By NOMAAN MERCHANT and JUAN A. LOZANO
HOUSTON — Major dangers for the U.S. Gulf Coast area loomed after an explosion at a Texas chemical plant early Thursday and the threat of major flooding further east near the Texas-Louisiana line as Harvey’s floodwaters began receding in the Houston area after five days of torrential rain.
Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, struggled with rising water as the area was pounded with what remained of the weakening storm, while Houston’s fire department said it would begin a block-by-block search Thursday of thousands of flooded homes. Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann said the searches were to ensure “no people were left behind.”
The confirmed death toll climbed to at least 31, including six family members — four of them children — whose bodies were pulled Wednesday from a van that had been swept off a Houston bridge into a bayou.
“Unfortunately, it seems that our worst thoughts are being realized,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said after the van that disappeared over the weekend was found in 10 feet of muddy water.
The Houston-area chemical plant that lost power after Harvey engulfed the area in extensive floods was rocked by two explosions early Thursday, the plant’s operator said. The Arkema Inc. plant had been left without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that a deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes. Nine other deputies drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution.
The company shut down the Crosby site before Harvey made landfall last week, but a crew of 11 had stayed behind. That group was removed and residents living within a 1.5-mile radius were told to evacuate Tuesday after the plant lost power.
Another threat was emerging east of Houston where weather conditions deteriorated close to the Louisiana line.
Beaumont and Port Arthur worked to evacuate residents after Harvey completed a U-turn in the Gulf of Mexico and rolled ashore early Wednesday for the second time in six days. It hit southwestern Louisiana as a tropical storm with heavy rain and winds of 45 mph.
When Harvey paid its return visit to land, it hit near Cameron, Louisiana, about 45 miles from Port Arthur.
Port Arthur found itself increasingly isolated as floodwaters swamped most major roads out of the city.
More than 500 people — along with dozens of dogs, cats, a lizard and a monkey — took shelter at the Max…