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Rescuers Go Door-To-Door Searching For More Flood Victims In Houston As Waters Recede

HOUSTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The search for survivors continued Thursday, nearly a week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

Rescuers went block by block pounding on the doors of tens of thousands of homes.

Helicopter rescue teams airlifted people to safety in the coastal town of Port Arthur, as soldiers and civilians searched the flood-ravaged state for others in need of help.

A week after Harvey touched down, Texas is still struggling to recover. The entire city of Beaumont lost its water supply Thursday, forcing the evacuation of an entire hospital.

Less than 12 hours before, elderly residents had to be rescued from several different nursing homes in the Beaumont area. Many were still in their beds, some in wheelchairs, and were loaded onto boats.

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to the affected town of Rockport, clearing debris and offering comforting words.

"Even in this difficult time, the very best of the people of Texas and the very best of the people of America is shining forth" he said.

The water started receding in some areas, as piles of debris from flooded homes lined the streets.

Sid Kothas' home was flooded three years ago, but that was just a few inches.

"We figured both of those were just accidents, but this time was a knock-out punch," he said.

Despite losing most of their possessions, the Kotha family is determined to rebuild.

"I want to raise the house six or eight feet, or demo it and build a brand new house," Sid said. "No, I'm not leaving."

They said they'll fight it out and stay in the community they've called home for more than a decade.

Officials said most of the floodwaters are expected to recede by late Friday or early Saturday.

In Houston, the fire department planned to begin a block-by-block search of thousands of flooded homes to look for anyone left behind in the floodwaters, a process that was expected to take one to two weeks, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann said.

The Canyon Gate neighborhood, southwest of the city, still look more like rivers Thursday.

"Complete stranger picked us up at Chevron station, complete stranger took my entire family into his home," said one resident who evacuated days ago.

The family made a tough decision to leave pets behind, but then successfully went back for them.

The latest surveys indicate that the storm and floodwaters have caused major damage to more than 37,000 homes and destroyed nearly 7,000, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported.

The White House estimates about 100,000 have been affected by Harvey overall.

It's estimated the damage could reach $75 billion.

President Donald Trump will donate $1 million of his own money to help fund Harvey relief, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Late Thursday night, CBS News reported the death toll had climbed to 37.

Earlier Thursday, officials said a fire broke out following a "chemical reaction" at a flooded Texas chemical plant that lost power after Harvey engulfed the area in extensive floods.

Arkema Inc. executive Richard Rennard said the fire was caused by the degradation of chemicals lacking refrigeration and that up to eight more containers could burn and explode. But he said they believe that "there hasn't been a massive explosion."

"There are pressure release valves on these containers. When pressure builds up in the container to a certain point that exceeds the pressure of the valves, that valve released and it makes a popping sound," he said. "We believe that's the sound we heard."

The company originally said in a statement on its website early Thursday morning that the Harris County Emergency Operations Center reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant in Crosby, which is about 25 miles northeast of Houston.

Police later described the incident as a "series of pops."

"There were different organic peroxides of different grades that were released and it created a 'pop' in the containers where they were being stored and some gray smoke initially emanated from it and it eventually turned into black smoke," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said at a news conference."I want to be very clear: it was not an explosion."

Assistant Harris County Fire Chief Bob Royall said the fire broke out in a semi-trailer not long after midnight.

"We heard some popping noise coming from that area, then gray smoke, followed by a fire," he said.

He said the fire emitted 30- to 40-foot flames and black smoke.

"What has happened is exactly what we expected was going to happen," he added.

Royall did not refer to any blasts, calling it a "container rupture."

"I don't want the public to think these are massive explosions," Royall said. "We're trying to make sure that our citizens are comfortable with what's going on and that they know the truth and so with that, these are small container ruptures that may have a sound of a pop or something of that nature."

Gonzalez said the fire would burn itself out. Royall said the fire service was not monitoring the fire — "that's industry's responsibility" — and that the company hired a contractor to do aerial monitoring of the smoke to see which direction it was going.

Gonzalez also said some deputies suffered irritated eyes from the smoke but insisted it wasn't dangerous.

"It is not anything toxic," Gonzalez said. "It is not anything that we feel is a danger to the community at all."

The Environmental Protection Agency and local officials said an analysis of the air for toxic materials found no reason for alarm. And there were no immediate reports of any serious injuries.

But at a separate news conference in Washington, D.C., FEMA administrator Brock Long told reporters that "by all means, the plume is incredibly dangerous."

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is advising people to limit their exposure by staying inside.

Officials also set up a 1.5 mile evacuation zone around the plant, CBS2's Alice Gainer reported. 

A spokeswoman for the Arkema plant said late Wednesday that 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," spokeswoman Janet Smith told The Associated Press late Wednesday.

Arkema manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used for making a variety of products including pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

"As the temperature rises, the natural state of these materials will decompose. A white smoke will result, and that will catch fire," Smith said. "So the fire is imminent. The question is when."

The company shut down the plant before Harvey made landfall last week. A crew of 11 that remained has been removed. Residents within 1.5 miles were told to evacuate Tuesday after the plant lost power.

To the north of Houston in Tyler County, flood gates were opened Wednesday leading to an ominous evacuation warning from emergency management officials on Facebook telling residents who didn't heed evacuation orders to "write their Social Security numbers in permanent marker on their arm so their bodies can be identified. The loss of life and property is certain."

Floodwaters also toppled two oil storage tanks in South Texas, spilling almost 30,000 gallons of crude. It was not immediately clear if any of the spilled oil was recovered. More damage to the oil industry infrastructure is expected to emerge as floodwaters recede.

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 Wednesday. Officials said they were resuming limited bus and light rail service as well as trash pickup.

The governor has declared Sunday a "day of prayer." Public schools will start two weeks late.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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