By TAMARA LUSH and JUAN LOZANO
HOUSTON — Now that the sun is finally shining and the murky, brown floodwaters are slowly receding in much of the Houston area, grim reality is setting in.
Harvey is about to release its dead.
In Texas, the official death toll stood at 23 on Wednesday, although authorities were investigating an additional 17 deaths to determine whether they were storm related. Officials fear that the number of fatalities will climb sharply in coming days as neighbors, emergency workers and family members search for the missing — and discover the bodies of people trapped in waterlogged homes or encased in underwater graves inside cars. And the death toll might rise even further in the recovery phase, from car crashes, carbon monoxide poisoning or other accidents during cleanup.
“Historically all estimates of deaths are wrong in the beginning,” said Craig Fugate, who was the Federal Emergency Management Agency director from 2009 until earlier this year.
Already, the nation is shocked by the horrors revealed as the storm moves out of the area and east toward Louisiana and points north.
The first confirmed fatality came early: A man in the Gulf coastal city of Rockport was killed in a fire late Friday as the storm raged ashore.
On Wednesday, officials located a submerged van that seven members of a Houston family had been traveling in when it was swept off a bridge and into a storm-ravaged bayou. Samuel Saldivar told police he was trying to bring his elderly parents and his brother’s four grandchildren to safety from their flooded home on Sunday when the van he was driving was tossed by a strong current into the bayou as it crossed the bridge. He escaped through a window but the six others were trapped when the van’s partially submerged sliding door wouldn’t open.
Also Wednesday, authorities said 65-year-old Donald Rogers and his 58-year-old wife, Rochelle, drowned when they were swept away by a current after driving their pickup truck into floodwaters in a rural area southwest of Houston. Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Maj. Chad Norvell said the couple was on the phone with 911 asking for help when the line went silent. When officers found the truck, it was completely submerged.
On Tuesday afternoon, a 3-year-old girl was found alive in a rain-swollen canal, clinging to the body of her drowned mother in Beaumont, Texas. A second woman was confirmed dead in Beaumont on Wednesday.