HOUSTON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Houston residents on Tuesday picked up the pace of their recovery from Hurricane Harvey, returning to schools and offices to help get the nation's fourth largest city and its vital shipping and oil industries back on track.
With floodwaters having receded and the Labor Day weekend behind them, many large Texas employers, universities and transit services reopened or began full schedules on Tuesday. But not all of the Houston-area's 6.6 million residents were in position to go back to work and instead were dealing with waterlogged houses and sodden possessions.
Daniel Semetko, 60, headed back to his job at a Houston energy company on Tuesday with mixed feelings.
"Ive got to get work done but I dont think itll be a productive day, he said. I have to be sensitive to people who lost their homes and are there because they need to take care of their jobs."
Semetko, who took in a family whose home flooded with some 8 inches (20 cm) of water, said the devastation was made fresh by the piles of debris lining streets on his commute to his office. Harvey first hit Corpus Christi in southern Texas on Aug. 25 and traveled up the coast, with the Houston area especially hit hard. The storm killed more than 60 people, dumped more than 50 inches (127 cm) of rain, damaged 203,000 homes and caused damaged estimated as high as $180 billion.
Oil refineries, pipelines and shipping channels in the nation's energy center have begun a gradual return to operations. Late on Monday, Royal Dutch Shell said it was preparing to restart a gasoline unit at its Deer Park, Texas, joint-venture refinery.
Exxon Mobil, Halliburton and Chevron were among the scores of Houston businesses reopening their doors to office workers. From Corpus Christi to Houston, universities were resuming classes.
Some places are still out of commission. ConocoPhillips closed its Houston headquarters through Sept. 11. BP's Houston offices suffered severe flooding and will be unavailable until December, Chief Executive Bob Dudley told Reuters. About 650 of BP's 6,000 staff in the area are homeless, he said.
Exxon said its Spring, Texas, campus was unaffected by the heavy rains but employees who need to work remotely are encouraged to do so, spokeswoman Suann Guthrie said.
Houston's school district, the nation's seventh largest, remains closed this week to repair flooded schools. The district has said about 75 of its 275 schools suffered major or extensive flood damage but other school districts in the area were open for class.
IRMA AT CATEGORY 5
As Houston picked up the pieces from the devastation of Harvey, a new hurricane threat appeared, this time headed for the Caribbean islands, the U.S. East Coast and Florida.
Hurricane Irma was upgraded to a powerful Category 5 storm and islands in its path braced for it. The storm was about 270 miles (440 km) east southeast of Antigua on Tuesday morning. Hurricane warnings were issued for Puerto Rico, Antigua, Montserrat, St. Eustatius, the British Virgin Island and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Port operations across the Houston area's oil and gas hub were resuming, although many still had restrictions on vessel draft, according to U.S. Coast Guard updates. Authorities were sending a vessel into Port Arthur on Tuesday to test currents that have prevented its reopening to ship traffic.
U.S. gasoline prices fell on Tuesday as traders priced in a continued restart of flooded Gulf Coast refineries. Benchmark U.S. gasoline futures fell by about 4 percent, returning to levels last seen before Harvey hit near Corpus Christi, Texas.
The lifting of an evacuation order in Crosby, about 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Houston, may help residents like Paul Mincey, 31, a tugboat engineer who has been kept out of 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 on Monday 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.
The question of how to pay for hurricane recovery became more urgent in Washington after Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Sunday increased his damage estimate to between $150 billion and $180 billion.
Republicans and Democrats returning to Washington on Tuesday after a month-long break will need to put differences aside in order to approve an aid package. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin 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. (Reporting by Gary McWilliams and Catherine Ngai; additional reporting by Ron Bousso.; Editing by Bill Trott)