Plume from flood-hit Texas chemical plant 'incredibly dangerous' after explosions

The plume caused by two explosions at the flood-hit Arkema SA chemical plant in Crosby, Tex., is “incredibly dangerous,” an emergency official said on Thursday.

“Right now, the question is whether or not we can actually get in and assess the full scale of the impact from an environmental standpoint to an infrastructure stand point,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long said at a news briefing.

“By all means, yes, the plume is incredibly dangerous.”

STORM-HARVEY/ARKEMA

A police officer lays down a safety flare while blocking the road leading to the flood-damaged Arkema SA plant, where explosions were reported early Thursday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The company that owns the plant confirmed the incident earlier and added there was a risk of further explosions.

Arkema Inc. said in a statement on its website that the Harris County Emergency Operations Center reported the explosions and black smoke coming from the plant at about 2 a.m.

The company evacuated remaining workers at the damaged plant on Tuesday, and the county ordered the evacuation of residents within a 2.4-kilometre radius of the plant, which makes organic peroxides used in the production of plastic resins, polystyrene, paints and other products.

Organic peroxides can become unstable and explode if they aren’t properly refrigerated. Floodwaters that followed the deluge from tropical storm Harvey knocked out power to the plant and then shut down backup generators.

“We want local residents to be aware that the product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosion remains,” Arkema said in a statement.

Harvey Chemical Plant

The Arkema Inc. chemical plant is seen on Wednesday, flooded from tropical storm Harvey, in Crosby, Tex., 40 kilometres northeast of Houston. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

“Please do not return to the area within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so,” it added.

In a tweet, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said a deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes. Nine other deputies drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution, the office said.

There will be “no way to prevent” an explosion, Arkema chief executive Rich Rowe said on Wednesday.

“As the temperature rises, the natural state of these materials will decompose. A white smoke will result, and that will catch fire,” Smith said. “So the fire is imminent.”

The company shut down the Crosby site, 40 kilometres northeast of Houston, before Harvey made landfall last week as a hurricane, but a crew of 11 had stayed behind That group was told to evacuate Tuesday after the plant lost power.

STORM-HARVEY/

Two rescuers from U.S. Navy Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 are lowered to a house after tropical storm Harvey flooded a neighbourhood in Beaumont, Tex. on Wednesday. (Reuters)

Weakened storm

Early Thursday, tropical depression Harvey started to weaken as it moved inland over Louisiana.

The storm has killed at least 31 people and forced 32,000 people into shelters since coming ashore on Friday near Rockport, Tex., on the Gulf of Mexico Coast as the most powerful hurricane to hit the state in half a century.

The Houston Fire Department will begin a block-by-block effort on Thursday to rescue stranded survivors and recover bodies, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann told reporters.

Nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana and Texas were without power on Thursday, utilities reported.

A higher number of almost 300,000 was reported late Thursday during a media briefing. FEMA’s Brock Long said new outages will be reported as floodwaters recede and power companies work to take grids down to fix lines.

Long said power could be out for “multiple days” in some areas due to the flood damage.

On Thursday Harvey is forecast to move northeast through Louisiana into Mississippi, dumping 10 to 20 centimetres of rain, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Flood watches and warnings extend from the Texas-Louisiana coast into Kentucky.

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Residents wade with their belongings through flood waters brought by Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston on Wednesday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

“Our whole city is under water,” said Port Arthur, Texas, Mayor Derrick Foreman in a social media post where he also broadcast live video of floodwaters filling his home in the city of 55,000 people, about 160 kilometres east of Houston.

Seventy-five centimetres (nearly 30 inches) of rain hit the Port Arthur area, the National Weather Service said.

Beaumont loses water supply

Beaumont, near Port Arthur, said it had lost its water supply due to flood damage to its main pumping station and residents in the city of about 120,000 people would lose water pressure from Thursday morning.

Fort Bend County ordered a mandatory evacuation on Thursday for areas near the Barker Reservoir, which was threatening to flood. The reservoir is about 32 kilometres west from Houston. The county did not say how many people would be affected by the evacuation order.

Clear skies in Houston on Wednesday brought relief to the energy hub and fourth-largest U.S. city after five days of catastrophic downpours. The first flight out of Houston since the storm hit boarded on Wednesday evening.

Police in Harris County, home to Houston, said 17 people remained missing.

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