Storm-hit Houston strains from influx of evacuees, crime outbreak

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Houston strained under the arrival of tens of thousands of people fleeing submerged homes and flooded roads on Wednesday, while some incidents of looting and armed robberies forced a midnight curfew.

City and regional officials showed signs of tension after working nonstop for a week or more on storm preparations and response, with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner bluntly telling the U.S. government to quickly approve aid for victims of Tropical Storm Harvey.

The storm that came ashore on Friday near Corpus Christi was the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years. It has killed at least 22 people and forced 30,000 people to flee to emergency shelters. Damage has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars.

The Houston City Council voted on Wednesday to allocate $20 million to storm recovery efforts, pulling the money from a rainy day fund, though that is an initial step and far more will be needed, officials said.

The move came as Houston police and other first responders transition from rescue operations and back to law enforcement, with Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg vowing to vigorously prosecute looters. At least 14 have been arrested for looting in the past two days, Ogg’s office said.

The surge in evacuees has been stressing resources in the fourth-largest U.S. city. As of Wednesday morning, Texas officials said close to 49,000 homes had suffered flood damage, with more than 1,000 destroyed. Thousands of other homes were threatened by two reservoirs swollen by as much as 52 inches (132 cm) of rain in some areas.

Officials ordered evacuations in several areas around levees or dams, but opted not to call for a mass evacuation, which could have led to chaos during the storm.

As Harvey began to dump rain and cause flooding, the city opened the George R. Brown Convention Center last weekend. It planned to house 5,000 people, operating with the help of American Red Cross volunteers and others. The center’s population quickly grew to double that capacity, as people streamed in from areas south and west of Houston.

Officials opened two more “mega” centers late Tuesday at the Toyota Center, home of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, and NRG Park, part of the complex that hosted the 2017 Super Bowl.

As police responded to scattered incidents of looting and armed robberies, the mayor ordered a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m., which residents respected. There were no arrests for curfew violations on Tuesday night, police said.

There were at least 20 missing people as of midday Tuesday in Houston, and a family of six, including four children, drowned inside a van in Houston during the storm, law enforcement officials said.

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