(HOUSTON) — Authorities launched a controlled burn Sunday at a chemical plant damaged by Harvey, sending small flames and gray smoke into the sky, and said the highly unstable compounds that had exploded earlier needed to be neutralized.
Officials said the “proactive measures” to ignite the six remaining trailers at the Arkema plant in Crosby, outside Houston, wouldn’t pose any additional risk to the community. People living within a mile and a half of the site are still evacuated.
Small flames burning in charred structures could be seen at the plant, with a limited amount of light gray smoke. John Rull, who lives close by, told the Houston Chronicle he heard four booms. He said the explosions were louder than one he heard Friday when two containers burned and that there was much more smoke.
Sam Mannan, a chemical safety expert at Texas A&M University, said the latest burn was emitting gray smoke, which indicated a more complete burn with fewer harmful chemicals remaining.
“There are ways to accelerate the process or create more efficient or complete burning,” Mannan said.
Three trailers containing unstable compounds had already caught fire at the plant after backup generators were engulfed by Harvey’s floodwaters, which knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep them from degrading and catching fire.
Some Houston officials stressed that the recovery from Harvey was beginning, and Mayor Sylvester Turner proclaimed America’s fourth-largest city “open for business.” But the on-the-ground reality varied by place.
Utility crews went door-to-door shutting off power and warning those still in some waterlogged homes in western parts of the city that still more flooding could be heading their way — not from rain but from releases of water in overtaxed reservoirs. Thousands of Houston dwellings were under new, mandatory evacuation orders, though about 300 people were thought to be refusing to leave.
Some homes in the area, which included brick two-story and ranch homes with manicured lawns bordering Buffalo Bayou, remained evacuated but people briefly returned Sunday to try to salvage valuables like family photos.
“I called 911 for 15 minutes; no one answered. My neighbor had a canoe and saved us,” said Gaston Kirby, who evacuated Aug. 27 with his two young children. When they left, he said, their home had about 2 inches of water and got another 2 feet from Harvey. But the reservoir releases added at least another 3 feet.