HOUSTON — Hurricane Harvey began swiping the Texas coast as 35 inches of rain and “catastrophic” storm-surge flooding are expected after landfall late Friday or early Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said.
The combination of heavy rain, “life-threatening” storm surges, flooding and strong winds could leave wide swaths of South Texas “uninhabitable for weeks or months,” the National Weather Service in Houston said. Such daunting language hasn’t been seen by CNN’s experts since Hurricane Katrina, which left more than 1,800 people dead in 2005.
Harvey strengthened to a Category 3 storm midday Friday, with maximum sustained winds reaching 120 mph. The storm is expected to make landfall around Corpus Christi.
A hurricane warning is in effect for about 1.5 million people, with another 16 million under a tropical storm warning, the weather service said.
“Texas is about to have a very significant disaster,” said Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Gov. Greg Abbott warned of record-setting flooding and called on people to flee the area before the storm hits.
“My top goal is to be able to make it through this storm in a way in which we lose no lives,” Abbott said. “Put your life first and your property second.”
Residents were urged to evacuate. A mass exodus from the coast caused extensive traffic jams along the state’s highways, while other people boarded up windows and stocked up on food and water ahead of the storm, the effects of which are expected to last for days.
After landfall, the storm will stall and dump rain on South Texas and parts of Louisiana into the middle of next week, forecasters predicted.
“All indications from the hurricane center are that this is going to be the first major hurricane the nation has dealt with since 2005,” Long said.
— Harvey strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane with winds up to 120 mph.
— The Texas governor requested additional federal help with a presidential disaster declaration. The White House is considering the declaration.
— The White House said President Donald Trump plans to visit Texas next week.
— “We are prepared; we are not panicking,” Galveston Mayor James Yarbrough said.
— The Ports of Corpus Christi and Galveston are closed. Three Galveston-based cruise ships in the Gulf of Mexico diverted to safer water.
FEMA prepared for ‘significant disaster’
Those who stay should “elevate and get into a structure that can withstand potentially Category 3 winds from a hurricane,” said Long, the FEMA director.
“The bottom line message is, right now, if people have not heeded the warning, again, their window to do so is closing,” Long said. “If they refuse to heed the warning, that’s on them.”
Long said he is “very worried” about storm surge, or “wind-driven water,” slamming coastal areas, saying it has the “highest potential to kill the most amount of people and cause the most amount of damage.”
“Over the next five days, we’re going to see copious amounts of rainfall, up to 25 inches, possibly, in some areas, with isolated higher amounts,” he said. “This is going to be a slow-developing major disaster event for the state of Texas.”
FEMA has pre-positioned incident management teams, as well as life-saving and life-sustaining commodities, and search-and-rescue teams in Texas, Long said.
Trump tweeted that he has spoken with the governors of Texas and Louisiana, saying he is “closely monitoring Hurricane Harvey developments and here to assist as needed.”
The governor requested a presidential disaster declaration, which triggers additional help from the federal government, he said Friday.
White House homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert said the declaration is “being contemplated.”
“I would stress that this is a serious storm,” Bossert said. “This could remain a dangerous storm for several days.”
Record flooding expected
Officials worried that Harvey’s abundant rain will drench Texas and the region for several days.
“We could see this storm park for almost five days in some places, and we hear three feet of rain,” said Bill Read, the former director of the National Hurricane Center. “That’s just going to be a huge problem for these areas.”
Abbott said the state could see record-setting flooding from Corpus Christi to Houston. He encouraged residents to leave now before it’s too late.
“This is going to be a very major disaster,” he said.
“The water is going to be the issue,” Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb said. “We’ve never had anything like this.”
Harvey is also causing concern in New Orleans, where heavy rain could usher in as much as 20 inches of rain through early next week and overwhelm the city’s already-compromised drainage system.
Isolated tornadoes are possible Friday across portions of the middle and upper Texas coast, the service said.
‘I’m trying to be strong’
The threat of Harvey became evident Thursday when several coastal Texas counties issued evacuation orders, leading to hordes of residents sitting bumper to bumper for miles.
Rose Yepez told CNN it took her twice as long as usual to drive 140 miles from Corpus Christi to San Antonio, en route to Texas Hill Country.
Private vehicles — along with city buses packed with adults and children carrying backpacks — jammed roads for hours.
“I’m shaking inside, but for them, I’m trying to be strong,” a Corpus Christi woman who was waiting with her two daughters to board a bus out of town told CNN affiliate KRIS.
Workers at 39 offshore petroleum production platforms and an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico also evacuated Thursday, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said anyone not leaving should plan to stay off the roads once the storm starts.
“People need to know, this is not a one-, two-day event and done,” Turner said. “Even though it may seem like it will get better, this is a four- or five-day event, starting tomorrow evening, going through Monday or Tuesday.”
Staying put, boarding up
First responders such as Brittany Fowler stayed behind and waited for the storm.
“Hopefully it doesn’t do any damage, but if it does, we’ve prepared,” Fowler, a firefighter in Corpus Christi, wrote on Instagram.
Fowler’s family helped by boarding up windows and doors at her home, and she bought plenty of water, food and a small power generator.
Corey Davis, by contrast, was free to go — but opted to stay put, even as Harvey’s winds started blowing Thursday night. Instead of packing, she and her relatives took turns climbing a tall ladder to secure plywood over windows at their Port O’Connor home.
“I’m scared, so I’m doing everything that I can to protect (this) little place down here,” Davis told CNN affiliate KTRK, “and hope and pray for the best.”
Despite the warnings, Elsie and David Reichenbacher prepped supplies and plan to stay put in Corpus Christi.
“I’ve gone through a lot of hurricanes. I’ve lived here most of my life,” Elsie Reichenbacher said. “I’d rather take care of my home and my animals and be safe here. I’m on high ground with my house.”