Latest: Blasts at Texas chemical plant produce 'incredibly dangerous' plume

Latest: Blasts at Texas chemical plant produce 'incredibly dangerous' plume
Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey cover streets in Port Arthur, Texas, today.

Update 4.50pm: Fires and two explosions have rocked a flooded chemical plant in Texas, sending up a plume that federal authorities described as "incredibly dangerous" and adding a potential new hazard to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

The blasts at the Arkema plant, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north-east of Houston, also ignited a 30ft to 40ft flame.

The French operator of the plant said up to eight more chemical containers could burn and explode.

Local officials insisted that the explosion produced no toxins.

The blasts happened as floodwaters from days of relentless rain began to recede and the threat of major dangers from the storm shifted to a region near the Texas-Louisiana line.

Fire authorities said the blasts were small and that some deputies suffered irritated eyes from the smoke, but they emphasised that the materials that caught fire shortly after midnight were not toxic.

Even so, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality urged people in the area to stay indoors with their windows closed and air conditioners running, and to restrict physical activity.

Particles from smoke and chemicals can affect people with heart and lung problems.

At a news conference in Washington, DC, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, told reporters that the plume was hazardous.

In the largely rural area surrounding the plant, officials said they went door to door to explain the situation and called on residents to evacuate, but leaving was not mandatory.

The plant in Crosby had lost power after the storm, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as temperatures rise.

Arkema had shut down the plant before Harvey made landfall.

Update - 4.37pm: Fires and two explosions have rocked a chemical plant in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and its devastating floods as the threat of major dangers from the storm centred near the Texas-Louisiana line.

Despite a 30ft to 40ft flame and black smoke at the plant, officials insisted the community was not in danger.

Fire authorities said the blasts at the Arkema plant, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north-east of Houston, were small and that some deputies suffered irritated eyes from the smoke, but they emphasised that the materials that caught fire shortly after midnight were not toxic.

In the largely rural area surrounding the plant, officials said they had gone door to door to explain the situation and call on residents to evacuate, but leaving was not mandatory.

The plant in Crosby had lost power after the storm, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as temperatures rise.

Evacuees from Tropical Storm Harvey fill the Max Bowl, as others continue to pour in for shelter at the business in Port Arthur, Texas, today.
Evacuees from Tropical Storm Harvey fill the Max Bowl, as others continue to pour in for shelter at the business in Port Arthur, Texas, today.

Arkema had shut down the plant before Harvey made landfall.

In Houston, the fire department said it would begin a street-by-street search of thousands of flooded homes, and assistant fire chief Richard Mann said that would ensure "no people were left behind".

Further east, Beaumont and Port Arthur struggled with rising water after being pounded with what remained of the weakening storm.

The confirmed death toll climbed to at least 31, including six family members - four of them children - whose bodies were pulled on Wednesday from a van that had been swept off a Houston bridge into a bayou.

Beaumont and Port Arthur worked to evacuate residents.

Port Arthur found itself increasingly isolated as floodwaters swamped most major roads out of the city.

More than 500 people - along with dozens of dogs, cats, a lizard and a monkey - took shelter at the Max Bowl bowling alley, general manager Jeff Tolliver said.

"The monkey was a little surprising, but we're trying to help," he said.

Floodwaters also toppled two oil storage tanks in south Texas, spilling almost 30,000 gallons (114,000 litres) of crude.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the spilled oil was recovered.

More damage to the oil industry infrastructure is expected to emerge as floodwaters recede.

Update 11.40am: Two explosions have been reported at a chemical plant in Texas that lost power amid flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

A statement from Arkema said the Harris County Emergency Operations Centre reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant early on Thursday, according to The Houston Chronicle.

In a tweet, the Harris County Sheriff's Office said a deputy was taken to hospital after inhaling fumes.

Nine other deputies drove themselves to hospital as a precaution, the paper reported.

A spokeswoman for the plant in Crosby said late on Wednesday that the flooded facility had lost power and backup generators amid flooding, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises.

Earlier: A flooded chemical plant in a small town outside Houston is poised to explode as the scope of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey came into sharper focus.

The death toll climbed to at least 31, and the fire department in Houston began searching thousands of flooded homes to ensure "no people were left behind".

Floodwaters from the San Jacinto River inundate homes in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Kingwood. Picture: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP
Floodwaters from the San Jacinto River inundate homes in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Kingwood. Picture: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP

Harvey was downgraded to a tropical depression and the floodwaters started dropping across much of the Houston area, but major dangers remained for the US Gulf Coast area.

While conditions in the nation's fourth-largest city appeared to improve, another crisis related to Harvey emerged at a chemical plant about 25 miles away.

A spokeswoman for the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, said the flooded facility had lost power and backup generators, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises.

"The fire will happen. It will resemble a gasoline fire. It will be explosive and intense in nature," said Janet Smith, spokeswoman for the French company.

The last of the plant's employees evacuated on Tuesday and residents within 1.5 miles were told to leave.

Arkema submitted a plan to the government in 2014 outlining a worst-case scenario that said potentially 1.1 million residents could be affected by such an event over a distance of 23 miles, according to information compiled by a non-profit group.

But the company said on Wednesday that a worst-case scenario was "very unlikely".

The confirmed death toll from Harvey climbed to 31, including six family members - four of them children - whose bodies were pulled on Wednesday from a van that had been swept off a Houston bridge into a bayou.

"Unfortunately, it seems that our worst thoughts are being realised," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said after the van that disappeared over the weekend was found in 10 feet of muddy water.

As the water receded, Houston's fire department said it would begin a block-by-block search today of thousands of flooded homes.

Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann said the searches were to ensure "no people were left behind".

Forecasters downgraded Harvey to a tropical depression late on Wednesday from a tropical storm but it still has lots of rain and potential damage to spread, with 4ins to 8ins forecast from the Louisiana-Texas line into Tennessee and Kentucky through to Friday.

For much of the Houston area, forecasters said the rain is pretty much over.

"We have good news," said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District. "The water levels are going down."

Houston's two major airports were up and running again on Wednesday. Officials said they were resuming limited bus and light rail service as well as rubbish collection.

But many thousands of Houston-area homes are under water and could stay that way for days or weeks, and Mr Lindner warned that properties near at least one swollen bayou could still get flooded.

Officials said 911 centres in the Houston area are getting more than 1,000 calls an hour from people seeking help.

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