HOUSTON (CN) – Hurricane Harvey set a U.S. record for rainfall from a single storm, dumping 51.9 inches of water on the Greater Houston area after hitting the Texas coastline as a Category 4 hurricane. More than 50 people drowned or died in flood-related accidents, and thousands more were forced to climb onto their roofs or wade into muddy waters to search for rescue.
AccuWeather estimated that rebuilding the Houston area and the Texas coast after the storm could cost $190 billion – more than Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.
Harvey threw down the gauntlet for Texas, especially Houston. But the real test comes in the aftermath.
How do Texans raise enough money, send enough food and supplies, and rebuild a city that is roughly the size of Connecticut?
It isn’t an easy answer, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
When Harvey began to make landfall, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was hesitant to issue a mandatory evacuation for the city, though evacuations were ordered for portions of Brazoria County to the south of Houston and closer to the coast.
As residents fled their flooded homes to designated storm shelters, pundits, journalists, and the public criticized Turner for declining an evacuation order.
“We cannot evacuate 6.5 million people in two days,” Turner said.
Turner pushed back on the criticisms and suggested a focus on moving forward and helping Houston recover in the storm’s aftermath.
To give Turner’s rationale context, Houstonians were encouraged to evacuate the city for Hurricane Rita in 2005, the so-called “forgotten hurricane” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that claimed more than 100 lives – not from the storm, but the evacuation.
An estimated 2.5 million people fled the city in September 2005, and a lack of an evacuation plan caused catastrophic traffic jams on major highways.
Residents sat on roads that were rendered parking lots for over 20 hours, and dozens died of heat stroke.
The Storm’s Impact
During Harvey, residents and organizations instead rushed to feed and house people whose homes rapidly became uninhabitable as the floodwaters continued to rise. By Sunday, Aug. 27, Mayor Turner announced that Houston would open multiservice centers, public libraries, and the downtown George R. Brown Convention Center as shelters.
The convention center quickly filled with more than 9,000 evacuees, exceeding its stated capacity of 5,000. It was stocked with supplies, but trucks carrying more supplies were initially unable to reach it to flooded roads.
By Aug. 29, the NRG Center opened its doors to flood victims as many other shelters in Houston reached capacity. The center was managed by local nonprofit Baker-Ripley with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Within an hour of its opening, the center was inundated not only with evacuees, but also with volunteers carrying food and supplies to donate.
Jim McIngvale, better known as Mattress Mack, also opened both of his Gallery Furniture stores to residents seeking shelter on Aug. 27. The 100,000-square-foot flagship store on I-45 was stocked with food and water, and pets were welcome.
McIngvale even gave out his personal cellphone number on a Facebook Live video announcement so residents could reach him as quickly as possible.
“If you need something, call,” he said. “We’ll try to get you whatever help we can.”
McIngvale has been a mainstay in Houston since the early 1980s when he came to fame with the “Gallery Furniture saves you money” slogan. Since then, McIngvale is just as known for philanthropy as he is for selling furniture, with regular giveaways and fundraising efforts.
Joel Osteen, founder of the Lakewood Church in Houston, also opened his doors to flood victims on Aug. 29 after days of public backlash on social media stemming from a tweet three days earlier that failed to mention anything about accepting flood victims at his 17,000-seat megachurch.
Lakewood spokesman Don Iloff said that the building was never closed to victims, but that flooding in the immediate area prevented anyone from getting there, calling it is “a safety issue for us.”
As the skies cleared and residents began assessing the damage caused by Harvey, the sounds of helicopters and emergency vehicle sirens rose above all others.
In passing, a store associate at a local shop described the storm’s aftermath in one word: “warzone.”
Military-style transport trucks carried dozens of evacuees to pick-up locations safe from the historic flooding. Impromptu supply stations popped up far beyond designated shelters.
Even as the floodwaters receded, Harvey continued to be the first thing on Houstonians’ minds. Strangers shared their stories in check-out lines, drive-through windows and store counters.
As with many natural and high-profile disasters, the question will inevitably be asked in conversation for years to come: “Where were you when Harvey hit Houston?”
The Road to Recovery
Soon after the flood, celebrities began sending donations to various organizations tasked with disaster relief. Donations ranged from $25,000 into the millions, including money from Kim Kardashian West, DJ Khaled, Beyoncé, Kevin Hart, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Drake and many others.
Country crossover band Lady Antebellum had to cancel their show in Houston during Harvey, so they announced on Twitter that they decided to donate all proceeds from merchandise sales to relief funds.
President Donald Trump announced the recipients of his promised $1 million donation, including $300,000 to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, $100,000 to Reach Out America and $25,000 to Habitat for Humanity, the Houston Humane Society and the ASPCA, respectively, according to a statement from the White House press secretary office Wednesday. Trump took suggestions for recipients after he announced his pledge on Aug. 31.
Dozens of corporations, including Aetna, Amazon, Boeing, BP, Comcast, Disney, PayPal, Starbucks, Toyota, UPS and regional fast food restaurant Whataburger also donated to disaster relief efforts. The donations collectively added up to more than $157 million, according to CNN Money.
Regional grocery store chain H-E-B brought in roughly 100 employees from San Antonio to Houston and coastal cities to help them restock and reopen their respective stores, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
H-E-B Retail Operations Director Larry Gembler said that sending in more employees was more than just a business decision.
“It’s not just about putting a box of cereal on the shelf,” Gembler said. “It’s about going there and providing the hope that the community needs right now.”
The grocery chain also donated $100,000 – divided between the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Feeding Texas – and gave customers with the option to donate as well.
Many of the donations by celebrities and corporations went to the Red Cross, which has sheltered more than 37,000 people and served more than 840,000 meals during the flood, according to its website.
However, reporting from National Public Radio and ProPublica in 2014 indicated that Red Cross executives had only a loose understanding of where funds were allocated, particularly in 2010 for disaster relief after the earthquake in Haiti.
A study released by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, found that of the $487 million the Red Cross received in donations for Haiti relief, $124 million was spent on internal expenses.
According to the Red Cross’ website, 91 cents of every dollar donated is invested in humanitarian services and programs.
However, Red Cross executive Brad Kieserman said he was unsure of how funds were allocated for Harvey relief in an interview with NPR on Aug. 30.
“I don’t think I know the answer to that any better than the chief fundraiser knows how many, how much it costs to put a volunteer downrange for a week and how many emergency response vehicles I have on the road today,” Kieserman said.
Nonetheless, Kieserman noted that the Red Cross was “very attentive to cost effectiveness and cost efficiencies in making sure that as much as every dollar that we spend on an operation is client-facing.”
Though the Red Cross is one of the most visible disaster relief organizations, others have stepped up to provide aid to Houston’s flood victims.
J.J. Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans football team, started a fundraising campaign for flood victims through crowdfunding website YouCaring for his self-named nonprofit. Watt raised $200,000 in the first two hours of the page’s launch on Aug. 27, and has raised more than $20 million since.
“We set out with a goal of $200,000, and every single day since then has been a reminder of how much good there is out there in the world,” Watt said in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday. “When times are tough, and things look bleak, people step up to help their fellow human.”
Watt went on to say that he has been meeting with other organizations to discuss the best way to utilize the money he raised.
“I want to work to do right by the donors, and I also want to do right by the city of Houston and the surrounding areas to make sure that we help rebuild as many lives as possible,” Watt said.
In addition to local and national organizations, Mexico and the Mexican Red Cross affiliate sent volunteers with truckloads of food and supplies to the Texas coast as soon as last Wednesday.
Despite President Trump’s vitriolic language about Mexico since his campaign began in 2015, Mexican government officials said that Harvey aid was offered “as good neighbors should always do in difficult times.”
While the White House has not released a statement about Mexico’s disaster relief efforts, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly accepted the aid.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also showed appreciation for Mexico’s aid during a joint statement with Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray Caso on Aug. 30.
“I want to thank the government of Mexico for its offer of assistance in the state of Texas,” Tillerson said. “They’ve offered a wide range of assistance, coordinating with the governor down in Texas, and also through FEMA. It’s very generous for Mexico to offer to help in this very, very challenging time.”
Despite the outpouring of donations and volunteer efforts, Congress was still expected to pass a relief package for the Texas coast to help cover Harvey’s staggering price tag. The U.S. government’s fiscal year ends in just a few weeks, and FEMA only has about $1.8 billion left for disaster relief – an amount that will barely put a dent into necessary recovery funds.
Senate and House Democratic Leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday that “Democrats are prepared to offer our votes for the Harvey aid package, and a short term debt limit increase of three months.”
On Wednesday, the House voted 419-3 in favor of a $7.9 billion relief fund package, most of which will go toward cash-strapped FEMA. The Senate is expected vote on its own version of Harvey relief later this week.
Ultimately, donations, volunteers and federal spending bills cannot fix the underlying problem: when it pours in Houston, flooding is widespread and consistent.
Last year, the Texas Tribune worked with ProPublica to investigate habitual flooding in Houston, in a reported titled “Boomtown, Flood Town.” They discovered that the primary culprit for flooding susceptibility was rapid population growth and urban sprawl.
“As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater,” according to the Tribune and ProPublica report. “That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs.”
While he was still in charge of the Harris County Flood Control District, former head Mike Talbott disagreed with the evidence showing that development exacerbates flooding in Houston. The report noted that Talbott’s successor, Russ Poppe, shared his feelings.
Talbott said in the report that the claim that “’these magic sponges out in the prairie would have absorbed all that water is absurd.”
He also said scientists and conservationists were “anti-development.”
U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, introduced a $311 million spending bill last year, a few days after the Tax Day floods in April 2016, to go toward flood-control construction projects in Houston.
House Resolution 5025 “should go a long way toward reducing the risk caused by floods” by fully funding flood-control projects, Rep. Green said in a press release at the time.
However, Congress failed to pass Rep. Green’s bill, and it died in the House.
Though Houston requires revamped flood mitigation infrastructure, which was made especially evident after the world saw the city submerged under several feet of water, such a project only helps minimize the impact of inevitable natural disasters.
Ultimately, climate change has been blamed for record-breaking storms in the last decade.
“Scientists say climate change is causing torrential rainfall to happen more often, meaning storms that used to be considered ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ events are happening with greater frequency,” according to the Tribune report. “Rare storms that have only a miniscule chance of occurring in any given year have repeatedly battered the city in the past 15 years.”
The chaos and destruction that Houston faced and continues to face preceded another looming threat from the Atlantic Ocean.
Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, made landfall the Caribbean islands Wednesday morning. Though Irma is expected to be downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reaches Florida, it bolsters the assertion that major storms are becoming more severe, more often.
While Florida may not incur the amount of damage that Harvey caused Texas, such a storm will inevitably come.
Paris’ international climate change agreement is widely considered to be an important step toward reversing, or at least mitigating, the adverse effects of climate change.
Though other nations have agreed to continue to work toward the goals of the agreement despite the United States’ departure, the Trump administration has provided no alternative course of action against what climate scientists and numerous U.S. government officials have deemed the greatest threat to national security.
Without decisive action and U.S. leadership on climate change, storms like Harvey could very well become the new normal.