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Hurricane Harvey Devastates Houston

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Hurricane Harvey caused record flooding in Houston. Those poor people!


Figure 1. Flooding in Port Arthur, TX, from Hurricane Harvey. Source: South Carolina National Guard, 2017.

Most of you know about the terrible disaster that Hurrican Harvey caused in Houston, TX. The disaster will inevitably be compared to Hurricane Katrina and the flood that struck New Orleans. In both cases, a major city was flooded by a hurricane. Houston, however, is a metropolitan area with a population of about 6.3 million people, while New Orleans is a metropolitan area with a population of about 1.3 million. That means that Houston is almost 5 times as large.

New Orleans flooded so catastrophically because much of the city is below sea level. The levies broke, the ocean poured through, and the low areas filled up with water just like a bathtub would. Coastal Texas is a flat, low-lying area, some of which was swamp or marshland before being developed. It is not below sea level, however. Houston flooded because Hurricane Harvey dumped prodigious amounts of rain on the city – more than 4 feet of rain in some areas. The water couldn’t run off fast enough, and flooding occurred. The tragedy has been well covered by all of the national news sources, so I have contented myself with a single photograph of the flooding in Port Arthur, a small city about 100 miles northeast of Houston. (Figure 1) This blog focuses not on individual events, but on trends and on the big picture.

(Click on photo for larger view.)

Figure 2. Flooding in Houston from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Source: Harris County Flood Control District.

Houston has been hit repeatedly by tropical storms and hurricanes. From 1836 to 1936, the city suffered through 16 major floods, with the water level reaching as high as 40 feet in one of them. Since 1935, there have been 8 more. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dumped up to 35 inches of rain on Houston over 5 days, resulting in flooding that damaged over 73,000 homes and caused $5 billion in property damage (see Figure 2). In 2008, Hurricane Ike passed directly over the city, breaking out windows in downtown skyscrapers and wiping out electricity to some customers for over a month. Over the Memorial Day Holiday in 2015, rain of up to 11 inches over 24 hours drenched Houston, flooding thousands of homes. In April 2016 (last year), a trough of rain parked over the city, and over 24 hours, 17 inches of rain fell. They had to rescue 1,800 people from the floods, but even so 8 died and 1,144 homes were inundated.

But flooding is not limited to Houston. In April of this year, flooding in Missouri and Arkansas caused $1.7 billion in damages. In February, flooding in California caused $1.5 billion in damages, including Oroville Dam (see here). In October, 2016, Hurricane Matthew churned along the Atlantic Coast causing damage. In August, 2016, Louisiana received 20-30 inches of rain from a stationary storm, causing $10.3 billion in damages. And a December 2015 storm brought record flooding to Missouri and tornadoes to Texas, causing 50 deaths and $2.5 billion in damages. The list goes on and on.

Figure 3. Hurricane Irma Devastated the Island of St. Maarten. Photo: Gerb van Es, Dutch Department of Defense.

UPDATE: As of 9/8/2017, three more tropical storms have formed in the Atlantic Ocean: Hurricane Irma, a Catagory 5 hurricane (the largest category), passed over several Caribbean islands causing terrible damage (see Figure 3). As I write, it is bearing down on Florida. How bad will it be? We don’t know; it has diminished to a Category 4 hurricane, but it is wider than the Florida Peninsula is, and it is currently forecast to travel south to north right up the entire peninsula. Tropical Storm Jose is gaining strength in the mid-Atlantic, threatening many of the same islands that were just devastated by Irma, though it is forecast to turn north. And Hurricane Katia has formed just north of the Yucatan Peninsula, and is expected to come ashore north of Veracruz, Mexico.

What is happening? Has it always been this way, or is there more very damaging weather than there used to be? The next post will look at the national trend, and the post after that will look at the trend in Missouri.

Sources:

Gerb van Es, Dutch Department of Defense. Aerial Photo Shows the Damage of hurrican Irma in Phillipsburg, on the Dutch portion of the Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten. Downloaded 9/8/2017 from https://www.caymancompass.com/2017/09/07/enormous-catastrophe-st-martin-reeling-from-hurricane-damage.

Harris County Flood Control District. Harris County’s Flooding History. Viewed online 8/30/2017 at https://www.hcfcd.org/flooding-floodplains/harris-countys-flooding-history.

Harris County Flood Control District. Tropical Storm Allison. Viewed online 8/30/2017 at https://www.hcfcd.org/storm-center/tropical-storm-allison-2001.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2017). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions.

South Carolina National Guard. 8/31/2017. Image #170831-Z-AH923-081. Downloaded 9/8/2017 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62096178.

Wikipedia. April 2016 United States Storm Complex. Viewed online 8/30/2017 at https://www.hcfcd.org/storm-center/tropical-storm-allison-2001.

Wikipedia. Houston. Viewed online 8/30/2017 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston.

Wikipedia. New Orleans. Viewed online 8/30/2017 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston.

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