Hurricane Harvey: Texas braces for 'significant disaster' as storm intensifies

Forecasters warned the category 4 hurricane could be the US’s most powerful storm since 2005, leading many to question the White House’s planning

As Texas residents boarded up windows, stockpiled supplies and evacuated their homes ahead of Hurricane Harvey, a storm which the federal official in charge of emergency management said would cause “a very significant disaster”, Washington braced for a major test of the Trump administration.

Early Friday evening, hours before it is expected to make landfall, the hurricane was elevated to category 4 with sustained winds of 130mph, and was still intensifying.

Hurricanes are rated on a 1-5 scale based on wind speed. Harvey is thus the most powerful storm to hit the US since Wilma pummelled Florida in 2005. Earlier that year, the Bush administration offered a calamitously inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina.

Harvey was expected to make landfall near Corpus Christi early on Saturday, then potentially roll up the coast towards Houston and stall for days, bringing sustained rainfall and causing extensive flooding in the US’s fourth-largest city and surrounding areas. Forecasters warned of rising sea levels and 25in or more of rain in some areas.

Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, said in a statement that Donald Trump, who spoke with the governors of Texas and Louisiana on Thursday, had “pledged all available resources from the federal government to assist in preparation, and rescue and recovery efforts”.

On Friday, the president tweeted a picture of himself in the Oval Office, being briefed by key aides. Critics were quick to point to tweets from five years ago, when superstorm Sandy devastated the east coast. “Hurricane is good luck for Obama again,” Trump wrote on 30 October 2012. “He will buy the election by handing out billions of dollars.”

The homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Tom Bossert told a White House press briefing preparations for the storm were “right up President Trump’s alley” as “his entire focus has been on making America great again”. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Trump, who was scheduled to spend the weekend at Camp David, would probably visit Texas early next week.

Received a #HurricaneHarvey briefing this morning from Acting @DHSgov Secretary Elaine Duke, @FEMA_Brock, @TomBossert45 and COS John Kelly. pic.twitter.com/cnkRZd6D6Z

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2017

Asked if Katrina was on the minds of those preparing for Harvey, Bossert said the storm that devastated New Orleans was “on the minds of all emergency managers in our community, especially those in Texas and Louisiana”.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted a video clip of his meeting with Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) officials in early August, with the caption: “Remember, the USA is the most resilient nation on earth, because we plan ahead.”

Brock Long, Trump’s choice to head Fema, was not confirmed by the Senate until 20 June, three weeks into the Atlantic hurricane season.

Trump has not nominated a permanent head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), which plays a key role in weather forecasting. Fema is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, which has been without a permanent secretary since John Kelly became the White House chief of staff last month.

A woman looks over bare refrigerator shelves in a Walmart store in Houston, Texas, on Friday.
A woman looks over bare refrigerator shelves in a Walmart store in Houston, Texas, on Friday. Photograph: Reuters

Kristy Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Guardian: “I think we have to be hopeful that they’ll handle it properly. [Long] is certainly well qualified for the job and he was one of the rare appointments by the Trump administration that was widely hailed as reasonable and appointing someone with appropriate experience to the job.”

Long is a former Fema regional hurricane programme manager and ran Alabama’s emergency management agency from 2008 to 2011, when the Gulf coast was hit by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

That experience that may stand him in good stead if Harvey or a future storm seriously affects oil, gas and chemical facilities in the region, which environmentalists have cautioned is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

“Texas is about to have a very significant disaster,” Long told CNN on Friday. “What concerns me the most right now is whether or not people have heeded the warning that local county judges have put forward. If they have not, their window to evacuate is rapidly coming to a close.”

Trump’s proposed budget calls for a $667m cut to state and local Fema grant programmes that focus on disaster preparation.

Sal Valerio walks near the bay waters as they churn from approaching Hurricane Harvey on 25 August 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Sal Valerio walks near the bay waters as they churn from the approaching Hurricane Harvey on 25 August 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Many residents in Texas and across the country rely on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is about $25bn in debt, has been a target for congressional reform and will expire at the end of September unless it is renewed.

In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, Long declined to say whether he believed human activity was causing global warming. He also said he backed shifting more costs on to local authorities and limiting or refusing federal help for properties that flood often.

“I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward,” he said.

That would be worrying news for homeowners in places such as Houston, where thousands of homes stand on floodplains and several neighbourhoods were hit by severe flooding in spring storms in 2015 and 2016. Flood insurance premiums in the city can rise to thousands of dollars.

“We know that things like storm surge flooding are going to be getting worse,” said Dahl. “Routine tidal flooding during high tide is going to become more frequent and more extensive. And this is going to be a problem not just in the Gulf coast in this immediate storm but for large swaths of our coastal areas.

“So we really need the federal government to be playing a coordination role, helping to drive federal policies that will help local communities and state governments to keep their residents above water.”

Last week, Trump signed an executive order repealing an Obama-era order from 2015 requiring public infrastructure projects to be built or rebuilt to standards that take into account the effects of climate change.

Dahl said: “It’s incredibly frustrating that the science just keeps getting stronger and stronger and stronger and yet we’re seeing this gradual cutting away of programs and policies that would really help to make Americans more safe in the face of climate change.”

Contributors

Tom Dart in Houston and David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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