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Explosions rock storm-hit chemical plant as Harvey's wrath moves inland

Patrick Short surveys the damage as he returns to Concord Bridge through flooding in Houston, Aug. 30, 2017. Waters began to recede in parts of flood-ravaged Houston on Wednesday as Tropical Storm Harvey's wrath shifted east. Barbara Davidson / The New York Times

CROSBY, Texas - The remnants of Hurricane Harvey carried its wrath up the Mississippi Delta on Thursday, but not before hammering the Gulf Coast with more punishing cloudbursts and growing threats that included explosions at a crippled chemical plant and a collapse of the drinking water system in a Texas city.

Even as Houston saw signs of relief in the blue sky and slowly draining waters, the storm's fury was far from over to the east and beyond - with flash flood watches posted as far away as southern Ohio. The National Weather Service said 4 inches of rain was expected to soak parts of Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee with up to 10 inches possible in some isolated areas in western Tennessee.

In Crosby, Texas, on the northeast outskirts of Houston, two blasts rocked a chemical plant left without power by floodwaters. And the French operator of the plant warned that more explosions could occur as rising temperatures make the compounds inside volatile and dangerous.

"A threat of additional explosion remains," said a statement from Arkema.

Authorities on Wednesday set up an evacuation zone in a 1.5-mile radius from the plant. But the risks could also could be carried by the winds. One Harris County police deputy was hospitalized after inhaling fumes from the plant, and nine others sought medical care as a precaution, according to a tweet by the county sheriff's office.

The conditions of the deputy was not immediately known. The plant manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used in everything from pharmaceuticals to construction materials such as counter tops and pipes. But the stores must remain cold otherwise it can combust.

An even greater potential dilemma faced the city of Beaumont near the Louisiana border after the water system pumps failed after being swamped by spillover from the swollen Neches River. A statement from city officials said a secondary water source from nearby wells was also lost.

To the east - in the town of Orange, Texas - the water rose so high and so fast that people had to rush from their homes.

"It was unbelievable," said Robin Clark, who was ferried, along with her mother and three dogs, out of her home on a volunteer's boat.

Dozens of rescued residents stood in a pelting rain outside a Market Basket supermarket waiting for what was next.

"We don't know what's going to happen," said Keeleigh Amodeo, 15, who was waiting with her sister and mother.

She and others had been told they would be getting on a bus and be taken to a shelter. Where? No one knew. And the buses had failed to show yet. Several people noted that another shelter in town had to be evacuated after it was flooded.

Orange and other small West Texas communities were rendered islands as Harvey dumped record amounts of rain. Interstate 10, which runs close by, was closed to everyone but volunteers in pickup trucks with boats and emergency personnel. Two to three feet of water covered parts of the interstate.

Particularly hard-hit was the coastal city of Port Arthur, which local officials said is now largely underwater. Officials estimated that water had entered a third of the city's buildings.

Max Bowl, a bowling alley and arcade, had become a way station for residents fleeing the rising water - a dry place with food, water and donated clothing. Getting to the building required a boat on one side to navigate the deep waters. On the other, all it took was a good pair of boots to wade through ankle-deep water.

Overhead, Coast Guard and military helicopters flew past.

"It's been chaotic, to say the least," said Mason Simmons, a mechanical engineering student at Lamar University, standing with a group of friends and family on the curb of Max Bowl. They were working as volunteers to help people off boats or out of pickup trucks.

Simmons said he's seen hundreds of people in the roughly six hours he'd been at the bowling alley. Someone nearby said one boat rescued 60 people.

"I think the most incredible part is it's been community organized, really," he said. "There's no one person leading anything. We're just doing what we can."

Inside Max Bowl, some people slept at the edge of bowling lanes. Luggage and plastic bags filled with clothing competed for space with racks holding bowling balls.

In nearby Beaumont, roads flooded and businesses shuttered as large parking lots were eerily empty. The carpet of a fifth-floor Hampton Inn was soggy after strong winds blasted rain through the inner workings of the room's air conditioner Tuesday evening.

Fast-food restaurants and other eateries were closed around the hotel, leaving evacuees wet, stranded and hungry.

Hotel staff laid out impromptu ingredients of the classic Texas dish of Frito pie: chili, ground beef, Fritos and tortilla chips, canned cheese and jalapeños, sending its guests back to their rooms full and earning gratitude the next morning.

A Hampton Inn employee confirmed Wednesday the chili was served without beans, a faithful rendering of the traditional Texas recipe.

New Orleans officials on Wednesday expressed relief that the city did not land in Hurricane Harvey's destructive path and encouraged residents to support those impacted by the storm in Texas.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted that Houston welcomed many displaced New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"This week marked the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina," Landrieu said. "No city was more welcoming for the citizens of New Orleans than the people of Houston. . . . This is our opportunity to begin to pay it forward and support those who stood by us."

Landrieu said that, since Katrina, the city had erected among the world's largest storm surge barriers and most powerful pumping stations. Though pumps had failed in days before Harvey made landfall, city officials said 93 percent of the city's drainage pumps are now operable.

Officials announced that the 2017 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff game, which was set to take place in Houston and feature the Louisiana State University and Brigham Young University football teams, will instead be held this Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Proceeds from tickets, concessions and parking will still go to organizers in Texas, said Stephen Perry, chief executive of New Orleans's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're not doing this for us. We're doing this for Texas," Perry said.

But the state of Louisiana did not escape Harvey's deluge completely. Mike Steele, communications director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said 368 evacuees are being sheltered in the Lake Charles area, with that number growing as people are brought in from communities on the Texas-Louisiana border.

Officials opened Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles to handle the overflow of people displaced from their homes, including Texas residents.

State officials said Louisiana has offered to provide additional shelter space to Texas and is prepared to take on as many as 3,400 Texans in Shreveport.

Louisiana residents themselves were suffering from power outages, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, D, said hundreds of roads across the state were flooded

"Southwest Louisiana, for now, remains the center of gravity as it relates to this storm in Louisiana," Edwards said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. "I would again remind people in Louisiana that we have another 24 hours or so before this storm is out of our state."

Authors Information: Alex Horton is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post and a former Army infantryman.

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