Storm-battered Texans faced a worrying new threat as potentially harmful smoke spewed from a swamped chemical plant near Houston on Thursday, as Harvey’s floodwaters began to recede in America’s fourth-largest city.
Almost a week after the Category Four hurricane smashed into the US Gulf Coast, officials and volunteers were still scrambling to reach victims of the unprecedented flooding which has left at least 33 people dead and caused tens of billions of dollars of damage.
Vice President Mike Pence flew into Texas accompanied by top cabinet officials to assess damage from the devastating storm and meet with victims, with the situation still dire in towns east of Houston such as Beaumont and Port Arthur.
As flooding began to ease in Houston itself, bringing some relief to its 2.3 million residents, a series of overnight explosions sent a plume of toxic smoke spewing from a flooded chemical plant in Crosby, a town of around 3,000 people some 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of the city.
Officials ordered residents living within 1.5 miles (three kilometers) of the facility to evacuate.
Brock Long, the head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the plume of fumes was “incredibly dangerous.”
But the US Environmental Protection Agency said it was reviewing data from an aircraft that surveyed the scene and had no indication that dangerous amounts of toxic materials have been released.
“This information indicates that there are no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time,” it said.
Fifteen sheriff’s deputies who responded to the fire were briefly hospitalized and later released.
Company officials sought to tamp down the threat, while saying they do expect more fires at the facility owned by the French company Arkema.
“We believe along with the local authorities that we’ve moved everyone out of harm’s way, and that no one is in danger based on the fire that we expect,” Richard Rennard, a senior Arkema executive, told a news conference.
The overnight fire was triggered after a container of organic peroxides could no longer be refrigerated due to flooding that cut off electricity and flooded emergency generators.
The chemical plant makes compounds with many commercial uses, including plastics, pharmaceuticals and construction materials—compounds that can combust if not cooled to the proper temperatures.
Rennard said eight other containers of organic peroxides were in danger of catching fire.
“We fully expect that the other eight containers will do the same thing,” he said.
Rennard encouraged anyone who has been exposed to the smoke to seek medical advice, while stressing: “It’s not a chemical release that’s happening... What we have is a fire.”
The company said organic peroxides could cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation as well as nausea, drowsiness or dizziness, and urged nearby residents to turn off their air conditioners to avoid possible smoke exposure.
“The smoke is noxious. Toxicity is a relative thing,” Rennard said, declining to elaborate.