Harvey threatens to make natural disaster history

(USA TODAY) - The things that frighten most people about hurricanes are not what threaten to make Harvey a “landmark’’ disaster.

It's not the Category 4, 130-mph winds that Hurricane Harvey packed when it roared into the southeastern Texas coast late Friday, nor the speed it attained that strength. Nor is it the storm surge — a wall of seawater that hit the barrier islands. 

Instead, Harvey’s bid for historic infamy is based on its vast amount of moisture and its slow, circuitous path, which combined to dump more than 4 inches of rain an hour on the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area.

As Harvey goes back and forth around Houston, “the problem is that you’ve got these huge bands of rain sweeping over the same areas again and again,’’ said Brett Anderson, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.


How bad will Harvey turn out to be? Worse than Katrina? Than Sandy? That was unanswerable Sunday, with the storm forecast to drench the area for several more days and harried officials unable to assess the extent, much less the cost, of the damage.

“The point we’re trying to make now is that this is just the beginning of the flood,’’ said Patrick Burke of the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center. “It’s still too early to say how it will turn out.’’

But officials and scientists did not sound optimistic. Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called Harvey “a landmark event” and said Texas could take years to recover.

“This could easily be one of the worst flooding disasters in U.S. history,” tweeted Weather Channel meteorologist Greg Postel, who said he could not think of a comparable flood.

“Worse than the worst-case scenario for Houston,” tweeted WeatherBell meteorologist Ryan Maue.


By dawn Sunday, Houston had received more than 2 feet of rain, and forecasts that afternoon said 15 to 25 more inches were possible over the next several days, with some areas getting a total of as much as 50 inches — the highest ever in Texas from one storm.

Statistics aside, Harvey already had the ingredients of a memorable disaster.

Residents of greater Houston, following official orders, huddled on rooftops, waving flags and waiting for rescue. A television station was forced to evacuate its offices and go off the air because of rising floodwater. Houston reported a backlog of 2,000 emergency calls.


There was so much flooding that authorities struggled to say where it was worst. One woman posted an SOS on Twitter: “I have 2 children with me and the water is swallowing us up.”

But Anderson said that as bad as Harvey is, the storm probably won’t measure up to Katrina in 2005 or Sandy in 2012 in regards to national memory of natural destruction.

If not, that’s only because those two storms set such a high bar.

Katrina basically wiped out an entire NFL market, scattering New Orleans residents across much of the nation.

It was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S history. More than 1,200 people died. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion, roughly four times more than Hurricane Andrew caused when it hit South Florida 25 years ago last week.

Sandy was dubbed a “superstorm’’ for good reason. It clobbered the coast of the nation’s largest metro area, from South Jersey to eastern Long Island. It was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history (about $75 billion).

For Texans, however, Harvey evoked memories of Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Allison spent most of its two-week life over land, drifting northward through the state, before turning back south and re-entering the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm dropped more than 40 inches in Texas — a record that Harvey is expected to eclipse by 10 inches. And like Harvey, the worst flooding was in Houston. About 30,000 people were driven from their homes, about 2,700 of which were ruined. Downtown Houston was inundated. Twenty-three people died in Texas. In all, Allison caused $9 billion in damage.

Experts say that Katrina and Sandy were particularly disastrous for reasons other than meteorological ones. The former exposed the weaknesses in New Orleans’ levee system, the latter weaknesses in the New York region’s aged tunnels, rail lines and other infrastructure.

The damage is still being repaired; soon, an entire subway line, the L train connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, will have massive service reductions as a result.

But Anderson said that even if Harvey does not outdo its stiff competition for notoriety, it seems well on its way into history.

“We’re all shaking our heads, watching these pictures,’’ he said of the scenes from Houston. “Years from now, people will remember this.’’

Contributing: Doyle Rice

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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