In our second story to mark the beginning of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, Matt discusses how meteorologists are preparing for life after Harvey. If you missed part one, you can find it here.
In early October of 2017, I had just completed an invigorating 4 mile, 2,100 foot climb to Observation Point in Zion National Park, Utah. It marked one of my prouder moments as a person, because as hiking goes this was considered strenuous for someone like me who isn’t exactly crushing it at the gym every week. And I conquered it. The view was spectacular, but unfortunately, the cell service was great too. At the top of this beautiful overlook, an email was pushed to my phone, asking if I was certain that then Tropical Storm Nate was not going to threaten Texas. And I was reminded that the 2017 hurricane season was almost never going to end, nor was the job of a meteorologist. Even in the middle of nowhere.
Here we are eight months later, officially beginning a new hurricane season. Obviously, the season began in May with Alberto, which thankfully stayed away from Texas. All the same, I have mixed emotions going into this season. It feels too soon, memories are too raw, and I look at things differently after last year. I’m less meteorologically fascinated and more consumed by personal impacts to people. I think many meteorologists feel similarly. Yes, we stand at the ready to inform and help guide folks through the season ahead, but for most of us, it just feels too soon.
We know so many people in the Houston area, Texas in general, Florida, and Puerto Rico also think it’s much too soon for hurricane season to be upon us once again. But we have to accept that hurricane season is a part of life in these places. It’s a risk we have to live with. After the devastation and misery of last year, I reached out to a handful of folks to “take our temperature” as we head into a new season. We learned much from last year, and we need to apply those lessons in the 2018 season. Here are some thoughts on both the challenges ahead and the progress made.
Should a storm threaten Houston this hurricane season, one of the biggest challenges for us will be communicating which risks are the ones of concern. “Not every hurricane that makes landfall in Texas will produce Harvey-type flooding,” said Jeff Lindner, meteorologist at the Harris County Flood Control District. When I asked Jeff what concerns him most about the upcoming season, he replied, “My fear this year, is that if we are threatened, many residents will think this is going to be Harvey again and focus on the rainfall, when it could be a significant storm surge or wind event for the area. It is important for residents to have an all-inclusive hurricane plan for all hazards.”
Hurricanes are complex. No two are alike. Ike, Alicia, Harvey, Carla, Allison, Beulah. They are all memorable names on the Texas coast for different reasons in different communities. Harvey created a bit of a conundrum. It will be known as “Hurricane Harvey” even though it didn’t bring quintessential hurricane conditions to Houston such as wind and surge, though it obviously brought devastating rains. It devastated Port Aransas and Rockport with hurricane conditions, but not the majority of the Corpus Christi metropolitan area.
“1970 was the last direct hit to Corpus, so many, many generations have never experienced a major hurricane in their lifetimes,” said Greg Heavener, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office in Corpus Christi. “Since Harvey hit so close to home, though not a direct hit, a lot of people think they can ride out an actual Category four or five storm.”
In 1970, Corpus Christi had a population just north of 200,000 people. In 2018, that’s now grown to more than 300,000 people. A lot has changed in 48 years. And while Harvey was a horrific storm, it could have been so much worse had it come in just a little further south. Thankfully, there are a good number of residents in the Coastal Bend that seem to understand that fact. According to Heavener, the Corpus Christi NWS office has given dozens of preparedness talks since Harvey. This gives Heavener hope. “I believe most are sincere in their desire for knowledge and self involvement and improvement in preparing their homes and communities for the upcoming season,” he told me.
Folks in the Houston area are also heeding the preparedness message. Katie Magee is a meteorologist with the NWS Houston forecast office in League City. (Incidentally, if you haven’t heard her story, it’s worth your time. Katie’s first day at work in Houston was on August 21st, less than a week before Harvey’s worst rains)
“The turnout at (outreach) events and engagement with the public both demonstrate that people are taking preventative measures to be safe this summer and fall,” Magee said. “The people with whom we interact during various outreach events are very engaged and ask very thoughtful and difficult questions.” This is something Eric and I have also noticed in the comments and questions we have received since Harvey. People genuinely seem to want to understand everything a bit better.
But Harvey also created another challenge: People appear to be interpreting weather forecasts more emotionally than usual. Magee said forecasters at the NWS office have noticed this. “People seem more on edge and more concerned than prior to Harvey,” she said. “Many were flooded from Harvey and are still dealing with emotional stress from that storm.”
Harvey scarred so many of us on the Gulf Coast in different ways. We’ve also seen comments on the blog and on our social media feeds about people worrying more, feeling like they have PTSD in the wake of Harvey and just generally being more aware of every change in the weather forecast. Gregory Waller is a service coordination hydrologist at the NWS West Gulf River Forecast Center up in Forth Worth. He grew up in Southeast Texas and also understands this challenge. “I feel that the entire Gulf Coast has not fully recovered from the emotional toll from the last hurricane season,” Waller tells me. The noise level during hurricane season between local media, national media, and social media increases near the water. As Waller says, “The entire weather enterprise needs to be aware of these vulnerabilities and sensitivities in our messaging.” Every tropical threat this year is going to be amplified. Word choices matter a lot. So in addition to being prepared for storms, people should be prepared to hear a lot more about storm forecasts, some of which may be without context. Eric and I run this site to provide context, so that readers know when we get serious, they should be getting serious too.
The 2017 hurricane season was a big one for the insurance industry. According to Swiss Re, a global reinsurer, Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused a combined total of $217 billion in damage. Of that, only $92 billion was insured. This gap is a concern for Dr. Marla Schwartz, an atmospheric perils specialist at Swiss Re. “Last year’s hurricane season again demonstrated the profound insurance protection gap throughout the United States and Caribbean,” notes Schwartz. “History has shown us that communities with appropriate levels of insurance protection recover more quickly from natural disasters.”
This isn’t just an opinion shared in the insurance or reinsurance industry. According to Lindner, only 36 percent of homes that flooded during Harvey had flood insurance. “Let me be clear: Everyone needs flood insurance in this region,” he says. Even if residents didn’t experience flooding during Harvey or Allison or Tax Day or any of the other storms we’ve had in Houston, homeowners should have flood insurance, because no two floods are alike. “Given our intense rainfall rates and our flat topography, everyone has a flood risk,” Lindner points out.
That message is getting out there. According to Schwartz, people are interested, and this is a critical step in closing the residential flood protection gap here in the U.S. “Following Harvey’s rainfall-driven flooding in Texas, there has been a strong consumer demand for residential flood coverage. Flood risk models are more accurate than ever before, and private insurers are eager to provide flood solutions and coverage,” she says.
If you still haven’t procured flood insurance and want to learn more, now is as good a time as ever. Keep in mind, it will take 30 days to take effect after you purchase coverage. FEMA has a thorough Q&A page you can access to learn more.
Understanding and preparing for impacts
Jeff Lindner became Houston’s voice during Harvey, everywhere and anywhere answering questions. His philosophy is what many in meteorology have discovered in recent years. Explaining complex scenarios in a language accessible to everyone is critical. But ultimately, people want to know how and when they will be affected and what they should be doing to prepare or respond. “I tried to answer those three questions each time I spoke, because in the end, that is the information that people needed,” he said.
So I asked him about what lessons he learned from communicating with the region during the storm.”It was okay to say I didn’t know,” was one of those lessons for Lindner. “We were dealing with an historic event and I did not know all the answers to every question.” In a lot of cases, it’s better to have that answer than to make something up.
Another thing we all noticed during and after Harvey, as well as in the wake of the prior major flooding events on Memorial Day in 2015 and Tax Day 2016, was that a lot of people in the Houston area didn’t fully grasp how flooding works here. Lindner says that during Harvey, while perhaps we did well explaining big totals would happen over a period of time, we didn’t all do a good job explaining that half of that might fall in a shorter window. “Some of this is the limitations of the forecasting ability,” he said. “We know it is going to rain, and we know it is going to rain a lot, but when and where are the difficult questions we face many times.” In a place like Houston, that’s often the hardest question for meteorologists to answer, and it’s also probably the single most important question people want to be given explicit answers for. Harris County has 22 different watersheds, which makes us ultra-sensitive to accurately pinning down the maximum rainfall total. But, as Lindner points out “if the forecast is off by four or five miles, that could be a one-to-two watershed difference.”
This is a good time for all of us to really understand how Houston works. Harris County Flood Control has an interactive map you can use to find your location and see which watershed you reside in, as well as see floodways and floodplains. You should know this information. It’s also a good time to reiterate that just because you didn’t flood in Harvey or on Tax Day or in Allison, that doesn’t mean you won’t flood in the future. Between climate change, evolving regional development patterns, land subsidence, and other factors, the Houston floodplain is more of a fluid, changing one than a static one, if you’ll pardon the pun. Factors leading to flooding go beyond just rain totals, as we all have learned. It’s why just about everyone interviewed for the piece said everyone should have flood insurance in Houston.
But other impacts are just as important. Going back to Lindner, he reminds us that “we also must realize our threats from wind and storm surge and make sure we include those hazards when discussing becoming a more resilient community.” You should not forget those hazards when planning for hurricane season either.
Magee offered a list of some important hurricane season questions we should all have answers to sooner than later.
- Are you in a storm surge zone?
- Where will you go if told to evacuate?
- What do you take with you?
- If you stay at home, do you have a hurricane toolkit with necessary supplies to handle a power outage?
- Do you have the proper insurance in place to cover you in case of a disaster?
- Have you taken measures to protect your home from the wind?
“In the wake of such a landmark catastrophe, it is promising to see everyone being proactive this spring,” said Magee, reflecting on outreach events in the area recently.
Eric and I have been humbled by the support and kind words we received for our work during Harvey. We will be here every step of the way to inform Houston this hurricane season. It’s a job and responsibility neither of us takes lightly.
But dedication isn’t a concept that’s unique to us. Most of us know Jeff Lindner’s story, about having a GoFundMe raise over $20,000 just so he could take a vacation. And, selflessly as you’d expect, he donated it to folks in need.
In Greg Heavener’s case, he did something almost unthinkable to a lot of us. Days after working Harvey at the Corpus Christi NWS office, he volunteered to be deployed to the Key West, FL NWS office to help them work through Hurricane Irma.
“My biggest driving force was knowing I could make the situation less painful for the staff at Key West. I empathized, cried, helped clean up damage around the area with them, for them,” he recalls. “I just wanted to make their lives easier.”
Meteorologists, particularly those at the National Weather Service are very much dedicated to service above self. “During difficult, stressful, and prolonged operations like Harvey, it is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” recalls Magee. “By filling each needed role (during Harvey) with someone who was comfortable and experienced in that task, we played to our strengths to serve the public to the best of our abilities.”
And their lives were impacted too. Magee’s colleague at the Houston NWS office, Sean Luchs, cut short a vacation to come back and prepare his home and himself ahead of Harvey, but he still sustained significant flood damage on his first floor. “Once the incident got going, it quickly became so huge, my solution for balance was to completely abandon balance and go to a sort of triage,” he explained. This is something I experienced during Harvey, and I have heard from other meteorologists that have worked other disasters having similar stories. Luchs ended up both stuck at home before a shift because of flooding and also stuck at work due to a flooding relapse. “Afterward, it was a source of guilt that I was trapped in my neighborhood for 10 hours of my next shift.” Dedication is truly a hallmark of people working at the National Weather Service. Luchs is still repairing the damage, but he feels somewhat fortunate despite this. “I can’t even begin to imagine how the folks are holding up that lost everything.”
Heavener credits family for lightening the burden. The National Weather Service mission is to provide forecasts and information to protect life and property. They take it seriously, but they also have families that are impacted. “Without the support I had at home, I would not have been able to be as effective at my job.” Service above self is something you’ll see from a lot of meteorologists when disaster strikes. Nearly all of us strive for the same end goal: To help people and protect people when the weather takes a nasty turn. Eric and I take that to heart, and we will be here if you need us this hurricane season and beyond.
Our partner for this year, Reliant, is ready for storm season 2018, too. And they can help you get ready. Reliant has a wide range of backup energy solutions that can help you ride out the storm. Choose a permanently installed generator for power that automatically kicks on when your home loses power. Many provide enough power to keep even your AC system running.
How do you report power outages during a weather event? Electricity delivered to your home or business comes from a power plant before it disperses throughout your neighborhood. While Reliant might sell the electricity to your home or business, a separate utility provider, such as CenterPoint or Texas New Mexico Power, actually owns and maintains the wires and poles that deliver your electricity.