The predictions and assessments turned out to be accurate.
Coastal Texas is in line for a significant hurricane threat. Hurricane Harvey is in the western Gulf of Mexico, and our best weather models bring it directly to the central Texas by early Saturday. There are so many things that worry me about this storm, and many of them are not the obvious threats that the public may immediately think of with a potentially major (Category 3 or higher) hurricane bearing down on the United States. Herein, I discuss four of them.
Hurricane Amnesia: The hurricane was expected to make landfall near Corpus Christi late Friday or early Saturday as a major hurricane. As of Thursday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center was issuing the following key warnings about Hurricane Harvey, which rapidly strengthened Thursday morning,
Harvey has intensified rapidly, and is forecast to be a major hurricane at landfall, bringing life-threatening storm surge, rainfall, and wind hazards to portions of the Texas coast. Preparations to protect life and property should be completed by tonight, as tropical-storm-force winds will first arrive in the hurricane and storm surge warning areas on Friday……A Storm Surge Warning is in effect for much of the Texas coast. Life-threatening storm surge flooding could reach heights of 6 to 12 feet above ground level at the coast between the north entrance of the Padre Island National Seashore and Sargent.
These are routine warnings for a storm of this potential magnitude. However, the problem is that the United States has not had a major hurricane make landfall in some time. I think the “landfalling hurricane drought” is about to end. Unfortunately, that drought has probably left much of the public with “hurricane amnesia.” One of my greatest fears as a meteorologist is that complacency will cause people to let down their guard. In some cases, new residents to the Texas coastal and inland regions may not have experienced a hurricane at all. Hurricane expert Dr. Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University tweeted that the last hurricane to impact Texas with winds greater than 125 mph, the National Hurricane Center projection for Harvey, was Hurricane Celia in 1970. The last major hurricane to make landfall in Texas was Hurricane Bret in 1999. This means that if you are a Texan younger than 18, you have not experienced a storm of this magnitude. This link provides valuable information on how to prepare.
The Post-Landfall Flood Threat: To complicate matters, the most dangerous aspect of this hurricane may be days of rainfall and associated flooding. Many of our best models suggests that Harvey will make landfall, which brings immediate problems, and then linger for days as a weak tropical system. This danger may be lost on the average citizen that mistakenly perceives the danger to be “over” once the storm makes landfall. Some early model guidance suggests that a weakened version of Harvey could remain parked over the area for almost a week. The National Weather Service is estimating over 15-20 inches of rainfall. Frankly, I cannot rule out isolated amounts of 2 to 3 feet. These numbers are staggering for an area that is already prone to flooding. The weather community has long warned that water (storm surge and inland freshwater flooding) is the most deadly aspects of hurricanes. This sustained threat of rainfall worries me greatly.
Residents of this same region may remember Tropical Storm Allison. Allison made an initial landfall and then meandered for days. It ultimately produced nearly 3 feet of rainfall and caused life-altering flooding. Some of my own published research in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters, has shown that weaker tropical systems can be some of the most high-impact flooding events. It is for this reason that coastal (and some inland) residents must not be lulled by the initial landfall of Harvey. In some ways, the landfall is just the beginning of this dangerous situation.
National Weather Service
Power Loss: A constant threat from this type of storm is loss of power. Professor Steven Quiring is a geographer at The Ohio State University. He and his colleagues from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University have developed a model for estimating power outages prior to the actual event. Quiring emailed me the following message,
The NHC official forecast (OFCI), based on information Thursday afternoon, estimates that approximately 1.5 million people (which is roughly equivalent to 500,000 utility customers) will lose power. This is a substantial increase from earlier today. While changes in the forecast intensity of Harvey will have an impact of the power outage predictions, there is also substantial uncertainty due to the track of the storm. If we use the COTI model from 18 UTC, this track shifts the landfall location to the east. If the storm makes landfall closer to Houston, the model estimates that the number of people who will lose power will approach 3.4 million (which is roughly equivalent to 500,000 utility customers). This illustrates that there is significant uncertainty in the power outage predictions due to uncertainty in the track and intensity forecasts.
The prototype power loss forecasts can be found at this link. Quiring pointed out that Harvey will cause trouble and that they have shared their information with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, FEMA, DHS and utilities in Texas.
Economic and “daily life” disruption: As school systems and businesses modify their schedules, it may be difficult for the region to grasp that this may be a high-impact event for a week. It could be tempting to assume that things will start “looking up” once the hurricane makes landfall. Unfortunately, the duration of this event will create significant stress on food supply, gasoline, energy, and day-to-day functionality. The affected area is also home to one-third of the nation’s refining capacity. Analysis are already reporting that gasoline futures and other aspects of the market are already responding to the threat.
Dr. Rheeda Walker is an associate professor of psychology at The University of Houston. She is also a former colleague at The University of Georgia. She told me,
I’m glad to see that people are taking the alerts seriously so much so that as of this afternoon, local stores are completely out of water. Some area schools are issuing closing announcements. My biggest concern is that this storm and the amount of rain and flooding could exceed all of our preparations and anything that we could have imagined living through. I pray that doesn’t happen.
Dr. Walker’s instincts are correct. I fear this may the last time we use the name “Harvey” since historically-high impact storms have their name retired. I hope that I am wrong.