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HOUSTON/LAKE CHARLES, La., Aug 30 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Harvey bore down on eastern Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday, bringing the catastrophic downpours that paralyzed the U.S. energy hub of Houston, where record rainfall drove tens of thousands of people from their homes.
The storm that first came ashore on Friday near Corpus Christi, Texas, as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years has killed at least 17 people and forced 30,000 people to flee to emergency shelters.
Damage has been estimated at tens of billions of dollars, making it one of the costliest U.S. natural disasters.
Clear skies in Houston on Wednesday brought relief to the fourth-largest U.S. city after five days of downpours, as Harvey headed northeast, drenching cities including Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Some Houston residents began to leave emergency shelters, apprehensive about discovering what remained of the flooded homes they had fled.
Handyman Mike Dickerson, 52, a handyman, carried a grocery bag of his possessions through the city's streets as he tried to figure out how to make it back to his home, which was waist-deep in water the last time he saw it.
"A lot of people are going back now because everything looks dry around here. But people who lost everything have nowhere to go and are still at the convention center," Dickerson said. "They are just telling everyone to call FEMA, tell them about the damage. They put a number up."
As Harvey churned out of the Houston area, it made landfall for a third time early on Wednesday, and was about 25 miles (40 km) west of Lake Charles, Louisiana, at 8 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) with winds up to 45 miles per hour (75 kph). It was expected to bring an additional 3 to 6 inches (7.5 to 15.2 cms) of rain to an area about 80 miles east of Houston as well as southwestern Louisiana, where some areas have already had more than 18 inches of rain.
The Beaumont-Port Arthur area east of Houston received "an incredible amount of rain overnight," said David Roth, meteorologist at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.
He said the observation point at the regional airport showed the rain total over the past 24 hours that "appears to exceed anything reported around Houston within 24 hours during Harvey's passage."
Traffic on emergency dispatch radios used by rescuers described people climbing atop their cars and houses in Port Arthur, while photos shared on social media showed floodwaters covering the floor of a city shelter. City officials asked anyone near by with boats to help join the rescue effort.
Harvey is projected to weaken as it moves inland to the northeast, the National Hurricane Center said.
It may take days for Houston's flood waters, which have spilled over dams and pushed levees to their limits, to recede, local officials said.
As of Wednesday morning, Texas officials said close to 49,000 homes had suffered flood damage, with more than 1,000 destroyed. Some 195,000 people have begun the process of seeking federal help, FEMA said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner imposed a curfew from 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. amid reports of looting, armed robberies and people impersonating police officers.
Texas is investigating hundreds of complaints of price gouging involving loaves of bread offered for $15, fuel for $100 a gallon and hotels raising room rates, the states attorney general said on Wednesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump visited Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday to survey damage from the first major natural disaster to test his crisis leadership and discuss the response with state officials.
"After witnessing first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!" Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday.
ECONOMIC COST UP TO $75 BILLION
Moody's Analytics is estimating the economic cost from Harvey for southeast Texas at $51 billion to $75 billion.
The nation's largest refinery, Valero Energy Corp's 335,000 barrel-per-day facility in Port Arthur was shut, said sources familiar with plant operations.
The storm has affected nearly one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity, sparking concerns about gasoline supply. The national average gasoline price rose to $2.404 a gallon, up six cents from a week ago, with higher spikes in Texas.
The unprecedented flooding has left scores of neighborhoods in chest-deep water and badly strained the dams and drainage systems that protect the low-lying Houston metropolitan area, which is home to more than 6 million people and has an economy about as large as Argentina's.
Harvey has drawn comparisons with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans 12 years ago, killing more than 1,800 people and causing an estimated $108 billion in damage.
Among the confirmed fatalities in Houston was Police Sergeant Steve Perez, a 34-year veteran of the force who drowned while attempting to drive to work on Sunday.
In Beaumont, northeast of Houston, a woman clutching her baby daughter was swept away in raging flooding. The baby was saved but the mother died, Beaumont police said.
In all, 17 people have died, according to government officials and the Houston Chronicle. Four volunteer rescuers also went missing after their boat was swept in a fast-moving current, local media reported.
U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and boats have rescued more than 4,000 people. Thousands of others have been taken to safety by police, rescue workers and citizen volunteers.
The National Hurricane Center on Tuesday afternoon said a record 51.88 inches (131.78 cm) of rain had fallen in Texas due to Harvey, a record for the continental United States.
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg, Gary McWilliams, Ernest Scheyder, Erwin Seba, Ruthy Munoz, Peter Henderson and Andy Sullivan in Houston, David Gaffen in New York, Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)