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The Eric Factor: What needs to happen in Houston now

My prediction: Hurricane Harvey will surpass Katrina as the nation’s most costly natural disaster.

The biggest reason is the size of the area and the unprecedented scope of Harvey. Houston, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation, has seen an increase of about 100,000 people each year for several decades. That means that more than one million people have never gone through a hurricane…let alone one like this. For the lifelong residents of Southeast Texas, Hurricane Harvey is still unlike any other storm.

On Good Morning Quad Cities last Friday, I said “the worst-case scenario for Harvey will look like Katrina.” While that’s come true, at least we haven’t yet had the immense loss of life.

I’ve been asked repeatedly, “Why didn’t people get out of the way? Why didn’t they heed the warnings? And why can’t people take care of themselves now?” Let’s start with the first question. Some people probably did get out of harm’s way Thursday and Friday. But Harvey came ashore in Texas 230 miles south of Houston.

Three million people tried to escape Hurricane Rita in 2005 which snarled interstates for days.

The 2005 evacuation from Hurricane Rita was a disaster in itself. You may remember news reports as three million people tried to evacuate the Houston area as a category five hurricane churned offshore in the Gulf. So many people left because the devastation of Katrina happened just a month earlier. The chaos of Houston evacuating left people stranded without basic necessities and more than 100 people dying in the process.

That is probably one of the biggest reasons Houston officials decided to keep people in place. And maybe the city is just too big to evacuate now. And if we consider that, we have to consider that for Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale too.

Population change in the U.S. from 2012 to 2013 according to the Martin Prosperity Institute

By early Saturday morning when Harvey came ashore the need for disaster assistance was immediate. The United States Coast Guard rescued more than a thousand people in just the first 12 hours. But it’s my view that an evacuation the day before would’ve caused more people to be trapped on jammed interstates as the floodwaters reached record status, impeding rescue efforts.

As for why the people affected can’t take care of themselves now? For hundreds of thousands of Texans, I assure you that’s happening right now. My first five years of broadcast Meteorology were spent there in East Texas. There are so many stories of neighbors helping neighbors. But while the Texas spirit is strong, it will be challenged in the next day as the geography of the Houston area keeps the water around. There are no toilets, no water, no electricity, no food, and no gas. It’s definitely a situation that has an opportunity to get much worse before it gets better.

Neighbors are using their personal boats to rescue flooded Friendswood residents, Aug. 27, 2017, in Friendswood, Texas. AP Photo.

I remember the feeling I had broadcasting the morning the levees failed in Katrina. I remember worrying for the people in harm’s way. While most people survived the initial surge of water, it was the humanitarian crisis in the following days that took so many lives. Those were the days when everything started to break down.  When resources run out, people will stop helping others and start fight for their own life.

That’s why it’s so imperative that resources are expedited to those around Houston today. Anyone left in flooded homes needs to get out because when the waters recede, entire square miles will be uninhabitable for months. When it’s possible, an organized evacuation still needs to take place.

Late word this morning from FEMA that up to 500,000 people are in need of shelter in the Houston area. The best way for any of us to help is to do what we did on Good Morning Quad Cities this morning: text “Harvey” to 90999 to donate $10 off of your next cell phone bill.

Finally, while this tragedy unfolds in the nation’s fourth largest city, it’s important we don’t forget the people of South Texas, where Harvey slammed ashore with 130+ mph wind. A colleague of mine who works at the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi said in a Facebook post that it will be one to two weeks before the power is turned back on where she lives.

Houston will need many months, if not years to resume to the level of normalcy they enjoyed last week. It’s time for all of us to help.

-Meteorologist Eric Sorensen