5 reasons it's time to start panicking about Hurricane Harvey

August 25, 2017, 3:36pm

Hurricane Harvey is looking like the biggest hurricane to make landfall in the United States in 12 years, and it’s heading for a particularly vulnerable and economically significant patch of the Gulf Coast.

Here are five things to know as the storm barrels toward Texas:

Harvey is a big, big storm

Harvey has grown at an “astounding” pace, the National Hurricane Center told the Washington Post. On Friday, sea levels were already up to two feet higher than normal from the southern Texas coast all the way up to western Louisiana, according to the Weather Channel.

Tornado warnings were issued in areas along the Texas coastline as winds hit 110 miles per hour Friday morning. By Friday afternoon, Harvey had been declared a Category 3 storm. It will be the first Category 3 hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma in 2004.

It’s expected to cause a storm surge of between 6 and 12 feet, according to the National Hurricane Center; and it will drop up to 35 inches of rain in some areas as it lingers over the Gulf Coast through the weekend.

The largest city directly in Harvey’s path is Corpus Christi, with a population of some 325,000. Seven neighboring cities have evacuated, but Corpus Christi has so far held off, issuing only a voluntary evacuation order.

Even so, the National Weather Service office in Corpus Christi has some pretty dire warnings for residents: they should expect “widespread deep inundation, with storm surge flooding greatly accentuated by powerful battering waves,” as well as “structural damage to buildings, with many washing away,” and “locations may be uninhabitable for an extended period.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that he’d asked Trump to declare Hurricane Harvey a federal disaster, which would allow federal cash to flow more quickly to affected areas. “My top goal is to be able to make it through this storm in a way in which we lose no lives,” Abbott said in a press conference Friday. “Put your life first and your property second.”

A hub of the U.S. oil and gas industry is right in the storm’s path

The Gulf Coast is home to a key section of the U.S. oil industry, and oil prices are up already after as refineries along the coast threatened to shut down.

The coast of Texas is home to roughly 30 percent of the U.S’ known oil reserves and 35 percent of its natural gas reserves, according to the New York Times. The refineries and plants lining Galveston Bay refine about a quarter of U.S. petroleum and produce more than half of the country’s jet fuel.

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But oil prices sending ripples across the economy may be the least of residents’ concerns faced with walls of water mixed with oil and jet fuel. In areas along the Texas coast in Harvey’s path, residents have been dealing with pollution from the oil and gas industry for years, and the destruction that Harvey brings with it isn’t going to make things better.

Oil refineries in the Houston area have leaked what the EPA has deemed “unacceptable” amounts of carcinogenic pollutants into the air in recent years. In the neighborhood of Magnolia Park, industrial recycling plants are already known to be emitters of chromium, a potent carcinogen. Should the storm ravage refineries and pipelines, the storm could cause widespread pollution and ecological damage to the area.

Border patrol will be keeping checkpoints open during the hurricane

Undocumented immigrants along the Gulf Coast might find themselves in a bind: Either flee the storm or face deportation.

Border patrol isn’t closing it’s checkpoints along evacuation routes in Texas, and the ACLU and immigration advocates are worried that this might discourage undocumented Texans from leaving their soon-to-be-flooded homes.

“As people seek refuge from hurricane Harvey, they are likely to have to go north or west of Texas and would have to go through a checkpoint,” said Lorella Praeli, the ACLU’s director of immigration policy and campaigns said in a statement Friday. “By keeping checkpoints open, the Border Patrol is putting undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk out of fear of deportations.”

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In a statement to the Texas Tribune, which first reported on the checkpoints, the agency said, “Border Patrol checkpoints will not be closed unless there is a danger to the safety of the traveling public and our agents… The Border Patrol is a law enforcement agency and we will not abandon our law enforcement duties.”

But by midday Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection had issued a joint statement saying that “non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks.” The statement also said that detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, would be temporarily relocated to a number of other facilities out of the storm’s path.

Elected officials are fighting social media misinformation

A Facebook post went viral that falsely claimed that elected officials in Houston were concealing information about the strength of the storm. The storm, the post said, was actually three times stronger than local news media were reporting.

“The news is not telling the whole truth. The storm is expected to be three times worse than what the news is saying because they don’t want a panic on the freeways like Hurricane Rita,” one such Facebook post being shared widely read.

The hurricane is expected to miss most of Houston, and the city hasn’t evacuated. Tropical storm conditions, including very heavy rain, are expected there through Tuesday.

The post prompted Houston’s mayor to denounce the rumors. If you’re in the pathway of the storm, please don’t rely on social media — check the National Weather Service’s updates for information.

Harvey’s a test for recently-appointed FEMA Director Brock Long and the Trump administration

President Donald Trump took his time appointing a director for FEMA, the federal agency charged with managing disaster relief. His pick, Brock Long, was formerly the head of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency and took his post at FEMA in June, after his agency had already declared the start of hurricane season.

Long, like many Trump appointees, has some controversial opinions.

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As Hurricane Harvey was propelled to Category 3 status by unusually hot waters in Gulf of Mexico. Long, during an interview with Bloomberg published on Wednesday, said he said that “intrinsic cycles” and deep-water currents contributed to a warming planet — but is human activity responsible? Long wouldn’t say one way or the other.

“The term climate change has become such a political hot button that I think it keeps us from having a real dialogue,” he said.

Long wants to overhaul federal disaster relief. He’s for raising the threshold for federal intervention in local disaster, and limiting federal flood insurance for homes that flood over and over again — as homes are expected to as storm surges increase and sea levels rise. A 2016 study from real estate company Zillow found that, if sea levels are going to rise as much as scientists expect them to, in 2100 nearly 300 U.S. cities would lose half of their housing stock to flooding.

And while Trump has yet to appoint a regional director for Region 6 of the EPA, which is responsible for the South East, the acting director, Samuel Coleman, was at EPA during Katrina and should have the experience to make him effective in leading the response to Harvey.