Amid Chaos of Storms, U.S. Shows It Has Improved Its Response

ATLANTA — The two massive storms brought death and suffering and damage that will be measured in the billions of dollars. They left millions of residents cowering in their homes to ride out pounding rains, and left evacuees — hundreds of thousands of them — scattered across Texas and the Southeast.

At the same time, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have revealed a largely unnoticed truth often buried under the news of unfolding tragedy: The United States appears to be improving in the way it responds to hurricanes, at a time when climate scientists say the threats from such storms, fueled by warming oceans, are growing only more dire. For all the chaos, the death toll from Harvey and Irma remained surprisingly contained: about 85 thus far in Florida and Texas.

“There’s no doubt that we’re doing better,” said Brian Wolshon, a civil engineer professor and evacuation expert at Louisiana State University. “The stuff we’re doing is not rocket science, but it’s having the political will, and the need, to do it.”

Across much of Florida and the region on Tuesday, stressed and exhausted families were assessing damage from Irma, or just beginning the arduous journey home, often grappling with gasoline shortages, sweltering heat, and power and cell service disruptions in addition to downed trees and damaged property. At least 13 people were reported dead in Irma’s wake, although the toll could still rise in the Florida Keys.

The pain was felt where the storm hit hardest, like the Florida Keys, where an estimated 25 percent of homes were destroyed and bleary-eyed residents contemplated a battered landscape of destruction.

And the pain was felt far away as well: in Jacksonville, where there was still major flooding from epic storm surge, heavy rains and rising tides; in Georgia, where at least 1.2 million customers were without power Tuesday; and in Charleston, S.C., where Irma’s effects coincided with high tide, causing some of the worst flooding since Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989.

The political will Mr. Wolshon cited has arisen, in large part, from the two defining, and very different, disasters of the century: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and, four years later, Hurricane Katrina, whose floodwaters put most of New Orleans underwater and left more than 1,800 people dead.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Pennsylvania revolutionized the way American government coordinated disaster response. Katrina stimulated a new and robust conversation about the power of natural disasters, and, more specifically, forced Americans to rethink the growing threats from floodwater.

These issues have become central themes for government in recent years, and Richard Serino, a former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was not surprised that the response to the storms thus far has gone relatively well.

“It’s no accident,” he said. “We’ve been training people for this for the last 16 years.”

These events, and other disasters before and after, have fed into the collective knowledge of how a modern nation should respond to hurricanes, serving as catalysts for improvements in weather forecasting, evacuation policies and hurricane-resistant building practices.

Experts said all of them most likely played a role in keeping the death tolls lower than expected in the last few weeks. The planning and response also benefited from a few lucky turns in the weather, the growing sophistication of personal technology — the iPhone did not exist when Katrina struck — and a public dialed in to the internet and tuned into 24-hour television news.

The deadly problems posed by hurricanes are at once ancient and rather new: Hal Needham, a coastal hazard scientist who runs a private consulting business in Galveston, Tex., notes that it was not until after World War II that populations began to soar in the hurricane-vulnerable states of Texas and Florida. The rise of satellite-based meteorology came only in the 1960s. Before that, hurricanes could still come as a surprise.
Today, lawmakers enjoy better weather forecasts, but now face the problem of what to do with millions of people who may lie in a storm’s path. Mr. Wolshon does not agree with all of the evacuation decisions made in the face of Harvey and Irma, but he said they were made with an evolving and increasingly sophisticated understanding of the challenges.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local officials decided not to call for a mandatory evacuation before the arrival of Harvey, in part because of the nature of the threat to the area. Harvey, by the time it reached Houston, was not expected to bring storm surge or high winds, so much as pounding, extended rains. In this case, it was difficult to know which areas would flood and which would not. So officials decided to encourage people to stay put.

It was a marked difference to the strategy of Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who announced Thursday to 6.5 million people: “Leave now, don’t wait.”
Dr. Needham said that the move was probably the right one. “When Irma was bearing down on Southeast Florida it did appear several days out that we could potentially see Category 5 winds in the metro Miami area,” he said. “When you have a massive flood event, if you can you just go up, if you’re in a condo or an apartment.”

But in whipping, hurricane-force winds, sheltering in place probably would not have been as safe as hitting the road. Evacuation also made sense given the threat of huge storm surges, experts said.

Miami did not end up experiencing extreme winds, though much of South Florida did take a beating. Lives may have been saved because of the drastic overhaul of South Florida building codes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That massive storm damaged or destroyed 125,000 homes in the area, and the new codes have forced developers to build structures that could better withstand hurricane-force winds.

Houston, too, has learned from its tragic past. In July 2001, southeast Texas was hit hard by Tropical Storm Allison, which caused serious flooding. It prompted officials at Houston’s Texas Medical Center, billed as the largest medical complex in the world, to undertake a $50 million upgrade that included installing flood doors and putting generators high enough that they could not be inundated.

Dr. Needham said that these changes probably helped keep the death toll down in Texas. “If the power goes out in a hospital with premature babies and elderly people on ventilators, you can really see an increase in the loss of life,” he said.

Both Texas and Florida probably also benefited from the growth and sophistication of the federal Department of Homeland Security, and the training that even tiny communities have undergone since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The storms also unfolded at a time when government disaster response has grown more sophisticated, an evolutionary process that did not necessarily begin with the Sept. 11 attacks: James Witt, the FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, recalls going to Congress to fund a modern operations center after discovering what passed for one at FEMA headquarters up to that point.

“The operations center was so bad that they had telephone wires hanging out of the ceiling and foldup chairs and tables,” he said.

But the federal disaster-response system grew markedly after 9/11. And while the Homeland Security Department has been criticized as being expensive and bloated, it has also insured a system in which local, state and federal officials are inured to the idea of working and communicating together.

Still, few observers were openly celebrating the government response to the storms in the United States. The damage was too vast, not just in Texas and Florida but also in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The response continues, with the rebuilding likely to last years. And everyone knows that Texas and Florida had some good fortune beyond the scope of human influence: The big winds never hit the major urban areas, and in Florida, capricious Irma did not deliver a storm surge as devastating as some had predicted.
“While thankfully the impact on people injured or killed was low, this is largely a factor of luck,” said Ahmad Wani, chief executive of One Concern, a California-based company that seeks to use new technologies to create “next-generation disaster response” systems.

Mr. Serino said that Harvey had introduced another cutting-edge idea: relying on residents, not just government workers, to make significant contributions to hurricane response. “Now we’ve seen images of neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. “They’re the real emergency medical workers.”


Tropical Storm Bill blasts into saturated Texas

HOUSTON — Tropical Storm Bill roared into Texas on Tuesday, smashing into the beleaguered coast with heavy rains, sustained winds of 30 mph and gusts as high as 45 mph.

National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy said landfall took place Tuesday morning near the small town of Port O’Connor. A storm surge of 2-4 inches was expected from there north to Galveston Bay, he said.

“The biggest takeaways from this storm is heavy rains for two or three days, flash flooding and river flooding,” Murphy told USA TODAY. The region will see 6-10 inches of rain, and “there will be some areas that get more,” he said.

There is no place for the water to go: Texas has been blasted with heavy rains for the last two months. The Gainesville area already has seen 34 inches in 60 days, Murphy said. The annual average rainfall is 40 inches.

“Reservoirs are already full,” Murphy said. “Instead of taking the water in, they are going to have to release water.”

Schools in Houston were closed as the region braced for the onslaught of wind and water. The good news: Bill was expected to weaken after moving over land.

A Flash Flood Watch is effect for the Houston area through 6 p.m. Wednesday with street flooding likely from 6 to 8 inches of rain expected, the National Hurricane Center said. West of Houston, 10 to 15 inches of rain may fall, and south of the city, where heavy rains hit Saturday morning, the ground is already saturated.

Some areas of the state are still recovering from up to 25 inches of rain since early May.

“Instead of just an isolated area, it’s going to be area-wide,” said Harris County JudgeEd Emmett. “If you don’t have to be out Tuesday, Tuesday evening, don’t.”

People living along the Brazos and Colorado river basins should expect significant flooding as the tropical moisture moves through, forecasters said.

The Harris County Office of Emergency Management has been activated.

As if Texas hasn’t had enough rain this spring, now the state faces a visit from Tropical Storm Bill early Tuesday and with Bill, there are flood watches. VPC

And in North Texas, if Yogi Berra worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he’d be talking about déjà vu all over again.

“We’re going to have spillway activity, roads closed, impact to downstream properties,” said Corps engineer Jerry Cotter.

He said 5 to 7 inches of rain would create flooding very similar to what the area saw two weeks ago. Corps lakes have reduced discharges, but they’re still releasing water enough to protect the lakes without doing harm on the lower Trinity River.

“So we’ve been sitting here waiting for the floods to recede on the lower Trinity,” Cotter said. “We haven’t made much headway emptying out these flood-control pools.”

He said flood control lakes have been performing as they’re supposed to. He saidLake Ray Roberts now has a little capacity, which should help, depending on where the rain falls.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” Cotter said. “That we have enough capacity to handle it when it hits.”

Nevertheless, he says people who live and work downstream from Lewisville Lakeshould expect a repeat performance from the end of May.

Storms kill eight in Texas, Oklahoma; Houston hard-hit

Torrential rains have killed at least eight people in Texas and Oklahoma, including two in Houston where flooding turned streets into rivers and led to nearly 1,000 calls for help in the fourth-most populous U.S. city, officials said on Tuesday.

Another 12 people were missing in Texas after the storms slammed the states during the Memorial Day weekend, causing floods and tornadoes that destroyed homes and swept away bridges.

“There are still some significant areas of really devastating flooding in Houston,” Mayor Annise Parker said at a news conference, adding she has asked the governor to declare the city a disaster area.

She said most of Houston is high and dry but advised people to stay home.

President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that he had assured Texas Governor Greg Abbott that he could count on help from the federal government as the state recovers from the floods. Abbott has declared a state of disaster in 24 Texas counties.

There was no damage estimate available for the state, which has a $1.4 trillion-a-year economy and is the country’s main domestic source of energy as well as an agricultural and manufacturing power.

More bad weather was expected with the National Weather Service issuing a flash flood warning on Tuesday for Houston as a line of thunderstorms moved along the Gulf of Mexico coast toward Florida. It said there was a high chance of more rain and thunderstorms for Texas this week.

Rescue workers looked for 12 members of two families missing after their vacation home was swept off its foundation in Wimberley, a town about 30 miles southwest of Austin, where flood waters caused a wave of destruction.

“(People) have lost their homes, they have lost their livelihoods in some businesses,” said Wimberley Mayor Steve Thurber.

One of those killed was an 18-year-old girl whose car was swept away by flood waters as she returned home from her high school prom, police in Devine, Texas, south of San Antonio, said.

More than 40 flights were canceled as of 10 a.m. CDT (1100 ET) at airports in Houston and Dallas, some of the nation’s busiest, as blocked roads made it difficult for workers to get to their jobs. A sinkhole also closed a runway at the Dallas/Fort Worth International airport, according to media reports.

About 100,000 customers were without power throughout the state due to high winds and rising waters that caused power poles to snap.

In Houston, Parker said there were about 1,000 vehicles had been submerged in flood waters while in Austin, emergency crews used helicopters and boats to remove people from rushing water.

Texas, Oklahoma Floods: 12 People Missing as More Rain Forecast

Tornadoes and dangerous thunderstorms menaced Texas and Oklahoma on Monday while rescuers searched for 12 people, including at least three young children, still missing from historic flooding over the weekend.

At least seven people were confirmed dead over the holiday weekend’s storms and flooding, including a 14-year-old boy in Texas who was found inside a storm drain and believed to have drowned and a homecoming queen who was driving home from her prom. Four were confirmed dead in Oklahoma, including a Claremore firefighter who died during a water rescue, and a 33-year-old woman who died in a storm-related traffic accident in Tulsa.

Across the border in Mexico, a twister killed at least 13 more.

The 12 missing in the small town of Wimberley, Texas, between Austin and San Antonio, included members of two families who were vacationing together. The house they were staying in was swept away by flash floods on Sunday, relatives told NBC News.

Among them were Laura McComb and her two children. Laura’s husband, Jonathan, was hospitalized with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a broken sternum, his father, Joe McComb, told NBC News.

Grandfather Holds Out Hopes That Family Swept in Texas Floods Will Be Found

“They think a tree came along and knocked the house off, it was on piers,” he said. “At some point the house hit a bridge or something. They were being tossed around the house and then it hit something. They became separated at that point.”

He said his son was “still in a state of shock because of everything that just happened.”

Up to 72 structures in Wimberley were washed away, and 1,200 structures were damaged, said Kharley Smith, the emergency management coordinator in Hays County. Waters rose so quickly Sunday that roads turned to torrents, and 1,000 people were forced to evacuate.

“We have roads full of slabs now,” Smith said.

The mayor of Wimberley said Sunday afternoon that search operations were suspended so crews could be on hand for possible rescue situations.

The search was complicated by another round of severe weather. At least eight tornadoes were reported in Texas on Monday, including one at the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, according to the National Weather Service. Another was reported in Amory, Mississippi.

Tornado watches were posted for broad sections of Texas and Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City, Dallas and Waco.

In North Texas, forecasters warned of the possibility of the weather phenomenon known as a derecho — wind damage of more than 240 miles, coupled with wind gusts of 75 mph or greater. The threat was greatest for late afternoon.

On Monday, flash-flood warnings stretched from the Texas-Mexico border to western Tennessee and northern Missouri. Much of Oklahoma was under a flood warning.

Forecasters also warned that widespread heavy showers and thunderstorms could occur across most of Oklahoma, central and eastern Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, possibly including damaging wind gusts, hail and isolated tornadoes.

The flooding over the weekend was described as “catastrophic.”

In Hays County, the Blanco River rose to 34 feet in just three hours on Sunday — its height of 40.2 feet breaking a record crest dating to 1929 by nearly six feet. Memorial Day events were canceled in the nearby Hays County city of San Marcos, which said in a statement that the flooding was the “the most severe in recent memory.”

Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in 24 counties, including Hays and Houston, where heavy winds damaged an apartment building and left two people injured Sunday.

Abbott flew over parts of the Blanco River on Monday, a day after heavy rains pushed the river into surrounding neighborhoods. Abbott said the storms had “relentless tsunami-type power.” He urged communities downstream to monitor flood levels and take the threat seriously.

About 200 miles to the west, a twister left 13 people dead and at least 230 injured in Ciudad Acuna, a city in Mexico situated across the border from Del Rio, Texas, according to The Associated Press.

A reported tornado in Amory, Mississippi, downed large trees, but no injuries had been reported, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

As the storms moved north and east through Texas, Austin and surrounding Travis County experienced considerable flooding.

The Austin-Travis County EMS said it responded to 21 rescue calls on Sunday, including 17 in a three-hour period.

The storms were the latest in what has been a particularly wet year for the Plains, with several towns and cities already breaking their all-time wettest month records this May.

Records continued to tumble Sunday, with the 3.3 inches that fell in Dallas making it the wettest May 24 in 117 years. Oklahoma City added to what is already its wettest ever month, the 18.69 inches to fall this May far outweighing the 14.92 inches that fell in May 2013, according to The Weather Channel.

Across the nation, 21 river gauges were recording a “major flood” and 47 were showing “moderate flooding,” most of which were in Texas and Oklahoma, according to Weather Channel lead meteorologist Kevin Roth.

In Broken Bow, Oklahoma, 13 people were trapped in a rental cabin on a river. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said they were not in danger, but were stuck on an island when authorities opened the flood gates at a nearby lake and the water level rose.

The weather system also triggered 36 reported tornadoes on Sunday in Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado and Iowa, according to the National Weather Service. Roth said that while that twister threat would persist in some areas on Monday it would be significantly lower than over the weekend.

The storms were expected to calm significantly from Tuesday through Friday. As of 10 p.m. EDT Sunday, much of the storms’ fury had dissipated with active tornado warnings in just three counties on northwest Louisiana.