'Harvey did something that we can’t stress enough, and we’re glad Harvey helped drive this point home — and that is, forget the hurricane number.'
(TNS) — Galveston County Judge Mark Henry saw the destruction of Hurricane Harvey up close.
Several areas in the county, including Dickinson, League City and Friendswood, were hammered by the storm — and their residents are still rebuilding homes that were inundated with water or destroyed altogether.
That’s why Henry does not get caught up in the “meaningless” categorizations of hurricanes that make their way toward southeast Texas. Hurricane categories ain’t nothing but a number, he says.
“Harvey did something that we can’t stress enough, and we’re glad Harvey helped drive this point home — and that is, forget the hurricane number,” Henry said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a [Category] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 when it comes to fresh water. That number is meaningless. Hurricane Harvey came across as a 5, then it was a 3 when it came across [Galveston County]. It caused virtually no storm surge damage, it caused very little wind damage, and it caused a tremendous amount of freshwater damage. That’s a point we’ve always been harping on and now we have one of the best examples in history to show you that’s exactly what we mean when we say that.”
To that end, it’s nearly impossible to talk about the 2018 hurricane season that begins Friday without looking at it through the lens of what the region went through during Harvey — 51 inches of rain in some parts, 100,000 homes damaged, and a recovery tab that will cost billions of dollars. The storm also left around 80 people dead in Texas, most in the Houston-Galveston area.
The good news? Many experts predict a significantly tamer season in 2018, in part because of how big a storm Harvey was.
“When you have these hurricanes, they take quite a bit of heat out of the ocean and they certainly make it a lot less favorable for the next storm to come around,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “This is actually why hurricanes never fall along the same track. [Hurricanes] Irma and Maria, at the beginning, started out on a similar track but ended up on different tracks. There’s a strong imprint of hurricanes on the ocean, and part of that still has a bit of memory carrying over from last year.”
Even before the 2018 hurricane season got underway, subtropical storm Alberto packed a punch. The storm made landfall on the Florida Panhandle, bringing heavy rains to a swath extending north to Wisconsin while triggering severe flooding in North Carolina.
The Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project team is predicting 14 named storms for the hurricane season that runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, seven of which they predict will become hurricanes and three that will reach Category 3 or greater with winds of 111 mph or more. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast calls for 10 to 16 named storms, with five to nine hurricanes. One to four hurricanes could be “major” with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.
Trenberth and other climatologists believe that major hurricanes of the magnitude of Harvey generally operate on five-year cycles. There are exceptions — 2004 and 2005 stand out as particularly active consecutive seasons — but the added element of a potential El Niño event developing later this year, in which ocean surface temperatures become warmer than normal in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, portends a quieter hurricane season.
“Last year we had La Niña conditions developing, and La Niña in the Pacific Ocean leads to reduced wind shear and allows hurricanes to form more readily,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, a Texas state climatologist at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Also, tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures were warmer last year than this year and those temperatures provide fuel for hurricanes.”
Climate change is also a significant factor when evaluating storms in the region, both past and present. Higher water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico mean that storms as big as Harvey have an energy source of sorts to rely on. Even as the surface temperatures cooled as Harvey made its way back into the Gulf, the deeper water temperatures were warm enough to sustain its force.
Sea level rise is also a significant concern, particularly for coastal cities like Galveston, where over 20 miles of the barrier island beyond the island’s 10-mile seawall are vulnerable to storm surge.
“Sea level rise historically along the Texas Gulf Coast has been about a foot and a half over the past century,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “That continues, both from global sea level rise and coastal subzones, so that means that any storm surge is going to be that much higher compared to the land surface that it’s invading.”
Galveston can count itself as relatively lucky. Besides some minor flooding, the island was hardly touched by Harvey, a welcome respite for its residents after the city was devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008. But local officials aren’t resting on their laurels. The city of Galveston held a hurricane preparedness fair on May 19, and is engaging residents as much as possible on the potential hazards of a Harvey-level storm.
Niki Bender, Galveston’s emergency management coordinator, said the city is encouraging residents to have an evacuation plan in place well in advance. The city is also doing its part to re-evaluate its emergency and shelter plans, particularly after the island became a haven of sorts for individuals and families who were displaced by Harvey.
“That was something we had never heard of before,” Bender said, of Texans sheltering in Galveston after the storm. “That’s integrated into our planning process and looking at what else we can do, including emphasizing people having food and water available at their house if they’re not able to get to their house every day.”
Of course, these are all small-scale measures of preparedness compared to some of the larger-scale mitigation efforts that island residents are considering, including raising critical infrastructure like electric boxes and boilers, and placing their houses on stilts, as many residents who live south of the seawall have done.
But the biggest mitigation step for the region, a coastal spine barrier that many refer to as the Ike Dike that would cost $4 billion to $6 billion, is still likely years away from coming to fruition. One of its leading proponents, William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M at Galveston, believes that if a storm like Harvey happened again in 2018, Galveston is “no better prepared than we were from Ike.”
“We’re playing kind of Russian roulette with the big one until we get a barrier system to protect us from the surge,” Merrell said. He added that there are smaller mitigation efforts that are helpful, such as restoring the beaches along the Texas coast from coastal erosion and reinforcing the dunes.
“We ought to work on making these natural systems as strong and resilient as they can, but on the other hand they really aren’t designed to prevent major flooding,” Merrell said. “We haven’t changed anything that’s going to prevent those types of storms from happening. So although I support all that, we ought to not bury our hands in the sand.”
In the meantime, all that local officials like Mark Henry, the Galveston County judge, can do is be reactive — make sure emergency contracts are in place well before any storm event, constantly monitor the National Weather Service, and be prepared for an all-hands-on-deck recovery effort if necessary.
But Henry’s biggest concern in the event of a major hurricane this year? Fake news.
“Only trust trusted news sources,” Henry said. “We see this way too often on social media where they’re not necessarily being mean-spirited, but they’re passing on bad information. Go to the Chronicle’s website, go to the county’s website, go to trusted new sources and please take that as information you can put a lot of faith in.”
Chronicle reporter Alex Stuckey and the Associated Press contributed to this report
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