Hurricane Harvey: A Week of Hell in Houston and How You Can Help by Jack Antonini, NACUSO CEO

It is such a strange feeling, as you prepare for a Hurricane, hoping it will not be as strong as predicted, praying for everyone in the path of the Hurricane, getting supplies to help you survive if you lose power or sustain damage … and all the while worrying about friends and family in the forecast path.  It’s a little bit excitement, since it is so unusual, combined with anxiety about the impending disaster, while trying to calm and convince those you love that everything will be okay.

One mile from Jack’s house in Conroe, TX

Last minute checks with our son and his family to be sure they were prepared, only to learn that the first 4 gas stations he went to were completely sold out of gas, and after an hour of searching and waiting in line he was finally able to fill up his vehicle at the 5th gas station the day before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, added to the feeling this might be bigger than we thought.

Finally we gathered around the TV to watch as the storm approached Texas and were amazed at how strong it became, reaching category 4 hurricane status with 130 mph winds and 938 mb of pressure, indicating it was one of the 20 strongest hurricanes of all time.  As we watched the weather people being beaten by wind and rain, and saw coastal cities record wind speeds of 120 – 132 mph, an ominous feeling crept into our subconscious.  Our reactions to what we were seeing went from “Wow, look at that!” to “Oh my God, that is terrible.”

We stayed up all night, watching the storm coverage, wincing every time we received a new Tornado Warning … the Emergency Notification on our phones would alert us, and then we would have to wait to see where it was impacting on TV.  As of 45 minutes after Harvey made landfall, 86,400 homes were without power.  We imagined how helpless we would feel in the dark, with no information about the raging storm right outside our door, and we prayed for the people who were going through this.

Finally relieved that the hurricane was not coming close to our house, and making sure our son’s family was safe, we collapsed in to bed Saturday morning.  A few hours later, when we got up to check on the storm, we discovered that Houston was experiencing severe flooding and Buffalo Bayou was expected to set a record flood depth and vehicles were already stranded in flood waters, and that over 1,000 high water rescues had taken place.  That ominous feeling grew stronger, and we were more acutely aware of the potential to be negatively affected by Hurricane Harvey.

An abandoned Houston Hobby Airport

After another sleepless night, reassuring my family that we would be okay, exhausted from worry and the weight of watching mother nature wreaking havoc on Texas, we went to bed.  When we awoke, we immediately got a storm update, only to learn that Houston was experiencing “massive flooding and torrential rains.”  After a drink to steady our nerves, we watched storm updates throughout the day and night, despite losing power several times, along with our internet connection.

By Monday, August 28th officials announced that both Houston airports would be closed through at least Wednesday, as the highways around Houston were flooded or the exits were impassable.  Forecasters were calling for another 15 inches of rain where we live, north of Houston, and another 20 inches of rain in Katy where our oldest son lives.  The high water rescues, which are occurring in areas that never previously flooded, are unbelievable, including:

4,000    Houston Fire Dept

2,000    Houston Police Dept

2,200    Harris Country Sherrif’s Dept

 1,500    U.S. Coast Guard

9,700    Total High Water Rescues reported as of Noon 8/30/17

People came from as far away as San Antonio and Louisiana with their personal boats and watercraft, bringing cases of water and other supplies, to help with rescues!  One “convoy” of 5 pick-up trucks pulling boats was spotted following Harris County Sherriff’s Deputies to areas where flood waters were rising and people needed to be rescued.  When the local news reported talking with the drivers in the first two trucks, the first was from Austin (165 miles W of Houston) and the second was from Carthage (220 miles NW of Houston), and they literally had no idea where they were or where they were going, they were simply following the Sherriff’s Deputies to locations where people needed help.

Over 30,000 people were in shelters in the greater Houston area on Monday evening, after their homes were flooded.  Thousands of cars and homes are under water, and over 350 areas in greater Houston are impassable due to dangerous high water conditions, making it very difficult to go anywhere.  Our friends from the east returned the favor of Texas providing shelter to hurricane Katrina victims, and over 200 members of the “Cajun Navy” came to Houston to help rescue flood victims with their personal boats.

By Monday, we were also finally seeing the heart-breaking pictures from Rockport, Fulton, Victoria and other areas that had suffered through hurricane Harvey’s 130 mph winds.  As one astonished reporter explained, there was not a single building in Rockport or Fulton that was not damaged, with most damaged beyond repair that would require tearing them down and rebuilding.

Late Monday or early on Tuesday, August 29th we learned that several rivers were going to exceed their historic flood levels, several by as much as 10’-12’ which will cause unimaginable damage.  On top of that, Lake Conroe (near where we live) was 5’ over “full pond” and in danger of going over the dam, which could cause significant damage to the dam itself and resulting damage to homes and business along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, so they had to release record amounts of water flooding entire neighborhoods, especially since it was still raining.

Two large reservoirs (Addicks & Barker – 26,000 acres) had completely filled with water from the massive rains in Houston, and the Army Corps of Engineers were forced to use a controlled release after water began to “overspill” the Addicks reservoir, adding to the flooding along the Buffalo Bayou.  On top of the downstream flooding, 3,000 homes west of Addicks reservoirs flooded and another 1,000 west of Barker reservoir, where no prior flooding had ever occurred.

The County Judge in Galveston County said that they had received 43 inches of rain so far on Tuesday and their annual total is 49 inches, so they have received nearly a year of rain in 5 days, causing extensive flooding.  He was going through areas on an air boat that had been hard hit, and in Dickinson they were going OVER cars and trucks, since the water was 10′-12′ deep above the street they were going down.  He said that he was looking at some apartments that didn’t appear to be too damaged until he realized that it was the 2nd floor apartments he was looking at!!

Literally thousands of homes will have to be completely rebuilt from the flood damage, removing the flooring, replacing appliances, rewiring the electrical systems, tearing out the ruined drywall and insulation and replacing it, and some business owners had said it would be a year before they will be able to reopen, since they will have to tear down what’s left of their business and rebuild it.

On Wednesday August 30th over 32,000 people were in shelters and they are opening more, expecting victims from east Texas communities of Beaumont, that received over 20 inches of rain on Wednesday, after Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall again.

The amazing thing is the people who are volunteering to help.  I saw a truckload of food and supplies being unloaded at a Conroe ISD high school that good Samaritans sent down from Dallas.  They announced that a shelter in Fort Bend County needed clothing, bedding, cots, etc. for people who had to flee the rising water that was flooding their homes and had nothing but the wet clothes on their backs, and within an hour they had sufficient blankets, clothes, sleeping bags, pillows, etc. for the 500 people in the shelter from people who lived nearby and brought what they could to help.

We have watched amazing rescues, and two that really touched my heart included:

  • Saving a baby deer from Barker reservoir (it was happily snuggled in the fireman’s arms)
  • Two people who brought their canoe to help rescue people, went to the neighborhood early and discovered a man who was laying on his back with a young man doing compressions on his chest … they loaded him into their canoe, then got him to a pontoon boat that had 2 fireman on it, who continued the compressions, and by the time they got him to an ambulance, his heart was beating, and they had saved his life!!

I have to admit I was feeling very uneasy when I was finally able to venture out of our house and went to the grocery store only to see empty shelves, and gas stations closed with no fuel.  As of Wednesday, August 30th at Noon, there were:

  • 278,000 people without power in Texas
  • 32,000 people in evacuation shelters
  • 200 high water areas making highways and other thoroughfares impassable, down from 450 such blockages a on Monday

I honestly cannot imagine losing my home, and things most precious to me such as family photos, and winding up sleeping on a cot in a shelter with 500 to 5,000 other people … but that is exactly what thousands of people in Texas have experienced over the past 5 -6 days as Hurricane Harvey and the rain it brought devastated home after home, town after town.

With some areas receiving 52 inches of rain in Houston, this is one of the strongest and wettest hurricanes in history, causing such extensive flooding that the waters won’t recede until Labor Day in most of the rivers and bayous that are overflowing their banks into neighborhoods and people’s homes.  It will take months to recover, but in the credit union tradition of people helping people, we have seen incredible acts of love and compassion as people from all across the region, and from areas as far away as NYC, CA and FL have come to help the people of Texas.  Despite losing everything, we have seen people express their appreciation to their rescue teams, whether first responders or simple volunteers, who saved their lives.

We can make a difference in the lives of thousands who are facing the biggest, most stressful experience of their lives.  Contribute to Red Cross or CUAid.coop and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are making a real difference in the lives of people who are truly in need of help.

Thank you to CO-OP Financial Services, PSCU and CU Direct, all NACUSO Platinum Partners for making significant donations to CUAid.  Your dedication to the credit union movement is inspiring.