ROCKPORT, Tex. — Hurricane Harvey bombarded a stretch of the Gulf Coast in Texas on Saturday with home-ripping winds and epic rains. As emergency officials scrambled to assess the extent of the damage, hundreds of thousands of people were without power after utility poles were knocked to the ground as if they were twigs.
The storm made landfall in this coastal city, ripping away roofs, leveling palm trees and road signs, and turning ranch land into lakes. Mayor Charles J. Wax said Saturday that conditions were too dangerous to send out emergency officials but that an initial review, as the storm’s eye passed overnight, had found “widespread damage.”
“We took a Category 4 storm right on the nose,” the mayor said.
Those who rode out the storm were in awe of Harvey’s power. Standing by his ripped-up home in Sienna Plantation, a community southwest of Houston, Jamie Ellis, 48, said he had been watching a movie about 1 a.m. Saturday when a tornado swept through that sounded “like a freight train was coming.” The lights went out, the upstairs French doors flew open, and objects began careening around inside his house. He, his wife, Stacie, and his son, Zach, took refuge in a bedroom closet.
Harvey was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005, and it was expected to hover over Texas until at least midweek. A fierce Category 4 hurricane when it struck land on Friday night, it eased by Saturday into a tropical storm. Still, meteorologists warned that as much as three feet of rain could fall across a vast area from Corpus Christi to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“Storm surge is the most dangerous element of hurricanes,” Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN. “It has the highest potential to kill the most amount of people.”
By midnight, the authorities had reported two deaths that appeared to be related to the storm, one in Rockport and the other in Houston. But forecasters warned that Harvey’s onslaught was just beginning. In an advisory on Saturday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was already producing “torrential rains,” and it warned that “catastrophic flooding” was likely in the days ahead.
At a news conference in Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott said Saturday afternoon that officials remained active in search and rescue efforts. “We don’t have any information right now that we can confirm” about deaths, he said.
The storm remained a hurricane well after it made landfall about 10 p.m. Friday, and the deluge of rain made it difficult for the authorities to conduct even preliminary damage assessments. More than 250,000 Texans were without electricity on Saturday, a figure that was likely to increase.
The authorities ordered evacuations over a wide area of the state.
A few miles outside Rockport, a recreational vehicle lay on its side in the middle of a two-lane highway with its roof ripped off and an orange X spray-painted on its bumper, an apparent signal by emergency workers that the vehicle had been checked for people inside and cleared. A small herd of longhorn cattle waded through a flooded field, searching for dry ground.
“It was very frightening,” said Gene Coxsey, 84, standing in the shadow of a severely damaged hotel. “I’m not sure why it didn’t cross my mind a couple of times that I should have got the hell out of Dodge.”
Concerned about rising floodwaters, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice evacuated about 4,500 inmates on Saturday from prisons near the Brazos River to locations in East Texas.
In Houston, the lights began to blink and, in some places, go out. The city’s bayous were rising, and its roads, mostly quiet since Friday night, remained eerily empty. Although Houston, a city of about 2.3 million, is among the nation’s most flood-prone major cities, the local authorities did not order an evacuation.
Juan Cruz, 52, bought a tarpaulin from a Walmart north of downtown to help cover his leaky roof. He lived through Hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1998 and remembered how it had killed his neighbors, flooded roads and torn up bridges.
“Maybe it won’t be that bad,” he said of Harvey. “It depends on God.”
Nearby, a homeless man, Roy Joe Cox, 63, pulled a rolling suitcase. “A hurricane is coming, and I have nowhere to go,” he said.
Tears formed in his sky blue eyes. He normally lives under a nearby bridge, he said, and was hoping to get a blanket to protect him from the incoming storm. “I’m not a thief,” he said. “But I was going to steal it, because I don’t have any money.”
The storm forced hundreds of flight cancellations, partly because Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have major presences in Houston, according to FlightAware, which monitors air traffic. Two cruise ships that were scheduled to return to Galveston, Tex., on Saturday were diverted to New Orleans.
The storm took an unusual path toward meteorological infamy. The system first became Tropical Storm Harvey on Aug. 17, when it was about 250 miles east of Barbados. Two days later, it disintegrated into a tropical wave. But on Wednesday, the system gained new and startling power, and forecasters issued the first hurricane watches for the Texas coast.
By Friday night, fed by stable air and the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, it had grown into a Category 4 storm with sustained wind speeds of 130 m.p.h. In years past, major hurricanes caused immediate spikes in oil and gasoline prices, but as hard as Hurricane Harvey has hit the region’s refineries, the impact at the pump has so far been muted.
However, it may take days before the full impact of the storm is known. Roughly a million barrels a day of refining capacity has been shut down on the Gulf Coast, and nearly a quarter of gulf offshore production has been shut. The Corpus Christi shipping terminals responsible for importing and exporting oil and refined products are also closed. And if the ship channel between Port Aransas and Aransas Pass is badly damaged, it could take weeks for products to leave South Texas refineries, even if the plants are not harmed.
Gasoline shortages are already appearing around Houston, where drivers have been waiting in long lines to fill up. Dozens of gasoline stations have run out of fuel in the metropolitan area, and prices at the pump have risen about 3 cents a gallon around the city this week.
Few if any places in the world have as much energy infrastructure in harm’s way as the Gulf of Mexico coast. Houston, Corpus Christi, Texas City and other cities have vast refineries and natural gas terminals, which make and store dangerous chemicals. The gulf itself is crisscrossed by oil and natural gas pipelines that connect production platforms to pipelines onshore. The potential for environmental catastrophe, or at least a crippling blow to the national economy, is always there when a hurricane strikes.
The region’s energy complex has dodged many bullets over the years, but damage assessments after a hurricane hits can take weeks.
The last time a hurricane hit Texas was 2008, when Hurricane Ike barreled into Galveston, only miles from Texas City and the Houston Ship Channel and their high concentration of refineries and chemical plants. There was no disaster, but the ports of Freeport, Texas City and Lake Charles, La., remained closed for days, and extensive flooding crippled some refineries and left them without power for more than a week.