On Wednesday evening, the sun is finally shining in Houston. But the city is still underwater, and Harvey has turned its destructive eye toward Louisiana.
An additional 4 to 8 inches of rain were expected in eastern Texas, southwestern Louisiana, and parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, with some areas receiving up to 12 inches.
On Tuesday, a rain gauge near Highlands, Texas, a city east of Houston, registered 51.88 inchesof rainfall — breaking the record for most rainfall from a single storm in the entire continental US.
Family members and authorities have reported at least 38 deaths as a result of the storm, according to The New York Times. At least 33,000 people in Texas have sought refuge in more than 230 shelters, and hundreds of thousands could seek some sort of disaster assistance, officials said.
“This is a landmark event for Texas,” Brock Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said Monday. “Texas has never seen an event like this.”
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Record rainfall and catastrophic flooding
Harvey arrived on the shores of Texas as a hurricane Friday night, packing sustained wind speeds as high as 130 mph. As of Wednesday, it was classified a tropical storm with maximum winds of 40 mph.
The “relentless, torrential” rain has moved east, and forecasters don’t expect it to let up in eastern Texas and Louisiana until Friday. By that point, total rainfall could reach 50 inches in areas including Houston and Galveston.
The eastern Texas border, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee could get another 4 to 8 inches of rain by the end of the week, with Alabama and Mississippi, expected to see 3 to 6 inches by Friday. Even Ohio and the mid-Atlantic states could get 2 to 4 inches as Harvey moves north through Saturday.
The storm was moving northeast at 8 mph as of 4 p.m. CDT on Wednesday, leaving flooding and destruction in its wake. The center of the storm was sitting about 50 miles north of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
“There is an unusual amount of moisture available to this storm, and it is large and powerful, so rainfall records could topple,” Jeff Masters, a meteorologist at The Weather Company who cofounded the weather-data website Weather Underground, told Business Insider last week.
The storm surge, the quick rise in water caused by a hurricane’s strong winds, crested several feet at the height of the storm on the Texas coast. On Wednesday evening, the Gulf coast from San Luis Pass, Texas to Grand Isle, Louisiana were under a one- to two-foot storm-surge warning.
Tornadoes are also threatening to strike western Alabama, and the southern parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, as the storm churns up strong winds.
Harvey’s devastating hurricane-force winds, storm surge on the Gulf Coast, and landmark flooding inland combined to make it an unprecedented event for Texas.
Officials expect more deaths to be confirmed in the coming days. Houston police Chief Art Acevedo told The Associated Press on Monday that he was “really worried about how many bodies we’re going to find” when the floodwaters recede.
The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that a police Sgt. Steve Perez, a 60-year-old man who had been on the force for 34 years, died in his patrol car after he took a wrong turn and got caught in the high water.
Long said in a press conference Monday (and reiterated on Wednesday) that crews were still focusing on rescue and recovery and would have to wait until the storm passed to fully evaluate the damage. Strong winds, flooding, and debris on roadways have also kept emergency crews from immediately reaching many places.
Accounts of destruction in the areas hit hardest by Harvey have been steadily emerging.
— Evan McMurry (@evanmcmurry) August 27, 2017
Emergency crews plucked people from rooftops using aircraft, dump trucks, and boats as the floodwaters rose. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said on Wednesday that 8,500 people had been rescued statewide.
The Associated Press estimated that the storm knocked out power for about 300,000 residents over the weekend, and that there were still 107,000 power outages in Texas on Wednesday afternoon.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said 911 emergency services in the city had received over 56,000 calls by Monday. By Tuesday, police officers and firefighters had saved more than 3,500 individuals in Houston, Acevedo said.
Turner announced a curfew on Tuesday night, extending from 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. Wednesday, amid reports of looting, armed robberies and people impersonating police officers.
Near Port Arthur, Texas, a city located about 90 miles east of Houston in Jefferson County, over 26 inches of rain was recorded on Tuesday alone. Residents in the area were desperate to escape, and 150 boats came to find them. Mayor Derrick Freeman told CBS Newsthat 20,000 homes had as much as 6 feet of water in them.
The coastal city of Rockport, Texas, which is near the location where the center of the hurricane initially made landfall, sustained extreme damage. Residents have been told it is not safe to return for the time being (a mandatory evacuation was put in place there). Mayor Charles Wax of Rockport told CNN there had “been widespread devastation.”
As the storm approached Friday, Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios of Rockport requested that people who did not evacuate write their names and Social Security numbers on their arms in case rescuers later needed to identify them.
The Category 4 storm Hurricane Ike, the most recent major hurricane to hit the Texas Gulf Coast, caused $38 billion in damage in 2008. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, it caused over $100 billion in damage.
Why hurricane categories don’t tell the full story
Hal Needham, a hurricane scientist at Louisiana State University, wrote in a blog post on the weather site WXshift that a storm’s category doesn’t fully convey how dangerous rainfall could be and how much damage it could cause.
“Hurricanes and tropical storms throw three hazards at us: wind, rainfall, and storm surge,” he wrote. “Think of the impacts separately. Storms with weaker winds are more likely to stall and dump heavier rainfall. This shocks people, as it would seem intuitive that a Category 5 hurricane would tend to dump more rain than a Category 1 hurricane. But the opposite is true.”
While strong winds can rip shingles off roofs and tear down power lines, flooding often causes more widespread, costlier damage — and can be more dangerous for humans. The scale used to distinguish a hurricane from a tropical storm is based solely on maximum sustained wind, but Needham explained that “storms are too complex to define by one number.”
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Trump’s ‘first serious’ crisis
Hurricane Harvey is Donald Trump’s “first serious” crisis from a natural disaster as president. He tweeted updates on the response throughout the weekend, and flew to Corpus Christi Tuesday morning with first lady Melania Trump.
“We are here to take care of you,” he told a crowd there. The president surveyed the damage and relief efforts, and made a stop in Austin to attend a briefing on emergency operations from Texas leadership.
“We want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it,” Trump said at a press conference alongside Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “This was of epic proportion. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”
How Texas and Louisiana prepared
Thousands of residents, many in the towns of Port Aransas, Port O’Connor, and Corpus Christi, where the hurricane first made landfall, evacuated their homes before the storm. The Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority began busing evacuees to San Antonio on Thursday.
Houston didn’t order evacuations before the storm hit, and only issued orders in some areas of Harris County on Monday and Tuesday. Masters recommended evacuating only if local emergency experts said to do so, since many of the deaths during Hurricane Rita in 2005 occurred as people tried to evacuate.
Abbott declared a state of disaster August 23 for 30 Texas counties in Harvey’s path, then added 20 counties to that declaration on Saturday and another four on Sunday, freeing up state money and resources to respond to the storm.
He also issued a federal disaster declaration in 19 counties, which Trump approved. Trump has approved emergency disaster declarations in both Texas and Louisiana, directing federal aid toward the affected areas.
On Monday morning, Abbott activated the entire Texas National Guard of 12,000 people.
Before the storm hit, the American Red Cross opened pop-up shelters throughout Houston and San Antonio. Dallas opened shelters as well, and Mayor Mike Rawlings invited those stranded to seek refuge in a press conference Tuesday morning.
Turner, Houston’s mayor, said Tuesday that more than 9,000 people are seeking shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the largest shelter that has been opened so far. It has a 5,000-cot capacity.
The Health and Human Services Department said it was deploying assets to Texas and Louisiana ahead of Harvey’s landfall, moving six teams of emergency medical responders to the Dallas area as well as teams to support medical personnel in both states.
FEMA said it readied 3 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water, and 8,800 staff members for the storm response.