Hurricane Harvey devastates Houston
A hurricane that turned into the greatest rainstorm in U.S. history devastated Houston and the surrounding area this week, leaving nearly a third of the city submerged, driving tens of thousands from their homes, and killing dozens of people. After making landfall on Friday near Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane, Harvey weakened to a tropical storm and moved back into the Gulf of Mexico, and then stalled. For five days, the storm battered southeast Texas with more than 4 feet of rain; one weather station recorded almost 52 inches, 4 inches more than the previous record for the continental U.S. As Houston’s streets and highways became deep, rushing rivers littered with abandoned cars, residents sought to escape their flooded homes by any available means. More than 10,000 people were rescued by emergency workers in boats, trucks, and helicopters; thousands of others were picked up by volunteers in fishing boats, dinghies, kayaks, airboats, and other vessels. More than 32,000 residents took refuge in 231 shelters across the city; many others fled to Austin and other nearby cities. By the time the storm finally moved on, making its second landfall in Louisiana early Wednesday morning, as much as 30 percent of Houston was underwater.
The death toll stood at 30 on Wednesday afternoon, but that figure was expected to rise significantly. The dead included a couple and four grandchildren who perished after getting trapped in a van, and a police officer who died trying to drive to work. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who decided against ordering a mandatory evacuation ahead of the storm, imposed a nighttime curfew on the city to curb “small-scale looting.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mobilized the state’s entire available National Guard force of 12,000 people. The storm knocked at least 10 oil refineries offline, and tainted floodwaters with toxic chemicals; analysts predicted gas prices would go up about 15 cents a gallon nationwide. (See Business News.)
After monitoring the storm from the White House and Camp David, President Donald Trump flew to Texas on Tuesday, meeting firefighters in Corpus Christi and disaster response officials in Austin. “This is historic, it’s epic what happened,” he told well-wishers. “But you know what, it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything.”
What the editorials said
Harvey will “etch itself in the pantheon of great natural disasters alongside storms like Katrina and Andrew,” said The New York Times. Houston’s “unchecked urban sprawl” contributed to the devastation: Developers have paved over the low-lying wetlands and prairies that once allowed floodwater to “seep into the ground.” Climate change probably also made this storm much worse. While global warming can’t be blamed for causing a specific storm, rising temperatures heat the oceans—and ocean warmth intensifies hurricanes. Warmer air also causes “more evaporation, more moisture in the atmosphere, and heavier rainfall.”
It’s encouraging to see officials “putting into practice the lessons of past extreme weather,” said The Wall Street Journal. Learning from the disastrously bad response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA teams deployed on the ground before Harvey hit, rather than waiting for governors to request their assistance. “Clear lines of authority” were established between local, state, and federal responders. And Mayor Turner was right not to order a mandatory evacuation—when the city told its residents to leave ahead of another 2005 hurricane, “more than 100 people died” in the ensuing chaos.
What the columnists said
“Harvey is what climate change looks like,” said Eric Holthaus in Politico.com. The storm “drew its energy” from the Gulf of Mexico, where sea-surface temperatures were as much as 7.2 degrees above average. The storm likely stalled in one location because climate change has reduced the strength of prevailing winds that normally push weather systems on. One climatologist estimates as much as 30 percent of Harvey’s rainfall is attributable to global warming, said Robinson Meyer in TheAtlantic.com. And Houston will likely suffer more extreme weather in the future. The city “has seen four 100-year flooding events since the spring of 2015.”
Even in responding to a national disaster, Trump “managed to turn attention on himself,” said Jenna Johnson in The Washington Post. The president excitedly tweeted about the strength of the storm, using words like “epic” and “historic” as if he were “describing a sporting match or an action movie.” Then on his visit to Texas, he never once mentioned those killed or affected—instead talking about how he and Gov. Abbott would “congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”
Let’s put aside politics for a few days, said Christian Caryl in WashingtonPost.com. Harvey has been a reminder that we can still bridge our “tribal divisions” when life is at stake. In Houston, thousands of volunteers set off in boats “to help people they’d never met before,” with whites rescuing African-Americans, Hispanics rescuing whites, human beings risking their lives for one another. Color, creed, politics—none of that mattered. As devastating as this storm has been, it has offered a “glimpse of the United States as we should strive to be.”
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images. Cover photos from AP (3)