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2 Sep 2017

We Nearly died for underating Hurricane Harvey – Houston-based Nigerians recount horror of devastating flood

Kollins Sunday, 30, hasn’t stopped thanking his stars. Wearing a bright smile these days, it is easy to feel the excitement bumping inside his heart. But you cannot blame him – without God’s mercies and sheer luck, the young man could have been six feet beneath the earth by now.
Currently visiting relatives in the United States of America, Sunday could have been consumed by a devastating flood that pounced on Houston, Texas, on August 25, 2017, leaving most parts of the city completely submerged under water. Known as Hurricane Harvey, the heavy storm, though foreseen by meteorologists, has wreaked untold havoc all across Houston in the hours and days that followed. For the 30-year-old and dozens other Nigerians in the state, the experience has been demoralising.

“Even though I have read and heard of natural disasters including earthquake, I have never seen or imagined any as the storm that has come upon Houston,” Sunday told Saturday PUNCH during a telephone conversation earlier in the week. “It was frightening. Even though it was announced that the storm was coming, nobody thought it was going to be this disastrous and deadly. We never knew that it was going to be followed by such heavy flooding.

“I was already packing my things and preparing to fly back to Nigeria when the storm came. Since that period, nobody has been able to step out of the house; we all have been trapped inside. If not for the fact that my cousin had stocked enough food in the house, worse things could have happened to us by now. It has been a terrible experience, I really can’t wait to come back home to Nigeria,” he said.

Like Sunday, a handful other Nigerians living in Houston also recounted their near-death experiences with Saturday PUNCH. One of the largest cosmopolitan cities in the US, there are at least around 150,000 Nigerians living in the state according to a 2014 report by the Department of State with many of them owning grocery shops and restaurants even with their high educational qualifications.

Eugene Owolabi, a businessman based in the city, while also revealing that he and his family had been trapped inside their apartment for several days since flood water overran Houston, said that the experience had been like staring death in the face.

“We have been trapped inside the house since Harvey came to town,” he said, his voice laced with confusion. “We have never seen anything like this and I don’t even know when it’s all going to end. We have been surviving on the food we managed to stock in the house, praying that God take control of everything as soon as possible. We are alive by God’s grace because it could have been a completely different story by now,” he added.

Also speaking with Saturday PUNCH, President of Egbe Omo Obokun, Ijeshaland in Houston, Prince Ezekiel Lufadeju, disclosed that apart from being jolted by the severity of the storm, they were indeed scared to their marrows when the water showed no signs of receding.

Though he acknowledged that help reached many of them on time, he said they had yet to get over the initial shock the incident left them.

“The storm and flood in Houston have been devastating,” he said. “It left everyone of us in shock and deep fear. However, we are all very grateful for the support of city officials, private entities and individuals for working tirelessly to help provide support for the people affected regardless of race, colour, gender or origin.

“We are most grateful that none of our members has been killed or badly affected by the disaster. The recovery is going to be a long process and we know we will be fine,” he added.

Describing the experience as not only scary but unimaginable, another Nigerian resident in the city, Christy Ohuabunwa, a journalist and pastor, told Saturday PUNCH that the latest storm was the worst they had seen in Houston.

“Our Houston is under water,” she said in reference to the flood that had taken over the entire city. “Our first responders have done so well while the recovery team has been great. But our fears are not yet over. The threat and danger of the storm are still very real. We trust in God to keep us safe,” she said.

Recalling the horror of watching the flood water rise to alarming levels in the last few days, a stay-at-home mother, Nancy Udeme, said that in the 14 years she has lived in the city, she had never witnessed any storm as deadly as Harvey.

“At a point, I got scared and feared for the worst,” she told Saturday PUNCH. “I thought it was the normal storm I had witnessed over and over in Houston but when the flood took over, I knew we were in for a big deal.

“I watched as the water was rising on my front lawn but still didn’t make anything out of it. Before I knew what was happening, everywhere had become flooded. As if that was not enough, power supply went out. I had to quickly dash out of the house with my two children, otherwise we would have drowned.

“The flood practically ravaged our home but we thank God that we are alive,” Udeme said.

For Chilee Agunanna, a journalist currently studying for a higher degree in Houston, the incident couldn’t have been scarier. Like many residents of the city trapped in their homes as a result of the rising water levels, he and his family were rescued by boats through the help of coast guards.

“We tried to carry some belongings to higher grounds on chairs, shelves but the water kept rising,” he recalled during a chat with Saturday PUNCH on Thursday. “The water was already at chest level in some areas before we were rescued by coast guards. There was forecast about the Harvey storm but not an evacuation notice. People were asked to stock food and prepare but they weren’t told to leave their homes. We had to leave when it became worse.

“We were only able to carry just a bag or two, everything else is still in the house. The house has been taken over by the flood. In fact, the TV station, KHOU Channel 11 Houston, where I interned, was destroyed with everyone there evacuated,” he said.

Following the calamity, many individuals including Nigerians resident in Houston, have been separated from their family members for several days. While relief and emergency services have reached large chunks of those affected, there are still fears in this regard going by the severity of the disaster.

“I have not seen my wife since the Thursday the storm came down upon Houston,” Bolaji Gboye, a nurse, revealed. “She went to work and she got trapped. The entire road is flooded; there is no way for us to go out. It is very terrible.

“I have not moved out of the house since that day. Generally speaking, this has been the worst storm so far in this city. It has been a stay-at-home period for virtually everybody,” he said.

In the aftermath of the crisis, US President, Donald Trump, on Friday prepared a request to Congress for an emergency $5.9bn recovery package as flood waters gradually recede in some parts of the city. It was also revealed that further requests could be followed, raising the amount to over $110bn expended in 2005 when the country witnessed Hurricane Katrina. Trump also pledged to donate $1m in personal funds to help relief efforts.

According to reports, the death toll as of Friday afternoon had risen to 44 – almost one week after the tragedy. This is aside from the 18 persons rescued that morning in flooded homes and streets. Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, said, “Crisis ebbing but far from over.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety revealed that about 48,700 homes had sustained flood damage, out of which 17,000 were severely damaged while 1,000 were completely destroyed. Harvey, the most powerful hurricane to hit the state in at least 50 years, has forced 32,000 people to take temporary shelter in camps set up by the city officials.

Reacting to the situation, the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, condoled with Nigerians and other victims of the storm.

In a statement by her media aide, Abdurrahman Balogun, Dabiri-Erewa expressed concern about the damage done to the homes of those living in that area.

“Houston hosts one of the highest communities of Nigerians in the US. At least 80 per cent of Nigerians resident in places like Galveston, Cypress, Houston and the Bayou area had their property and personal belongings damaged.

“There was a case of a Nigerian from Akwa Ibom rescued on Monday by speedboat, having lost his car, home and personal belongings.

“This is to send my heartfelt concern to Nigerians living in Houston, and indeed all residents affected by Hurricane Harvey,” she said.

But while Nigerians in Houston contend with the fury of the devastating storm, compatriots back home in Benue are also counting the cost of heavy flooding that took over large parts of the state, forcing more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. This followed two weeks of persistent rainfall in the city.

Images of vehicles and houses submerged in water across most communities in the state have surfaced on the Internet over the last few days, eliciting concern from many Nigerians.

Benue State, which is heavily reliant on its agricultural sector, has suffered repeated floods in recent years, caused by heavy rains and the opening of dams in neighbouring Cameroon.

In 2012, Nigeria suffered disastrous floods across 30 of its 36 states. Hundreds of people died and some two million people were left homeless.

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