Southern U.S. is racked by massive storms
by Hillary Bosch
Features and List Co-Editor
In case you haven’t seen the Weather Channel in the past two weeks, the Atlantic Ocean just decided to unleash hell in the Gulf and Caribbean. Back in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a 45% chance of an overactive hurricane season, with 11-17 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes and out of those 2-4 major storms. As of now, there have been 2 tropical depressions, 5 tropical storms, and 6 named hurricanes—two of which made landfall in U.S. territories.
Hurricane Harvey formed from a tropical wave just east of the Caribbean Sea on August 17 and swept through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to reach Mexico’s western border and Texas’s back porch. It first made landfall as a Category 4 storm near Rockport, Texas and ambled along the Texas and Louisiana coastlines until it eventually turned upwards and dissipated by September 3.
In that short period of time, Hurricane Harvey left 300,000 people in the Houston metropolitan area without power, while dumping a minimum of 30 inches and an observed maximum of 51.88 in in Cedar Bayou. Several counties along the coast enacted mandatory evacuations when possible, in response to ever-rising floodwaters and increasing risks of tornadoes and fires. More than 48,700 homes and 700 businesses were damaged in the state of Texas. Harvey then laid eyes on Louisiana, causing over 2 ft. of precipitation and flooding in towns around the state. On August 28, approximately 200 people sought shelters in southwest Louisiana. Harvey’s presence was especially painful for many residents of the southeast who were preparing to recognize the twelfth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall August 29, 2005.
Similar to Katrina, Hurricane Harvey was especially damaging to minority and lower income neighborhoods around the Texas/Mexico border. The city of Houston covers roughly 600 square miles with millions of people spread across rural areas outside of Houston as well. Harvey ripped through southern Houston, as well as communities with high social vulnerability, many residents of which who were unable to evacuate. For communities of social and economic vulnerability in the greater Houston area, help was slow to come.
Less than a week later, one of the strongest Atlantic basin storms swept over numerous Caribbean islands until its eventual turn towards Florida. Hurricane Irma developed on August 30 and spent three days as a Category 5 storm, maintaining wind speeds over 185 mph for 37 continuous hours. The storm’s winds spanned 70,000 miles as its eye crossed directly above the island of Barbuda, which received damage to 95% of all buildings on the island.
After whipping past the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and dozens of smaller Caribbean Islands, Irma’s path moved to Florida and the east coast. Florida was faced with a massive storm surges along its coasts and in the Florida Keys, making the Jacksonville area almost unrecognizable to residents and impossible remain anywhere near the affected areas without flotation devices or moving to higher ground. As it moved inland it downsized to a tropical depression, but still caused considerable damages in at least 9 states, including Georgia and South Carolina.
As of September 14, more than 40,000 federal personnel were assigned to work in the response and recovery to Hurricane Irma. 2,650 FEMA staffers have been deployed to the Caribbean and southeast United States, with more arriving each day as the need for relief increases with the number of displaced people. FEMA has distributed an estimated 6.6 million meals, 4.7 million liters of water to residents of the Southeast. In the Caribbean, FEMA Urban Search & Rescue successfully completed 1,141 rescue missions alongside the U.S. Coast Guard who rescued 326 people and 53 household pets.
FEMA Region II, the local FEMA office supervising New York and New Jersey, is also responsible for FEMA operations in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. With one of the largest maintained staffs of the 10 FEMA regions, many employees were requested to deploy to Texas in order to help Region VI with Harvey relief efforts. Only days later, nearly all remaining employees were given 72 hours to deploy to the Virgin Islands, with some even being pulled from their original Texas assignment. The local Region II office, located at the World Trade Center, is still working on recovery and mitigation efforts for the most recent storm to impact their area, Hurricane Sandy. With several disasters on their hands and the potential for more hurricanes to come, FEMA’s years of preparation and tumultuous past with public opinion will be tested under a microscope. With Trump, Congress, the public, and the Caribbean all looking to FEMA and companion agencies for guidance, the next 3 months will be crucial as they set the precedent for how FEMA responds to hurricanes, which are only increasing in intensity and destruction.