HOUSTON — The full extent of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath started to come into chilling focus Sunday in Houston and across much of central Texas, as rain measured in feet instead of inches overwhelmed lakes, rivers and bayous, leaving several people dead and thousands displaced in a weather disaster described as “beyond anything experienced.”

Across the nation’s fourth-largest city and suburbs many miles away, Harvey left families scrambling to get out of their fast-flooding homes. Rescuers — in many cases neighbors helping neighbors — in fishing boats, huge dump trucks and even front-end loaders battled driving rains to move people to shelter. Some used inflatable toys to ferry their families out of inundated neighborhoods, wading through chest-deep water on foot while the region was under near-constant tornado watches.

With some areas bracing for 50 or more inches of rain — more rainfall than many Texas towns get in a year — the National Weather Service warned that “catastrophic” flooding was expected to worsen and could be “unprecedented.”

“This disaster’s going to be a landmark event,” said Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA said federal agencies had more than 5,000 employees working in Texas, and the White House said President Donald Trump plans to visit flood-wracked areas of the state on Tuesday.

Officials said Houston, a major center for the nation’s energy industry, had suffered billions of dollars in damage and would take years to fully recover. Oil and gas companies shut down about a quarter of oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Harvey’s sheer size also became apparent Sunday as heavy rains and flooding were reported as far away as Austin and even Dallas. What started with a direct impact on the tiny coastal town of Rockport on Friday night turned into a weather disaster affecting thousands of square miles and millions of people.

Rescuers had to give top priority to life-and-death situations, leaving many affected families to fend for themselves.

Tom Bartlett and Steven Craig pulled a rowboat on a rope through chest-deep water for a mile to rescue Bartlett’s mother from her home in west Houston. It took them 45 minutes to reach the house. Inside, the water was halfway up the walls.

Marie Bartlett, 88, waited in her bedroom upstairs.

“When I was younger, I used to wish I had a daughter, but I have the best son in the world,” she said. “In my 40 years here, I’ve never seen the water this high.”

It was not clear how many people were plucked from the floodwaters. Up to 1,200 people had to be rescued in Galveston County alone, said Mark Henry, the county judge, the county’s top administrative post.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and other officials pleaded with residents to “shelter in place” and to make calls to overwhelmed 911 operators only in life-threatening emergencies. They urged people to climb to their roofs to await shelter if water was rising inside their homes.

The Texas National Guard was deployed across the state.

The deteriorating situation provoked questions about the conflicting advice given by the governor and Houston leaders before the hurricane. Gov. Greg Abbott urged people to flee from Harvey’s path, but the Houston mayor issued no evacuation orders and told everyone to stay home.

The governor refused to point fingers on Sunday.

“Now is not the time to second-guess the decisions that were made,” Abbott, a Republican, said at a press conference.

The mayor, a Democrat, defended his decision, saying there was no way to know which parts of the city were most vulnerable.

“If you think the situation right now is bad, and you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare,” Turner said, citing the risks of sending the city’s 2.3 million inhabitants onto the highways at the same time.

Trump praised the way the city’s officials were handling the flood, tweeting that the “Good news is that we have great talent on the ground.”

The weather service said Sunday that at least five people had been reported dead due to Harvey. Local officials have confirmed that at least three people have died as a result of the storm, and officials in the hardest-hit counties expect that as the waters recede the number of fatalities will rise.

The first reported death came Saturday in Rockport. Officials said one person died in a house fire during the storm.

About 9:15 p.m. Saturday, rescue workers in southwest Houston recovered the body of a woman believed to have driven her car into floodwaters before attempting to escape on foot. Just two minutes earlier, police about 40 miles southeast in La Marque found the body of a 52-year-old homeless man in a Walmart parking lot where there had been high water.

“No city can handle these kind of deluges. In our case, 23 inches overnight,” La Marque Mayor Bobby Hocking said Sunday.

As it scrambled to open shelters across Texas, the Red Cross command center in Houston was “physically isolated” because of floodwaters, said Paul Carden, district director of Red Cross activities in south Texas.

Harvey

A drives moves through floodwaters left behind by Hurricane Harvey on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Aransas Pass, Texas. Harvey rolled over the Texas Gulf Coast on Saturday, smashing homes and businesses and lashing the shore with wind and rain so intense that drivers were forced off the road because they could not see in front of them.

“The advice is if you don’t have to be out, don’t be out,” said Bill Begley, a spokesman with the Joint Information Center in Houston.

Both of Houston’s major airports were closed, and all Eppley Airfield nonstop flights between Omaha and Houston for today were canceled. Other connecting flights from Omaha involving Texas may be affected too.

Many tourists and visitors in Houston on Sunday found themselves stranded in hotels with no hope of leaving anytime soon.

The Marriott Courtyard Hotel in southwest Houston, along the banks of the Brays Bayou, was surrounded by floodwater when guests woke up Sunday morning.

All roads in the area were underwater, and a park across the bayou was completely flooded. A car nearby had been abandoned, its doors left open. City traffic lights were still blinking red and green over the empty and flooded bridge, but most buildings visible in the area seemed to be dark and without power.

By midmorning, Nichelle Mosby stood up to her knees in floodwater in the parking lot, grimacing with a towel over her head to block the rain.

Mosby and six family members, including a 4-year-old girl, had come from Louisiana to visit relatives. When Harvey hit, they booked into the Courtyard. Now they were stranded with dozens of other guests.

“We went through Katrina, but this feels different,” she said. Instead of a gradual buildup of rising water, she said, “this was like a gush of water that came up too fast.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times.

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