Hurricane Harvey, which, as we all know, is currently devastating southeastern Texas and parts of Louisiana, is rapidly becoming one of the most devastating hurricanes in US history. It made landfall in Rockport, TX, which is southeast of Houston, on Friday, August 25, as a Category 4 storm measuring 200 miles across. Although it has since been downgraded to a tropical storm, that is very misleading. For instance, (1) The major source of its damage is not wind, but rain and flooding. Meteorologists predict that parts of southeast Texas could be hit with up to 50 inches of rain before the storm blows itself out, which would be the largest amount ever recorded in Texas. To put that in perspective, that total would exceed the average annual rainfall for the area. (2) Harvey is a relatively slow moving storm. It is expected to linger in the area until Thursday, or, perhaps, even later. (3) Some meteorologists are predicting that it could turn back to the Gulf Coast and re-energize as a hurricane again.
Meteorologists are comparing it to other notorious hurricanes. I have seen various “notorious” lists, but according to the National Weather Channel, the worst ones in history are Galveston (1900), SE Florida/Lake Okeechobee (1928), and Katrina (2005). More on them later.
Names were not assigned to hurricanes until 1950. Supposedly, meteorologists felt that assigning names to hurricanes would help people remember them. The names are taken from a list generated and maintained by the World Meteorological Organization. The first name used was “Able.” In 1953 human names were assigned, but only female ones. The first human name was “Alice.” Beginning in 1979 male names were added.
And, now back to the Big 3. We all remember Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. It was “only” a Category 3 storm, but that is misleading. Categories 1-5 are assigned based on wind speed, and the main source of Katrina’s devastation was storm surge. It produced the highest storm surge on record in the US. The damage was exacerbated by the fact that New Orleans is below sea level, and the levees designed to protect it did not hold. Katrina was responsible for in excess of 1,800 deaths and $100 billion of damage. In addition, it displaced over 1 million people, many of whom have never returned. The city, itself has not recovered completely, and, perhaps, it never will.
The Galveston storm was a Category 4 storm that killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people. We don’t even have a good estimate. The storm surge was up to 15 feet. An estimated 3,500 homes and buildings were wiped out. Remember this was in 1900 when the population density was much less than now.
The Okechobee storm was responsible for up 3,000 deaths, mostly from drowning. The storm produced a storm surge up to 15 feet high.
By the time that Harvey has run its course it may compare to those. Based on the huge size of the storm it has affected thousands of square miles and millions of people. Flooding has been reported as far away as Austin and Dallas. The tv visuals have been horrific. We have seen homes reduced to matchsticks, people stranded on roofs in the pouring rain waiting in vain for help, and Good Samaritans using row boats, motor boats and front loaders to rescue stranded people. To make matters worse, many areas have been hit with tornados. The National Weather Service described the situation as “beyond anything experienced.” Nearly 100,000 homes are without electricity in the Houston area alone.
Government assistance is already underway. President Trump, Texas Governor Abbott, Louisiana Governor Bel Edwards, and various federal agencies, such as FEMA and Homeland Security have been coordinating efforts with local mayors and other local officials to combat this historic storm. Governor Abbott has activated and deployed Texas’ entire 3,000 person complement of National Guard troops. FEMA reported there were over 5,000 Federal employees assisting in the area. Members of the Border Patrol have been reassigned to the area. Other regions may be sending volunteer police, fire and rescue workers to assist as well. Finally, President Trump will be visiting the area as soon as security arrangements can be put into place.
Unlike other areas in the storm’s path the City of Houston did not order its residents to evacuate in advance. Mayor Sylvester Turner has been criticized for this decision, but he has been defending it, saying at a subsequent news conference that a mass evacuation would have been a “nightmare.” He added, “you literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road [at once].” As a result, substantial numbers of people have been stranded and forced to “shelter in place.” Emergency dispatchers have been overwhelmed and response time has soared. Many people have been desperately pleading their case on social media. There have been reports of people seeking shelter in attics and being trapped there by rapidly rising water. Houston Police Chief Art Acevido issued a special warning advising people not to seek shelter in the attic “unless you have an ax…to break through onto your roof.” Tens of thousand of displaced persons have been forced to seek shelter in makeshift shelters.
Another complication is that the area is very densely populated. Texas is the second most populous state, and Houston is the fourth largest city in the country. Houston, itself, accounted for 3% of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2015. Furthermore, the area is home to a substantial portion of the nation’s energy industry. Oil and gas companies have been forced to shut down much of their production. The economic effects are already being felt, for example, in the price of gas at the pump, and figure to get worse as time goes on.
Amid all this devastation and tragedy some good has occurred. Once again, we see that, generally, Americans are a generous, kind-hearted people. Despite the many issues that seem to divide us, in crises such as this, Americans pull together. We have seen many examples of friends, neighbors and even total strangers helping each other without regard to race, religion or national origin.
Eventually, the storm will pass. In its wake it will leave much devastation and tragedy. It will likely take many years and much sacrifice to make us whole, but I have no doubt we will do it.