By Michael Mathes
Houston (AFP) Sept 4, 2017
Houston's faithful embraced the comfort of church Sunday with their hearts heavy after mega-storm Harvey's destruction, as the Texas governor led appeals for billions of dollars in aid for his battered state.
Some worshippers sought succor, and others offered compassion and aid, for their devastated communities in displays of solidarity and partnership that highlighted the best of the human spirit in trying times.
The nation's fourth-largest city of Houston was drying out after a week of flooding, but the immediate needs of many victims here remained acute.
"We know that some are distressed, some are displaced. But I believe through it all we can say God is good," preached Minister Gary Smith at the Fifth Ward Church of Christ.
More than 1,000 worshippers, including some whose homes were badly damaged by floodwater, packed the historically black church's sanctuary for a service that repeatedly addressed the tragedy that swamped so many Texas and Louisiana communities.
In Houston, which was devastated by record-setting rainfall, many residents whose homes had flooded returned over the weekend to begin removing soggy drywall, soaked carpets and ruined possessions.
The flooding damaged 40,000 to 50,000 homes in Houston and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing to emergency shelters.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that a years-long recovery lay ahead, and appealed to Congress to step up and approve huge funding for reconstruction.
"The rebuilding process, this is where the long haul begins," Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on "Fox News Sunday." "This is where we come to the part where Congress plays a role."
The White House has asked Congress for $7.85 billion for Harvey-related "response and initial recovery efforts," calling it a "down payment" on the long-term cost of recovering from the record flooding.
In the end, Abbott said, recovery will cost "well over $120 billion, probably $150 billion to $180 billion."
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has said the administration will later seek an additional $6.7 billion for relief from the storm that has been blamed for at least 42 deaths.
Congress returns to Washington Tuesday after a summer recess. Democrats and Republicans who have feuded for months over President Donald Trump's agenda are under pressure to approve disaster relief.
"It's not that it matters how much everything costs," said Diane Chapman, who was flooded out of her Houston home and was loading up on relief supplies.
"What matters is that you help people who need help."
- 'Can-do city' -
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner urged people who had been planning on traveling to Houston not to cancel their trips, conventions or concerts, saying the city was now 95 percent dry.
"Yes, it was a very serious storm, historic, unprecedented, but the city of Houston is open for business."
Houston is a regional hub and also a center of the US petroleum industry, with the surrounding Gulf Coast area home to about a third of the nation's refining capacity.
"That is a can-do city, we're not going to engage in a pity party," Turner said. He appeared Sunday on CBS and NBC.
- Eerily empty -
Floodwaters in other hard-hit cities nearby such as Rockport, Beaumont and Port Arthur were slower to recede than Houston's.
But while Houston was inching back to relative normality, some neighborhoods remained flooded, including those below the Addicks reservoir, where officials released water to ease structural pressure.
Streets in Briarforest, which was eerily empty and quiet Sunday, remained under about three feet (one meter) or more of water.
Police set up roadblocks and were patrolling the area, in part to prevent looting. A Texas state trooper said there have been cases of thieves riding boats through streets of wealthy neighborhoods near the reservoir and breaking in to homes.
Meanwhile, many Americans marked a "National Day of Prayer" for the storm's victims.
In Washington, Trump and his wife Melania attended morning services at St. John's Church near the White House.
In Houston, Barney Smith, 66, was among the more than 70 Fifth Ward church members impacted by Harvey.
"I had to take everything out. Everything," he told AFP, saying the water ruined his home.
As he spoke, people like Luella Rivera picked out supplies in the church's gymnasium, where a relief station was stocked with donations.
"I came for clothes, water and food," said Rivera, 53. Her house flooded with knee-deep water, but she refused to evacuate.
"This is my first time in need of help," she said.
Businessman Britt Lively said he and fellow members of the Franklin Church of Christ watched the horror unfold from afar and felt compelled to help.
They drove two hours to the Fifth Ward church bringing donations, and set up a BBQ pit in the parking lot to cook 5,000 hot dogs for the community.
"It don't matter if you're black, white, Latino, we're here to help" Houston, he said.
"One day, we'll need them."
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