Extensive news and background reporting, A Socialist In Canada, Aug 29, 2017
Deluged Texas braces for more rain and years of recovery
By Julie Turkewitz, Richard Perez-Pena and Jack Healey, New York Times, Monday, Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017 (with maps and graphs of the destruction caused by Hurricane/Storm Harvey
HOUSTON — As one of the most destructive storms in the nation’s history pummeled southeast Texas for a fourth day, forecasts on Tuesday morning called for still more rain, making clear that catastrophic flooding that had turned neighborhoods into lakes was just the start of a disaster that would take years to overcome. Local, state and federal officials conceded that the scale of the crisis was so vast that they were nowhere near being able to measure it, much less fully address it.
Across a region that is home to millions of people and includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, no one has a clear idea how many people are missing, how many evacuated, how many hunkered down or were trapped in their waterlogged homes, or how many inundated houses and vehicles are beyond saving.
It is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced,” Gov. Greg Abbott said, warning against expecting anything resembling recovery any time soon, or a return to the way things were. “We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region.”
* Hurricane Harvey brings fourth largest city in U.S. to its knees, report on New York Times, Aug 27, 2017
‘This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.’—U.S. National Weather Service
* Live updates on Hurricane Harvey, now a tropical storm, on the New York Times. Including (on Aug 29):
rainfall total in Houston could hit 125 cm (50 inches) by Sept 1;
Tropical Storm Harvey has been turned southward by a high-pressure weather ridge and may gain strength as it returns to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico;
first breaching of a flood-protection levee occurs, in Colombia Lakes, south of Houston, while water is being released from two large reservoirs in Houston threatened with breaching, adding to the flood levels in the city.
* Houston levee failures: Reports indicate that reservoirs are being strained past the breaking point, report on Roberts Scribbler (published by Robert Fanshaw), Aug 29, 2017
* Harvey’s flooding already catastrophic and another 2-3 feet of rainfall is on the way, report on Roberts Scribbler, Aug 27, 2017
* Five days after Harvey, here’s where things stand in Texas, by Cassandra Pollock and Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune, Aug. 29, 2017
Nearly five days after Hurricane Harvey first touched Texas soil, residents are desperate for the end. Here’s where things stand.
* Why Houston’s reservoirs aren’t likely to fail after Hurricane Harvey, by Kiah Collier and Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune, Aug. 29, 2017
Local officials reported ten deaths possibly related to the storm, six of them in Harris County, which includes Houston. But the painstaking and heartbreaking work of clearing streets, going door to door, assessing damage — and finding victims — has not yet begun.
Scenes of people and pets being rescued from the roofs and upper floors of houses revived memories of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when early estimates vastly understated both the material devastation and the death toll, and recovery efforts lasted years.
The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said on Monday that he expected more than 450,000 people to apply for federal assistance.
“We’re going to be here for several years helping you guys recover,” he said. “The state of Texas is about to undergo one of the largest recovery housing missions the nation has ever seen.”
For the time being, efforts are focused on the most basic elements of keeping people alive — plucking stranded survivors from the flood, providing shelter, food and water, and restoring electricity to hundreds of thousands of people who were left without power.
Mr. Long said that FEMA was shipping two million liters of water and two million meals to the region. Other government agencies, charities and corporations were also moving supplies into the region.
In Harris County alone, several thousand people stranded in vehicles and buildings by the water were rescued by law enforcement and firefighters using motorboats and helicopters, and legions of volunteers used their own boats to ferry people to safety. Governor Abbott activated the entire Texas National Guard to aid in rescue and recovery, raising the number of troops involved to 12,000 from 3,000. And he praised Texans for rushing to rescue their neighbors.
Countless abandoned cars and trucks blocked the region’s flooded roadways, raising questions about whether and how their drivers had escaped safely. They sat at odd angles, some showing no more than a few inches peeking above the water, while others sat half-smashed in roadside ditches or alone in muddy fields.
Almost every evacuee had a dramatic story to tell. Glenda Walton, standing in a damp gray T-shirt among five family members in an evacuation center, could think only of the day’s events. She said she watched as a woman hugging a tree lost her grip, got caught in the churning water, and drowned. “She went limp, just like that,” Ms. Walton said.
Officials estimated that more than 30,000 people had taken refuge in emergency shelters, including some that had opened in cities far inland, like Dallas, more than 200 miles from Houston. The mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, said the city had been asked to brace for “numbers that could be up in the tens of thousands.”
In San Antonio, sprawling vacant warehouses had been turn into shelters that could hold more than 4,100 evacuees. How many residents had fled to hotels or the homes of friends or relatives was anyone’s guess.
At a school gym in San Antonio that had become a shelter for hundreds, people watched television coverage and searched social media feeds in hopes of collecting clues about the homes and neighbors they left behind. They dialed and redialed phone numbers that went straight to voice mail, or just rang, unanswered.
The City of Houston put out a call for doctors, nurses and social workers to go to the George R. Brown Convention Center, where thousands of people took shelter.
Melanie Steele, 43, said she and her husband evacuated their home along a bayou in Houston’s Linkwood neighborhood with little more than their dog, Baxter, and a baggie of dog food. On Sunday night, she received an alert on her phone that the alarm had gone off in the house.
“I’m assuming that means the water is pushing in” and that all she has is lost, she said as she sat in hotel room in Houston, hugging Baxter. “That literally put me into a tailspin.”
Eight oil refineries, with about one-eighth of the nation’s refining capacity, shut down because of the storm, which could affect gas prices around the country. Both of Houston’s airports were closed, and hundreds of passengers were stranded.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday night as a Category 4, the most powerful storm to strike the United States in more than a decade, and though it has been downgraded to a tropical storm, it lingered over the coastal region.
By Monday, it had swamped the Houston region with more than 30 inches of rain in some places, and forecasters warned that the totals in some areas could top 50 inches before the storm moves on some time later this week.
It is expected to move to the northeast, toward far eastern Texas and Louisiana, and bands of heavy rain were already lashing those regions. In New Orleans, which faced flooding earlier this month after heavy rains overwhelmed its drainage system, news that the far-flung storm could bring up to 10 inches of rain raised tension levels. Mayor Mitch Landrieu advised residents to “stay off the streets” on Tuesday.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for parts of several coastal counties south of Houston, home to hundreds of thousands of people. Many more residents were covered by voluntary evacuation directives issued by counties and cities.
As the region’s waterways spilled high over and far beyond their banks, several of them broke longstanding records for flood depths. Some were expected not to abate in the coming days — or even to continue rising — as the rain keeps falling and water makes its way downstream.
Early Monday, the Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, just west of Houston, which was likely to prolong flooding in the city. Water from the dams flows into the Buffalo Bayou, which runs west to east through the heart of Houston, and had already reached record depths before the release.
The Corps began by releasing 5,000 cubic feet per second of water, and planned to increase that to 8,000, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “As they increase the water and it comes down, the water level along Buffalo Bayou, in all probability, it will increase,” he said. “It could create additional problems, additional flooding.”
The reservoirs, which are normally dry, are designed to prevent flooding on the Buffalo Bayou, by capturing excess rain and runoff. But both basins quickly filled to capacity, with water levels rising more than six inches an hour at the height of the storm, threatening an uncontrolled overflow into surrounding neighborhoods.
The reservoirs are held back by 70-year-old earthen dams that the Corps has classified as being at “extremely high risk” of failure. A $75 million project is underway to repair the gates, but it is only about 10 percent complete.
Harvey turned eastward on Monday, the center of the storm returning to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, raising the possibility that it could gain strength.
Julie Turkewitz reported from Houston, Richard Pérez-Peña from New York and Jack Healy from San Antonio. Reporting was contributed by Dave Montgomery from Austin, Tex.; Dave Philipps from San Antonio; John Schwartz from New Orleans; and Henry Fountain from New York.
Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane. Why isn’t Texas ready?
Climate change will bring more frequent and fierce rainstorms to cities like Houston. But unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone.
* Houston’s hospitals treat storm victims and become victims themselves, by Sheri Fink and Alan Blinder, New York Times, Aug 28, 2017
* How Hurricane Harvey became so destructive, by Lisa Friedman and John Schwartz, New York Times, Aug 28, 2017
* Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey is causing ‘epic catastrophic flooding’ in Houston. Why wasn’t the city evacuated?, by Amy B Wang and Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post, Aug 27, 2017
* Hurricane Harvey flooding causes floating fire ant colonies in Texas, by Matt Simon, science correspondent, Wired Magazine, Aug 28, 2017
Why the U.S. wasn’t prepared for Hurricane Harvey
By Glenn McGillivray, special to The Globe and Mail, Aug. 28, 2017 (full text enclosed)
Hurricane Harvey, the swirling, megaflood-inducing menace that has set its sights on Texas, is the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in almost 12 years. While several less powerful hurricanes have struck over this period, Hurricane Wilma – which hit Florida on Oct. 24, 2005 – was the last Category 3 or higher storm to wreak havoc on an American coastal community.
Wilma caused more than $25.8-billion (U.S.) in insured losses in the U.S. alone. While it is too early to determine what the financial impacts of Harvey will be, some watchers are already calling for losses in the double-digit billions.
Traditionally, those of us in the disaster-risk reduction field have found that commenting too early on the factors that caused a particular natural disaster can be a sensitive area. No one being affected by such a loss wants to hear what failures in policy, planning and execution led to their grief, particularly as an event is still unfolding.
But if the past is any indication, we will very soon hear from politicians that Harvey was just too big, and that “nothing could have been done to prepare for or mitigate the impact of such a loss.”
So, as painful as it may be, it’s useful to attempt to get out in front of such statements and lay out some of the clearer meta problem areas that may have caused this natural hazard to become a full-blown mega-catastrophe.
Big-picture considerations in the case of Harvey would include looking at the condition of green space and wetlands that could have aided in mitigating the impact of the storm, land-use planning and runaway development in such places as Houston, building codes in affected areas, market penetration of flood insurance (only one in six homeowners in the Houston area have purchased the coverage), the existence of large-scale mitigation projects like seawalls and levees, and whether important government institutions like the National Hurricane Center and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) were prepared for such an event.
For the sake of efficiency, we can lump together the issues of wetland management, land-use planning and runaway development by looking at trends in Houston in recent years. In that urban centre, the fourth largest in the U.S., wetlands and other green space have been eaten up by rapid development. According to an analysis for the Houston Chronicle, between 1996 and 2010, the 14-county Houston region lost more than 54,000 acres of wetlands. This not only means that water simply has fewer places to go, but that more lives are put at risk and more property is damaged because of it.
Looking at coastal flood and storm-surge protection reveals another huge gap. After Hurricane Ike struck the state in September 2008, it was proposed in 2009 that an “Ike Dike” be constructed to protect the state’s upper coastline, from the Texas/Louisiana border to Freeport. A study was funded in 2014 (already five years later) to consider the feasibility of the project, but the dike is still under discussion and may not get started until 2023, if at all.
Other areas of concern include the troubling fact that building code in Texas is voluntary unless a municipality adopts a code and enforces it. According to building-code progress studies of 18 coastal states completed by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety for 2012 and 2015, Texas had a 2012 score of 18 out of 100 in 2012, rising to 36 out of 100 in 2015. Virginia, comparatively, scored a 95 in both reports and Florida a 95 in 2012 and a 94 in 2015.
Looking at the role of government agencies in Harvey, it might be useful to determine if the appointment of FEMA’s new director in late June – three weeks into hurricane season – played any role whatsoever in that agency’s response to Harvey. Similarly, the National Hurricane Center has been without a head since its director left in May to take a job in the private sector.
The span of 11 years and 10 months marks the longest period since records began that a major hurricane has not struck the U.S. mainland. It is a scientific mystery as to why this so-called “hurricane drought” has taken place (one research team has posited that a “buffer zone” of strong crosswinds and cooler water temperatures just off the coast has protected the U.S. from large hurricanes in recent years).
It is not, however, a mystery that the U.S. seems to have let its guard down when it came to preparing for an event like Harvey, and now it will pay a much bigger price.