Remembering Harvey
Remembering Harvey

Remembering Harvey

Read Time:10 Minute, 51 Second

This was written to be my story in the Harvey Memories Project. I am sharing it here as well, as I intended to write such a blog post anyway.

A little bit of background first. I am a weather geek, or as I would describe myself, a well-educated layman.  I have a background in the natural sciences, and meteorology has always been a fascination of mine. This fascination began when I was 6 during Hurricane Alicia, despite not living in the Houston area, or even within a few hundred miles of the coast at that time.  I was the kind of hand-plotted the location of every storm in the Atlantic, back when that was the way you kept track of storms that way.

On August 12, 2017, a tropical wave moved off the coast of Africa.  That’s a good two weeks out.  It bears watching, but is no more concerning than anything else at that timeframe.  Five or six days later, Harvey was named.  I remember thinking this storm was far enough south to represent a threat to the western half of the Gulf of Mexico, and advised “watchful waiting” on social media.  Despite Harvey’s subsequent demise, I kept an eye on its remnants as they moved through the central and Western Caribbean.

By the 21st, it was becoming apparent Harvey would regenerate and pose a threat to Texas.  It was also apparent that this storm would hang around.  By the 22nd, I was starting to warn on social media that Harvey posed a threat, particularly to the areas north of Corpus Christi. By the 23rd I became aware of the models showing feet of rain throughout parts of South Central and Southeast Texas. I was taken aback by the numbers, and at first didn’t want to believe them.  It was also looking increasingly likely that rapid intensification was possible.

By the 24th, I was becoming truly concerned.  Everything was setting up both for a major hurricane somewhere on the northern 2/3rds of the Texas coast, that the storm was going to stall and meander inland, and that it would produce prodigious rains that would rival even Allison.  I was also worried about the Barker and Addicks dams.  Repairs had started on both sometime around the Tax Day Flood, but I was unsure how far they had progressed.

We’re transitioning now from background to my actual experiences.  Harvey was the first major hurricane since GOES-16 was brought online.  Those of us in the larger weather community (professional meteorologists and weather-aware laymen) watched this new tool in fascination as we saw incredible details in the storm. As I watched the satellite, as I watched models, my worry, my anxiety, began increasing greatly.  I took to Twitter with the following warning: “Those who know me, know how passionate I am about weather. I can’t stress how incredibly bad the next several days look. Pay attention to your forecast.  Your main impacts may be at different times than other people’s.  It won’t all be Fri/Sat.” I was encountering people saying things like “it’s only rain.” I was doing what I could to sound the alarm, but I was unsure how man people heeded me.

Meanwhile, I was watching in worried disbelief as the models began showing ever more dire rainfall possibilities.  An incredible, thoroughly ridiculous, 60” began showing up.  The location of heaviest rain was still moving around, but there was now no longer any reason to doubt that this would be an historic event.  I had already described the Tax Day Flood as Biblical.  Harvey was going to put it, and all other heavy rainfall events, to shame.

Friday the 25th was another workday.  I don’t live in a coastal area, and there was no particular reason for an inland evacuation. This was perhaps feeling trumping reason.  I knew how bad it was going to be.  Water nearly made it into the streets of my neighborhood during the Tax Day Flood, and this was going to be far worse.  Worse even than Allison, where the largest rainfall amounts were in a fairly small area.  Sometime during the day on Friday, I printed out the Weather Prediction Center’s precipitation forecast for the period 8/25-9/1 and taped it to my cube.  It showed pretty much the entire metro area would receive in excess of 20” of rain. I do not believe a government entity had ever put out such a forecast in history.  And by Friday evening, the National Weather Service Houston/Galveston was floating localized amounts in excess of 40”.

I settled in for a busy night of watching Harvey’s landfall on live streams, particularly the spectacular one by Jeff Piotrowski where the #BlueShed entered our lexicon.  I was also anxiously watching the radar.  Obviously, our worst was yet to come, but we were already receiving heavy rains on the West side of Houston.  I’m not exactly sure what time I went to bed that night.  It wasn’t bad yet, so probably fairly early for me on a Friday night.  We were just getting started.

I have no idea how many times I was woken up by tornado warnings in my area.  There were a lot.  By the time I got up, my area had likely received in the neighborhood of 6-8” of rain.  I have a large storm drain at the bottom of my driveway. The storm sewer is probably between 10-12’ deep.  Water was already maybe 3-4’ from the top of the drain.  I went out to take stock of what one night had done.  I found the water level of Buffalo Bayou at Peak Road to be already near the levels of the Tax Day Flood. We received more rain during the Tax Day Flood than we had so far from Harvey. This was definitely going to be bad.  I drove around some more and made some flooded road reports to the Fort Bend County Sheriff as well as the National Weather Service.  I’m a spotter with Skywarn. I felt a responsibility to do so.  I did a little more driving around.  Water was already somewhat high in Barker Reservoir, but not bad.  To my dying day, I will never know how this little sedan wound up sunk in a ditch on the side of the road.  Water wasn’t nearly that high.

I returned home and thought it over.Though the rain had largely stopped for the morning, I knew deep down that everything we feared with this storm was going to happen.  I approached my wife and told her we should really think about getting our girls out of town.  We made arrangements with her parents to meet them roughly halfway (they live north of Dallas).  We had the girls pack a few days worth of clothes and set off.  The weather remained fine for our trip up, mostly just a few light showers.  Around the time we got back to College Station, the heavy rain set in.  It would continue almost without let up all the way back to Katy, and then through the night.  Saturday night.  Hell was not fire and brimstone.  Hell was water.

By late evening and into the early portion of the night, water was nearing the top of the storm drain.  And the rain wouldn’t stop.  By later in the night, we were receiving warnings that Barker reservoir was going to back up out of the federal lands into neighborhoods.  Thankfully, I live outside the south side of the dam, but what I did not realize at the time is that I live along the spillway.  Thankfully, water didn’t get that high inside the reservoir.

I finally went to sleep after 1 Sunday morning.  I was awake by a little after 5. I woke up to feet of water in the street.  And by that early morning, a new emotional trigger had emerged.  Loss of satellite signal had become scary.  It meant the heavens were about to open up.  It meant the water was going to rise again.  All I could do Sunday was watch local TV coverage, when I had signal, and watch the radar and Twitter and whatever other sources I had on the internet.  I was now completely cut off from the outside world.  I did not know it at the time, but my neighborhood is actually built slightly below the level of the highway that is the only way in or out of it.  I thought that conditions outside the neighborhood must have been far worse.  As what feeble daylight could get through the heavy clouds broke, I saw parts of the city I know well under several feet of water.  Major freeways I had never seen flooded previously were now in the middle of bayous. I lost all ability to describe things.  My Twitter timeline is full of me saying that there were simply no words.

As narrow bands of heavy rain trained over my house, I was desperately watching the radar for any tiny break, any evidence that the band was moving east.  Any possible respite from the rain so that the water could drain even a little bit.  I work in the Texas Medical Center.  All of the flood mitigation done there since Allison was overwhelmed. The water levels were incredible. 

I was filing the only storm reports I could, tweeting to the sheriff’s office and the weather service that we were completely flooded in and that water may be entering homes.  There was one humorous moment in all of this.  Our doorbell rang.  My youngest daughter’s friend from down the street had ridden in her dad’s canoe and came to ask if our daughter wanted to go out with them.  She wasn’t aware that we had gotten them out of town the day before.

Things were looking dire for me by late in the day Sunday.  At one point I sat out on my porch, watching in defeat as it appeared the water would get in.  We already made video documentaries of the house.  We had packed a few things in case we needed to be evacuated.  I had had this thought, and when my wife came outside and found me she had also had it.  We had some heavy boxes of medical formula, some of which were expired.  These are very dense with waterproof material inside.  We made a makeshift flood wall out of them.  I believe that is what kept the water off the porch.  The 27th was probably the longest day of my life.

Thankfully, our weather began to improve Monday.  Rainfall rates were lighter.  Water levels in the street would fluctuate, but a downward trend was beginning.

It was around this time I began hearing boats and helicopters.  People a mile, maybe less, from me were being rescued as Barker Reservoir was now firmly in the floodway.  By Tuesday, we started seeing some blue skies. Water levels in the neighborhood were slowly falling.  At that, it was still Wednesday or even Thursday before I could safely get my truck out of the driveway to take my first look around.

In the weeks after the Tax Day Flood, I drove around and took a lot of pictures at the then unprecedented for this region of Houston flooding and related damage.  I have almost no pictures of the aftermath of Harvey.  Nothing was accessible.  Too many roads were closed.  On Friday evening, we went out to get Whataburger.  The closest one is maybe 2 miles away.  The closest open one was maybe 5 or 6 miles away.  It took most of an hour to get somewhere where I could get off the feeder that runs before my house.  Everyone using the West Belt, Highway 6, Westheimer Parkway, Mason, Fry, Peak, and who would be traveling between Katy and Sugarland on the Grand Parkway were funneled onto the Westpark Tollroad.  It was the worst traffic I had seen here since the Rita evacuation.  Slowly, of course, things would improve. I wound up lucky.  We had roof leaks, but no flooding. I, like so many others, know people who fared much worse.

Between schools being out for 2 weeks and my sanitary sewer system being inside the Barker Reservoir Dam, we left the girls with my in-laws for awhile. There was no reason to bring them home until just before school started. 

I don’t know that I shall ever see something about Harvey where I don’t find out some little tidbit that is new to me.  And I hope never to see anything like this again.  Everything has changed.  I can look at 8-10” of rain spread out over a few days and think it is no big deal.  After all, I received as much or more on at least two nights of Harvey. Some things will simply never be the same again.

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