An ominous gray cloud hung over area neighborhoods early Tuesday morning, which Garden Oaks resident Christina Landrum believed to simply be a storm brewing.
It turned out to be a much more troublesome phenomenon.
“Those aren’t rain clouds that have been hanging over the neighborhood all day, are they?” Landrum wrote on Facebook. “Is anyone else getting headaches when they walk outside?”
A petrochemical fire that started Sunday morning continued to burn at Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, spreading a plume of dark smoke across Houston, including local neighborhoods. It cast a murky cloud overhead for much of Tuesday, causing trepidation among citizens throughout the region.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo held a joint news conference Tuesday in an effort to quell those concerns.
“At this time, (the smoke) does not appear to be a danger to people in the city of Houston. But the situation remains very fluid,” Turner said. “Because of that, it’s important for us to monitor the situation very closely.”
As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency measured the Air Quality Index for the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area – which includes Garden Oaks, Oak Forest, the Heights and other local neighborhoods – at 80 according to AirNow. The number sits in the “moderate” range.
Anything from 0-100 is considered either good or moderate air quality with few health risks, while any measurement over 300 is deemed extremely hazardous.
“It’s staying high enough that the impacts on air quality right now are not high, not measurable. We’re not measuring a level that is cause for alarm,” Hidalgo said.
Emergency personnel with Memorial Hermann Greater Heights Hospital and St. Joseph’s Medical Center in the Heights said no patients had come in with symptoms related to the plume or its potential health effects as of Tuesday afternoon. However, given the moderate measurement, there may still be health concerns for a small percentage of the population – such as children, the elderly and those who are especially sensitive to ozone – as a result of the plume.
Officials insisted much of the population, including in area neighborhoods, were not in immediate danger.
“If we detect any problem, any cause for alarm, we will be the first to let you know,” Turner said. “We do advise people with respiratory issues to be aware that there may be moderate complications that arise.”
At least one resident was not convinced of the information being dispersed by Turner and Hidalgo.
“We are not getting good or accurate information. We are not entitled to it, apparently,” Garden Oaks resident Dennis Woodward wrote on Facebook. “Otherwise, our federal, state, and local officials would be demanding accurate information. Testing devices that would be in the plume would be the only accurate measure of emissions.”
Turner and Hidalgo said ITC is working to put out the fire – which Turner said is expected to last a “couple more days” – in conjunction with county as well as Houston and Deer Park city officials.
“We just don’t have a specific timeline,” Hidalgo said. “As soon as we do, we’ll share it with the community.”