homes in the Montrose neighbourhood of the city, close to the centre. “The is the problem - it can came back so quickly.”
At the nearby George’s bar, locals were making the most of a lull in the weather to have a drink and remember some previous floods.
“This is worse that Alison,” John Ryland, a consultant, told The Independent. “This is the worst I’ve seen.”
Another customer, Michael Copenhaver, said he had lived in Houston his entire life and not witnessed as much rainfall as he had in the past two days. “This was the most,” he said.
In Rosenberg, a city about 25 miles southwest of Houston, police were forced to close off a key artery into the city after almost the entire breadth of the motorway disappeared into a giant sinkhole.
A video posted by local officers to social media warned people to stay away, with water gushing under and through the collapsed road.
Disaster appeared to have struck an old people's home in Dickinson, 33 miles southeast of Houston, where residents were unable to evacuate themselves as waist-high floodwater filled the building.
But after an image of the stricken pensioners went viral on social media, authorities pushed them up to the top of the priority list and they were airlifted to safety by the National Guard.
Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental and William P Hobby airports cancelled all commercial flights. The Ben Taub Hospital in Houston’s Medical Centre was evacuated. An American Red Cross emergency shelter was forced to shut due to flooding and the group opened two more.
Houston’s schools were scheduled to close for the week, the school district said on Twitter. ConocoPhillips will close on Monday and Tuesday, the company said.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said 1,800 members of the military would help with the statewide cleanup. A further 1,000 people were conducting search-and-rescue operations, and several other states were sending emergency personnel, according to the AP.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies