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Surreal state from the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey: While We’re Waiting

REUTERS/Richard Carson

Apologies to those looking for WFNY’s Scott Sargent, but, as the resident Texan at WFNY, I hijacked the spot to discuss Hurricane Harvey, which continues to devastate Southeast Texas.

“I don’t have time for that.” a member of the Houston police department responded tersely to reporters on the KHOU 11 live stream on Sunday who were peppering him with questions about how many people had been evacuated, how many had been saved. He went on to explain the people on the ground were keeping notes and they would eventually have overall numbers, but the number one priority right now was saving lives. Hurricane Harvey was still sitting over Houston 48 hours after making landfall in Rockport Texas as a Category 4 Hurricane (winds 140 miles per hour) and dumping water at rates that were expected to top all previous records (by the end of the storm, 50 inches are projected in some areas).

Making saving lives the number one priority was seen throughout the weekend. FEMA director Brock Long was quoted as saying “save lives first, do the paperwork later” when he was asked if he had a message to public and private organizations that had seen red tape slow down relief efforts in past disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The message appeared to have been received as reports of companies such as Anheuser-Busch1 and HEB delivering water and supplies to the evacuation centers and elsewhere were not met with the same resistance previously seen. The American Red Cross led an organized effort to distribute the supplies and open these evacuation centers in schools, churches, and community centers outside the areas most in peril from flooding.

Even the local television crews were getting into the act. Brandi Smith of KHOU 11 was live when she noticed a man trapped in his semi-truck on a flooded road; away from the visibility of the patrolling rescue missions. Still on air, she abandoned her report to flag down a passing patrol car and direct them to the location of the man, saving his life.

https://twitter.com/JMKTV/status/901842756829679616

KHOU 11 was a lifeblood of communication for anyone with the desire to track the storm. Their YouTube live stream channel continued to report the devastation and heroics throughout the weekend. Working on little sleep and often wondering aloud if the equipment was even working or connected, the reporters traversed their city to ensure all were able to see what was happening and keep up to date on the latest advisories from the local authorities.

To anyone outside the city, the efforts were appreciated as a window inside devastation. An unfiltered peek without the interruptions of politics seen on CNN, FOXNews, or MSNBC. To those inside the city, the efforts were nothing less than heroic. A needed communication channel for those hunkered down wondering if and when the risk of the surrounding, rising waters would tilt the assessment towards evacuating their homes.

Here is the saved feed from Sunday. You will notice that the feed changes from having a KHOU 11 stamp to WFAA during the day. The KHOU 11 offices in downtown Houston flooded to the second floor, knocking out their equipment. WFAA in Dallas worked quickly to pickup the feed and take over the main desk responsibilities for the rest of the day. Teamwork, journalism, and humanity in harmony.

Texans get a bad rap in the nation as being stereotypically proud and stubborn. It is not untrue. The often untold portion of those characteristics is the pride can take hold in the love for the area and people who inhabit it. The stubbornness can take hold in the unwillingness to fold in the face of tragedy. Both traits were full on display throughout the weekend.

When 20 to 30 inches of rain fall in 48 hours, flooding will happen. When the rainfall happens over an overpopulated area that doubles as one of the main feeders into the Gulf of Mexico, flooding will be horrendous. The mayor of Houston was stuck with an impossible decision. Order an evacuation of the entire city, parts of the city, or advise that everyone take every precaution possible, while remaining in their homes. Evacuating the entire city- and region- would include seven million displaced people. Evacuating portions of the city would have the probable effect of invoking panic and causing others to also evacuate. In either case, the already often clogged highways and roadways out of Houston would become logjams of vehicles.

In any other city, such traffic would be problematic for supplies and rescue necessities coming into the city. In Houston, such traffic could cause widespread calamity. Why? Houston engineers were stuck with a seemingly impossible problem. Millions upon millions of people living and building upon the marshes that would naturally drain the 50 inches of average rainfall Houston receives per year (remember that number) with some mild flooding. Creating an urban center on this location meant a solution to the water issue needed to be solved.

Digging under ground was deemed out of the question- Texas homes do not have basements due to limestone bed beneath the sandy soil surface. The best solution was deemed to utilize the natural roadways and highways to keep the water away from the homes. What most would see as an on ramp to a highway, these engineers saw as a way of housing thousands of gallons of water until it could be drained.

So, I-610 is one of the main highways people would utilize to evacuate Houston. It is also one of the main temporary reservoirs designed into the flood solution. What happens when you have a traffic jam on this highway and flooding hits? Thankfully, we did not find out.

The rainfall exceeded the ability for the infrastructure to absorb the accumulation of water though and many areas, including downtown Houston became inundated. Low level areas such as Dickinson saw families climbing to their roof despite the continued downpour of a tropical storm so that rescue efforts might find them.

One of the issues though was that there were simply not enough rescue boats that could traverse the lower level waters. The city of Houston put out a request for any private citizens who could help with these areas. The response was overwhelming as the community rallied.

Houston is not out of danger yet. The flood waters are slowly receding on Monday as the rain has lessened, but nine trillion gallons of water have already been dumped on the city. The Washington Post did the math to show that would be enough water to cover the entire contiguous United States with almost a quarter of an inch (0.17 inches). And yet, Harvey has another expected trick up his sleeve. The current weather projections are for Harvey to meander back over the Gulf of Mexico, absorb the moisture from the warm water, and make one more push through Southeast Texas with another 20 inches of rainfall expected. The total would push the overall total to 50 inches, the average annual rainfall in just under five days. 60 inches in that timeframe- considered not out of the question- is a once in a million year event.

I was one of the fortunate ones.2 Living in the outskirts of Austin, the storm was projected to hit and cause flooding especially to areas North of San Antonio such as Wimberley (see: 2015 Wimberley floods). Instead, the brunt of the storm stopped East of the city, sparing many of the vulnerable areas in Central Texas. The rain was constant throughout the weekend and the wind caused some minor damage, but the perspective of those living in the utter devastation in Houston made us all realize how lucky we were. My family even spent some time playing outside in the cool temperatures despite the rain as a celebration of our blessings.3

I know there are those that scoff at why prayers matter and rebuke such messages in the aftermath of such natural disasters often dubbed as acts of God. Please understand how vital it is to our existence as a society that we see the good in all of us. The good that is often hidden as we wage meaningless wars of words upon the fringes of our existence. The good that often rises when we are forced to respond to calamity.4

So, I pray for everyone in Houston. I pray for those who need rescuing. I pray for those showing the courage and bravery to rescue those in need. I pray for everyone leading the efforts and having to make the tough decisions on how to direct the response.

But, I also pray for all those with such hate in their hearts that they send out messages of anything but love over this tragedy. The vitriol was easy to push aside this weekend given the valor and sacrifice being shown, but impossible to ignore. “Your side” does not get to claim victory for this weekend. The response and the strength showed does not give anyone an ability to express indignation upon a particular person or group. America came together to show we can handle tragedy and pick each other up. We need to celebrate that for all our faults, our country can still be great.

As Houston teeters between the current catastrophe and potential biblical proportion devastation, I am proud to report humanity is winning the day. Stories of heroism have been prominent; not looting and crime and assault. Maxed out on rescue efforts saw private boats fill the gap. Reporters not only reported the news but helped direct emergency response. It was beautiful. It was America.

https://twitter.com/Mikel_Jollett/status/901911247754485760

  1. Stopped canning beer to can water for Houston this weekend. []
  2. Not much changed for us as living 20 minutes from the nearest gas station means having a generator, lots of water and other supplies as a way of life. Still, the surreal state of watching the clouds of the storm while not being hit by the beast of it was crazy. []
  3. Note: Texans are so great that there were no room for additional volunteers at evacuation and food centers over the weekend. With public officials telling people not to travel to Houston- would cause more issues than solve- it wound up being a weekend to cherish with our family. []
  4. A big thanks to the countless amount of people who checked in on me this weekend. It was appreciated. []