What you need to know about Hurricane Harvey

Animated .gif provided by the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) shows Hurricane Harvey’s path on August 25, 2017.

Texas Tribune

As Hurricane Harvey barrels toward the Texas coast, Texans are bracing for extreme flooding and potential damage to their communities. Harvey was recently updated to a Category 3 hurricane, with winds around 120 miles per hour — but it could become nearly a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of 125 miles per hour, by the time it makes landfall this weekend. Some projections expect 15-25 inches of rain in areas along the coast. 

A hurricane hasn’t hit Texas soil since 2008, and the coastal region’s surging population and booming oil industry — coupled with past weather events — are raising concerns that the state is unprepared.

Here’s what you need to know:

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Friday afternoon that President Donald Trump planned to visit the state next week. “It looks like the president will try to make plans to go to Texas early next week,” she said, “and we’ll keep you posted on details on those as they’re firmed up.”

White House officials went to great effort on Friday to appear prepared for a worst-case natural disaster and to urge those in the path of the storm to heed the guidance of local authorities.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s declared a state of disaster for 30 Texas counties and has directed the Texas Department of Public Safety’s State Operations Center to up its readiness level before Harvey hits, was briefed Friday on the hurricane and held a press conference afterward.

Abbott announced at the conference he requested a presidential disaster declaration related to the storm and encouraged Texans in coastal areas to evacuate their homes. But he stressed that whether to call for mandatory evacuations was a decision best left to local leaders, who he said can make better judgements for their areas.

“I can be suggestive of what I would do,” Abbott said when asked if he could put pressure on local officials to encourage more evacuations, “and that is, if I were living in the Houston region as I once did, I would decide to head to areas north of there.”

However, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner appeared to take a different stance in a tweet Friday afternoon: “Please think twice before trying to leave Houston en masse. No evacuation orders have been issued for the city.”

The governor also said the state has 41,000 shelter beds available for evacuees and more than 200 buses available to transport Texans out of coastal areas such as Corpus Christi, where storm surge and flooding are expected to pose the greatest risks. Texas state parks, Abbott added, are also available for evacuees to stay at no cost.

“We are going to be dealing with immense, really record-setting flooding,” he said.

What’s happened so far 

Texans along the coast have been asked to move inland or seek higher ground ahead of this weekend; on South Padre Island, people are loading up on water and filling sandbags to protect vulnerable homes and businesses. Some are already comparing Harvey to Allison, a 2001 tropical storm whose heavy and prolonged rainfall made for one of the most expensive and deadly weather events in recent Southeast Texas history.

The city of Port Aransas issued a mandatory evacuation Thursday, and so did Calhoun County — a strip of land along the coast that more than 20,000 people call home. Brazoria County, which has a population of around 340,000 residents, has ordered a mandatory evacuation as well — but only for people living on the Gulf side of the Intracoastal Canal. Matagorda County has issued a mandatory evacuation for its 36,000 residents, and so has Jackson County, another area along the coast that has a population of around 15,000 people. The cities of Galveston and Corpus Christi called for voluntary evacuations Thursday afternoon.

As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Border Patrol said it did not plan to close its roadside immigration checkpoints north of the Rio Grande Valley unless there is a danger to travelers or its agents. And in a joint statement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Friday, they announced routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations would not be conducted at evacuation centers.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi issued one of its own on Wednesday, and the University of Houston has announced it’s closing campus for the weekend. School districts in Houston are considering canceling the first day of classes Monday, and New Braunfels ISD announced it was delaying its first day of school due to Harvey.

State prisons that could potentially be affected by the hurricane are prepared for power outages and have stocked up on additional supplies, according to a statement from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. No prison evacuations have taken place, and the current plan is for prisoners to “shelter in place,” but the department said it will continue to monitor the storm and make changes as needed. Inmates at the Port Isabel immigrant detention facility in the Rio Grande Valley are being temporarily transferred ahead of the storm.

Is the Texas coast ready?

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica asked this same question for a major investigative project last year — and found some uncomfortable answers. Houston, the largest city in the state, is seriously ill-prepared.

If a hurricane hits the thousands of storage tanks — ones that hold the world’s largest concentrations of oil, gases and chemicals — that line the Houston Ship Channel just right, more than 25 feet of water could shoot up the channel. And if even one tank ruptured because of it, hundreds of thousands of people could be impacted.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, gushing floods caused one Houston Ship Channel refinery’s oil tank to rupture — and sent oil into more than 1,700 homes a mile away. The Houston area has schools and neighborhoods that are less than a mile from large refineries and oil storage terminals.

On top of those Ship Channel fears, unchecked development has continued in Houston, creating economic success for some — but upping the flood risk for everyone.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush asked local and state leaders in Juneto urge the Trump administration to fund a coastal barrier system for Texas. Protecting the state’s coast was his agency’s no. 1 priority this year, he said, adding, “We are just as vulnerable to a major storm today as we were in 2008 — and that’s bad news.”

With voluntary evacuations beginning, traffic could be a nightmare

Southeast Texas’ booming population, paired with mandatory evacuations, could bring the state back to the Hurricane Rita and Ike days, when traffic jams filled some of Texas’ busiest highways as people sought safer ground. It’s possible that another traffic nightmare could precede what’s in store this weekend, especially as people along the coast head up to Dallas, Austin or San Antonio.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Texas Department of Transportation said it hadn’t yet turned some highways in the state into one-way roads to speed evacuations. The agency will only do so once there are mandatory evacuations.

“The time to leave is during voluntary evacuations because once it becomes mandatory, there’s going to be a lot of traffic,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer. “If it does get to the point where we are having mandatory evacuations and we have to implement contraflow, it is going to take a good length of time.”

Officials were encouraging people to fill up gas tanks in case local officials began mandatory clearings. The transportation agency plans to end all ferry service to and from Port Aransas on Friday morning.

“You’ve got until tomorrow late morning to use the ferries,” Beyer said.

How Texans are reacting so far 

Some of you have shared your experience with past hurricanes and tropical storms on Twitter. @cottagelmagin said, “I remember Alicia… no power for 2 weeks, massive tree cleanup and miserable humidity.” Another user, @Comeonpurpletx, said, “Alicia destroyed my house; Ike flooded family’s; worried about flooding here in Clear Lake w/ Harvey.” @TheMermaidAg: “Ike hit 2 weeks into my freshman year at A&M Galveston. We evacuated and spent the semester in College Station during recovery.” And state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, weighed in, too: “I remember 1 hurricane when we opened the school gym 4 pple to stay in. My dad was principal & the school was all there was.”

Tweet us your experiences and tell us how you’re preparing for Harvey this weekend with #MyTexasTake. Stay safe this weekend.

Take this information with you into the weekend 

Brandon Formby, Shannon Najmabadi, Edgar Walters, Abby Livingston and Jolie McCullough contributed to this report. 

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