Long Drought Between Major Hurricanes Contribute to Texas Disaster?

Did 12 Year Gap Between Major Storms Cause Complacency?

Earlier this year, I read an article that talked about the State of Florida relaxing its strict building codes, which had been in effect since the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. It was quite surprising to read, but then again, it had been almost 12 years since a major hurricane had made landfall anywhere along the coastline of the United States. Had complacency set back in along the U.S. coastline?

As a matter of fact, it had been over 12 years since a major hurricane made landfall in the Sunshine State. In July 2005, Hurricane Dennis had made landfall in the Florida Panhandle area. In addition, there had not been a Category Four Hurricane coming ashore in the United States since Hurricane Charley tore through Punta Gorda, Florida in August 2004.

In the run up to the landfall of Hurricane Harvey on the evening August 25, 2017, approximately 50 to 60 percent of the residents of Rockport, Texas, where the storm came ashore as a powerful Category Four Hurricane, decided to stay and ride out the storm. Keep in mind, the last time a major hurricane came ashore in Texas, particularly the middle to low coast of the Lone Star State, was in August 1999, when Hurricane Bret made landfall.

The thing to remember with Hurricane Bret was the fact that it was a very small storm that actually had weakened from a Category Four in the Gulf to Category Three, and it struck a very sparsely populated area along the coast. The last time, the Texas coast had experienced a storm as strong as Hurricane Harvey was Hurricane Celia in 1970. Hurricane Allen had been a Category Five storm at one point, but weakened to a Category Three before making landfall in August 1980.

Hurricane Ike was also a powerful storm, and had strengthened to Category Four at one point in the Caribbean, but by the time it came ashore near Galveston in September 2008, the storm had lost some punch and was downgraded to a Category Two Hurricane. The moral of the story is that it had been quite a while since even residents along the Texas coastline experienced a storm with Harvey’s type of fury. This may have contributed to many of those residents in Rockport staying instead of evacuating.

Public officials did try to drive home the point that Harvey was not a storm to mess with. They had advised people to write their names and social security numbers on their arms in the event that they could not be identified in the storm’s aftermath. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service also clearly indicated that Harvey was going to slow down and linger in Texas for a few days, and that would result in torrential rains.

Despite this, and advice from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, local officials in Houston felt that they were able to handle this problem on their own. The mayor and the local emergency management officials had decided to have residents stay in place. A significant part of the reason for this decision was because of what had taken place during the evacuation prior to Hurricane Rita in September 2005. Back then, officials told people in the Houston area to evacuate since they didn’t know where exactly Rita would end up.

Approximately 3 million people fled ahead of Rita. People got on the roads causing tremendous traffic jams. Due to the tremendous traffic, there were many that took as long as 20 hours to get to their destination. About 100 people had died from various reasons including heat stroke. Among the dead were 24 people in a bus carrying nursing home evacuees that caught fire. In addition, there was chaos and frustration that led to fights on the roadways according to the Houston Chronicle article written in 2015, and ran again on August 25, 2017.

Nevertheless, Houston officials had 12 years to rework the plan. It is true moving some 2.5 million residents in Houston itself as well as several million more in the outlying communities is difficult, but having them stay in place in the face of a storm that wound up surpassing the rainfall totals spawned by Tropical Storm Allison, the only tropical storm on record to have its name retired, was not a very good option either. Even General Russell Honore, who was a key player in helping the City of New Orleans begin the long road back to normal after the chaos following Hurricane Katrina, stated that at least those most susceptible should have been evacuated.

It had been over 16 years since Tropical Storm Allison’s deluge over the Houston area. It had also been almost 9 years since Hurricane Ike pounded Galveston. It had been 12 years since the chaotic mass exodus in response to the threat from Rita. So, what was being done in that time to address these issues? Perhaps the lack of a significant hurricane threat in the Atlantic Basin over the past 12 to 13 years played a small part in all of this. In fairness though, the response by the people of Texas, the United States, and local, state, and federal officials in the wake of Harvey has been terrific. It has been great to see people coming together to help others in need.

Before Hurricane Andrew struck Homestead and rolled across South Florida in August 1992, there had been a period of about 20 years where there was a dearth of activity in the Atlantic Basin as a whole. South Florida had not really been hit with a major hurricane since Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Herbert Saffir, the engineer who joined forces with Robert Sampson to come up with the Saffir-Simpson Scale to classify hurricane intensity, had indicated to the Chicago Tribune back in June 2001, that the building industry had become complacent. Prior to Andrew, it wasn’t being followed, and was getting in the way of builders and contractors, who were “in a rush to get a job finished.”

During that 20 year period before Hurricane Andrew, the population of Florida changed as more and more people migrated south to the Sunshine State from areas in the north that either didn’t experience hurricanes at all, or rarely dealt with them. The same perhaps could be said in today’s Texas, which really hadn’t experienced a major hurricane in some parts of its vast coastline in 18 years, and a Category Four Hurricane on par with the strength of Harvey in 47 years.