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Weather & Natural Disasters

Texas moves toward post-Harvey recovery as evacuation order lifted near chemical plant

Screengrab of a video taken of a fire at the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, September 1, 2017.

Texas on Monday edged toward recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey as shipping
channels, oil pipelines and refineries restarted some operations and authorities lifted an evacuation order for the area around a once-burning chemical plant.

Port operations across the U.S. Gulf Coast oil and gas hub were resuming, although many still had restrictions on vessel draft, according to U.S. Coast Guard updates.

U.S. gasoline prices fell in expectation that the area can get back on its feet after Harvey wrought a path of destruction stretching for more than 300 miles (480 km), killing an estimated 50 people and displacing more than 1 million.

Benchmark U.S. gasoline futures fell by more than 3 percent on Monday.

The Coast Guard allowed some barge traffic to enter Port Arthur, Texas, home of the country's largest oil refinery, and is considering allowing ships to enter on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

Flooding led to a series of fires at the Arkema SA chemical plant in Crosby, a town of about 2,300 people some 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Houston. Containers of the chemicals, which are unstable if not kept refrigerated, started igniting on Thursday after power outages cut off cooling systems.

Local firefighters under the watch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality performed a controlled burn of the organic peroxides on Sunday in order to eliminate any vestiges and reduce the danger.

On Monday, the company said the Crosby Fire Department had lifted a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) evacuation zone around the plant, allowing neighbors to return to their homes, and that the company had opened an assistance center to help those affected find temporary housing.

The lifting of the order may help residents like Paul Mincey, a 31-year-old tugboat engineer who has been kept out the ranch home he shares with his girlfriend, return to normal.

"It could be full of snakes for all we know. We have no idea what's in there," Mincey said from aboard a tugboat in the Houston Ship Channel, which he said was polluted by floating railroad ties, trees and trash strewn by the storm.

Like others forced from the evacuation zone, Mincey said he was eager to assess water damage from the storm and begin repairs while hoping for financial aid to deal with property damage.

Another Hurricane Brewing

As the recovery from Harvey picked up speed, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and Florida Governor Rick Scott each declared a state of emergency in preparation for the arrival of Irma, a dangerous Category 4 hurricane.

Irma is set to hit the U.S. territory on Wednesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Now packing 130 mph (215 kph) winds, the storm also threatens Florida and the U.S. East Coast, said the NHC, which cautioned that it was still too early to forecast the storm's exact path or what effects it might have on the continental United States.

Current models do not show Irma entering the Gulf of Mexico, where Harvey dealt a major blow to the most important energy hub in the United States, taking up to one-fourth of the country's oil refining capacity offline and driving up fuel prices.

Colonial Pipeline, the largest American fuel system, said on Monday it would restart a segment of its pipeline in Texas that had been cut off, enabling it to restore the flow of distillates such as diesel fuel from Texas to New Jersey.

The gasoline pipeline was due to resume operations on Tuesday, the company said.

Most ports in Texas were open on Monday, some with restrictions on traffic and vessel size, said Colonel Lars Zetterstrom, head of the Army Corps of Engineers' regional office in Galveston.

How to pay?

The question of how to pay for hurricane recovery was consuming Washington after Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Sunday increased his damage estimate to between $150 billion and $180 billion.

Some 190,000 homes were damaged and another 13,500 destroyed, the Texas Department of Public Safety said on Monday.

At least 33,000 people sought refuge in Texas shelters overnight, with another 1,300 doing so in Louisiana, the American Red Cross said.

Republicans and Democrats returning to Washington after a month-long break will need to put differences aside in order to approve an aid package. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday challenged Congress to raise the government's debt limit in order to free up relief spending.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Wednesday on $7.85 billion in emergency relief funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration and plans another vote later this month on a separate $6.7 billion sought by President Donald Trump.

In one indication of funding needs, the Texas Department of Public Safety on Monday estimated damage to public property at $382.3 million.