A damaged traffic light blocks a street as Hurricane Harvey makes landfall in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday. (AP Photo)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS: Hurricane Harvey has smashed into Texas, lashing a wide swath of the Gulf Coast with strong winds and torrential rain from the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in more than a decade.
The National Hurricane Center said the eye of the Category 4 storm made landfall about 10pm local time about 50 kilometres northeast of Corpus Christi, bringing with sustained winds of 210 km/h and flooding rains.
Harvey’s approach sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing the Gulf Coast, hoping to escape the wrath of a menacing storm that threatened an area of Texas including oil refineries, chemical plants and dangerously flood-prone Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city with a metropolitan area population of 5.6 million.
Texas Gov Greg Abbott had warned that the monster system would be “a very major disaster”, and the predictions drew fearful comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest ever to strike the US.
The hurricane centre warned that Harvey could produce life-threatening storm surges — basically walls of water moving inland — along an area stretching some 640km from south of Corpus Christi to north of Houston.
While authorities have not confirmed any deaths so far, reports of damage began to emerge from Rockport, a coastal city of about 10,000 people that was directly in the path of Harvey when it came ashore.
City manager Kevin Carruth said many people were taken to the county jail for assessment and treatment after the roof of a seniors’ housing complex collapsed. KIII-TV reported that 10 people were treated in the jail as it had the nearest available facilities that could be safely reached. Carruth also said that Rockport’s historic downtown area has seen extensive damage.
Earlier Friday, acting Rockport mayor Patrick Rios offered ominous advice, saying that those who chose to stay put “should make some type of preparation to mark their arm with a Sharpie pen”, implying that doing so would make it easier for rescuers to identify their bodies.
In Corpus Christi, the major city closest to the centre of the storm, wind whipped palm trees and stinging sheets of horizontal rain slapped against hotels and office buildings along the seawall as the storm made landfall. Boats bobbed violently in the marina. It was too dark to tell whether any boats had broken their moorings.
Many emergency crews were unable to make rescues early Saturday because of strong winds. Melissa Munguia, the deputy emergency management coordinator in Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi, said it could be several more hours before crews could fully assess the damage in coastal communities.
Fuelled by warm Gulf of Mexico waters, Harvey grew rapidly, accelerating from Category 1 early Friday morning to a Category 4 by evening. Its transformation from an unnamed storm to a life-threatening behemoth took only 56 hours, an incredibly fast intensification.
Harvey came ashore as the fiercest hurricane to hit the US in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record, in 1961. Based on the atmospheric pressure, Harvey ties for the 18th strongest hurricane on landfall in the US since 1851 and ninth strongest in Texas.
Aside from the winds of 210 km/h and storm surges up to four metres, Harvey was expected to drop prodigious amounts of rain — up to 90 centimetres. The resulting flooding, one expert said, could be “the depths of which we’ve never seen”.
A worst-case scenario is that the hurricane could hug the coast for days and stay strong enough to be a tropical storm through Wednesday at least. During this time, the storm will likely dump between 60 and 90cm of rain on areas that don’t handle much smaller rainfall amounts well.
Sometime early in the week, forecasters say, the storm is expected to go back into the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, which provide fuel, then turn back in for a potential second hit on what may be an already flooded Houston-Galveston area.
Before the storm arrived, home and business owners raced to nail plywood over windows and fill sandbags. Steady traffic filled the highways leaving Corpus Christi, but there were no apparent jams. In Houston, where mass evacuations can include changing major highways to a one-way vehicle flow, authorities left traffic patterns unchanged.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said that because the hurricane was not taking direct aim at Houston, the city’s primary concern was heavy flooding.
“We are not having a hurricane,” said Emmett, the top elected official for the county, which encompasses Houston. “We are having a rain event.”
At a convenience store in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, at least 12 cars lined up for fuel. Brent Borgstedte said this was the fourth station he had visited to try to fill up his son’s car. The 55-year-old insurance agent shrugged off Harvey’s risks.
“I don’t think anybody is really that worried about it. I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I’ve been through several hurricanes.”
Scientists warned that Harvey could swamp counties more than 150km inland and stir up dangerous surf as far away as Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, 1,150km from the landfall area.
It may also spawn tornadoes. Even after weakening, the system might spin out into the Gulf and regain strength before hitting Houston a second time Wednesday as a tropical storm, forecasters said.