Severe winds and rain battered the Texas coast as Hurricane Harvey entered the country on August 25, 2017. The hurricane left a trail of destruction in its wake and went down as one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history.
Summary of Event
In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey started out as a tropical wave to the east of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea and reached tropical storm status on August 17. Several islands in the Caribbean were issued warnings for a potential tropical cyclone. As the storm shifted westward, it began to degenerate, weakening in intensity. However, on August 23, it redeveloped into a tropical storm and was sighted some 535 miles (860 kilometers) southeast of Port O'Connor, Texas. By this time, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) began issuing the first warnings for Harvey's impending arrival in the United States.
On Friday, August 25, Harvey descended upon the United States as a Category 4 hurricane, sustaining wind speeds of up to 130 mph (215 kph), with its eye hovering between Port Aransas and Port O'Connor, both located off the coast of mainland Texas. The storm brought with it heavy rainfall and flash floods and caused extensive property damage and many deaths, especially in shoreline communities in the United States. Most of the damage sustained in the hurricane-afflicted areas were due to the rain; Harvey developed into the wettest tropical cyclone in U.S. history since 1978. The storm is estimated to have caused up to 190 billion dollars in damages in Texas, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in the nation's history.
The following day, Harvey moved on to Houston, where it stalled for four days and submerged 70 percent of the area in a foot and a half of water. The sheer volume of water was enough to depress the Earth's crust, to the point that Houston sank two centimeters. After destroying almost every structure in Port Aransas and tearing entire buildings down in Rockport, Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm. Throughout Texas, more than 300,000 people were left without power, and about 30,000 people were displaced by the storm. The Texas Department of Public Safety reported that more than 185,000 homes were damaged and 9,000 destroyed as of September of 2017.
At the end of August, the storm moved across Louisiana; the state experienced heavy rainfalls and severe flooding, and roughly 300 people were driven from their homes. There were also reports of heavy property damage within the state, although not to the same extent as in Texas. Many companies in Texas and Louisiana were evacuated during the hurricane, and facilities suspended services, including power stations, airports, fuel refineries, and schools. From Louisiana, Harvey continued to venture northeast, gradually dissipating before being absorbed by another low-pressure system north of Lake Erie on September 3.
As of October of 2017, Hurricane Harvey had claimed 90 lives with one death occurring in Guyana and the rest in the United States. The storm left behind a devastated landscape, and experts say that it will take years to rebuild homes, shore up infrastructure, and rehouse the many displaced residents. "This is going to be a massive, massive clean-up process.... This is not going to be a short-term project. This is going to be a multi-year project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe," said Governor Greg Abbott.
Impact of Event
Global warming has been blamed for contributing to the intensity of Hurricane Harvey. The rising air temperatures within the Gulf region have made it possible for the air to retain more moisture, and the rising sea levels have made flooding more likely in Gulf Coast areas. The sea levels around Houston have notably risen six inches higher within a span of 20 years.
Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico during August are not unusual, and Houston is located in a flood-prone area. However, scientists contend that global warming has affected the weather patterns in the region, and "stationary summer weather patterns" could have contributed to the storm "stalling" over Houston for several days, according to climatologist Michael E. Mann. Moreover, nine of the ten most destructive storms in the United States have occurred since 2000, which further highlights the likely impact of climate change.
Many of the victims of Hurricane Harvey will not easily recover from the epic flooding. In the immediate wake of the hurricane, Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston implemented a curfew to discourage looting. Abbott deployed the state's National Guard to maintain order and help with the recovery, clean-up, and search-and-rescue operations; other states followed suit.
As part of the years-long recovery efforts, a disaster relief bill was approved by Congress in early September of 2017. It includes 7.4 billion dollars for the Disaster Relief Fund Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for disaster assistance, 450 million dollars to finance disaster loans for small businesses, and another 7.4 billion dollars in community development block grants for all the disasters that occurred in 2017. There has also been an outpouring of funding and support from corporations and organizations across the country.
A number of the victims who were displaced by the storm have returned to devastated neighborhoods. Many of the middle-class residents from the ravaged areas are able to take advantage of their flood insurance to rebuild their homes, but not everyone is able to do so. Public health professionals have voiced concerns about the risks of pollution and its health implications in the afflicted areas. Experts say that air pollutants have been released and that quantities are rising as the oil and gas industries restart operations that were suspended during the storm. In fact, experts say that the discharge of chemical vapors could be larger than what has been reported. According to Elena Craft, senior toxicologist at the Environment Defense Fund, people have been complaining about headaches, watering eyes, and burning nasal passages. Craft notes that the individual chemicals are less of a concern than when the liquids and gases co-mingle to make "toxic chemicals," which contribute to the risk of cancer in the long term.
Another public health concern is the risk of contracting dangerous diseases in the hurricane-affected areas. Recently, there were two reported deaths resulting from a "flesh-eating bacteria" known as necrotizing fasciitis--a rapidly spreading skin infection which kills the body's soft tissue. The condition can become fatal in a short period of time if left untreated. The disease can be caused by various types of bacteria although Group A streptococcus is considered the most common offender. Symptoms include fever, chills, and painful swelling. Seventy-seven-year-old Nancy Reed was the first reported victim. She contracted the disease after sustaining injuries inside a flooded Houston home in September. Thirty-one-year-old Josue Zurita later lost his life to the medical condition. A native of Mexico, Zurita was helping with the rebuilding efforts before he became infected--likely due to contact with contaminated water or debris. He was admitted to the hospital on October 10 and died six days later. Another individual, first responder and medic J. R. Atkins was also infected, but survived. Despite these concerns, the chances of contracting the disease are slim. However, Zurita's death has prompted authorities to push for better awareness regarding the disease. Moreover, everyone in the hurricane-affected areas is advised to maintain rigorous sanitary habits and immediately treat even minor wounds.
In early 2018, the nation continues to recover from the devastation left behind by Hurricane Harvey because the event created such large-scale human misery and suffering. With so many people in need of disaster assistance, victims continue to recover from the physical and emotional wounds inflicted by the storm.