It may not feel like it, but Houston narrowly escaped a much worse fate from Hurricane Nicholas

Well, they don’t call them natural disasters for nothing. For some residents, of course, last night was but a breezy affair. For others, especially along the coast, there is substantial wind and flood damage to contend with this morning from Hurricane Nicholas. And then there are the half a million customers in the greater Houston region without power this morning.

For those of you recovering today—and I count myself among you as power went out in my neighborhood, trees are down, my backyard flooded—it may not feel like it, but this storm could have been so so much worse. With this post I want to discuss that, but first lets update the status of Nicholas and present a short-term forecast.

Tropical Storm Nicholas

As of 10am CT, the center of Nicholas is very nearly directly over Houston, located just 10 miles southeast of downtown. As it has moved inland for nearly 10 hours, Nicholas has weakened to a storm with sustained winds of 45 mph. The storm is moving slowly, the northeast, at about 6 mph. It should continue to turn more easterly, and then dissipate over Louisiana in two or three days. The main rainfall threat has moved east, and the southern half of Louisiana could see 6 to 10 inches of rainfall over the next several days.

Nearly all of the moisture associated with Nicholas is now east of Houston. (NOAA)

Short-term forecast

The forecast for today and Wednesday will allow for recovery in the greater Houston area. Some light, scattered showers will be possible today and Wednesday, but chances are fairly low and accumulations should be slight. The strongest winds, too, have moved east of the area despite the presence of Nicholas’ center.

If you’re without power, high temperatures today will be quite reasonable for this time of year, in the upper 70s. Humidity will be high, of course. Lows tonight will drop into the low 70s. Highs on Wednesday should reach the mid-80s with a mix of sunshine and clouds.

If you want a more hopeful thought, we’re seeing fairly strong hints in the models for a decently strong fall front moving into the region in nine or ten days time. That’s a long way out to forecast, so grain of salt and all that, but it is the right time of year for a front. So maybe, hopefully, fall is but 10 days away. I’m ready.

Nicholas could have been so much worse

First of all, if you can remember all the way back to Saturday, I presented three different scenarios for Nicholas’ track and eventual flooding in Houston. The first of these was the “Coast Hugger,” in which the storm remained close to the Gulf, brought 2 to 4 inches of rain to Houston and higher amounts along the coast, while keeping the heaviest rains offshore. This is largely what happened, with Nicholas remaining very close to the coast even after moving inland. If we look at satellite-derived precipitation totals for the last three days, the heaviest swath of 10-20 inches of rainfall came offshore.

Satellite estimated rainfall totals for Nicholas during the preceding 72 hours. (NOAA)

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

Image showing approximate track of Nicholas, with winds and surge overlaid. (NOAA)

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

Matt will have our next update—and probably our last update specific to Nicholas—at 5 pm CT today.

65 thoughts on “It may not feel like it, but Houston narrowly escaped a much worse fate from Hurricane Nicholas”

  1. Nice work, y’all. Understanding that no forecast can ever be perfect, as usual yours was by far the most accurate.

  2. Thank you again. All of you at SCW deserve a public award of gratitude for providing us the BEST source of weather info. It’s your attitude that makes your interpretations the best: science-based, respectful and matter of fact. Glad we’re your neighbors.

  3. And then there was this DJ on a local radio station that ” Boy this storm just came out of nowhere”. Drugs still mess you up…Just wanted to say that despite your vigilant effort to keep us out of harms way, stupid can’t be cured ..Good job you guys did!! Been in a few in my 50+ years, this was the best coverage I’ve partaken of!!!

    • It’s true that it developed quickly right in the Gulf, and we only had a couple of days to prepare for it rather than a week like we do for those that form way out in the Atlantic or Caribbean. Relatively speaking compared to most hurricanes, I think it’s fair to call it “out of nowhere.”

      • I started preparing Saturday when I read SCW’s posts. Reco downloading the app and signing up for automated e-mails. Have to stay on top of these things until the end of the month then we should be in the clear.

  4. Why are the rainbands over the TX-LA border weakening so much? They do not appear to be in danger of flooding, yet there is a “high” (according to NWS) risk of flooding over there.

  5. Posts from you all at 10:20 PM, 1:17 AM & 5:38 AM…God bless the SCW Team for the super “hand-holding”…what a treasure we have…Thank you!!

  6. Appreciate this post and closing the loop on Nicholas relative to the 3 options outlined a few days ago. Thank you for your service to Houston!

  7. Thanks so much, Eric, for reminding us how fortunate we really were. No loss of life that I’ve heard of, certainly no one flooded out of the their homes. The power issues are due to distribution lines being down, not some ERCOT derived issue. But, it’s also a reminder to be very supportive of CenterPoint’s tree cutting programs, etc. The more they can get out of the way in “dry times” the better it is for all of us.

    • It only took 5 successive rain storms, losing power during each of them (along with everyone else on my street), for Centerpoint to get around to cutting trees back in my neighborhood. I had called in multiple times about an infrastructure check for these multiple outages and it took 5 storms in a row for them to get limbs trimmed back. The last time they were out here trimming was maybe 5 years ago. I don’t personally think Centerpoint gives any priority to that kind of thing, at least not where I am.

      • That’s of course a good thing, but respective homeowners should have been ones trimming trees, not leaving it up to CNP

        • Trimming limbs is one thing but trimming them near power lines can sometimes prove dangerous for those who aren’t exactly experts at this kind of thing. We have power lines running right next to big trees in our backyard and tree trimmers who have forgone trimming them because they prefer leaving that up to the power company. Most people prefer not getting electrocuted.

          • A man died last year I believe from doing just that. He was trying to trim a tree but hit a power line and… that was that.

  8. Houston has had some big near-misses over the last couple of years and I worry that it allows people to lose the sense of urgency for change, that we often see after storms.

    What can we, as readers, do to get the ball rolling on hurricane/flood mitigation projects (like the Ike dike, that Galveston island park/land levee idea, burying power lines to minimize damage from wind storms, flood prevention measures in the city…)? I’m not sure how big your readership is, but I know there are a lot of us, and we’re all exhausted by the yearly hurricane season anxiety. Surely there is something we can do to hurry along some change.

    We appreciate your coverage and honesty and that you take time away from your own families to keep ours informed. People really trust you guys, and I would love to see more discussion of climate change and the inevitability of storms (and what we can do to minimize the damage) once things settle back down. Thanks for all you do!

    • If you want to do something to bring about change, vote for local and state officials who recognize the dangers and who support the mitigations. The current crop doesn’t care and would rather spend our tax dollars re-fighting the war on drugs (it’s over, drugs won) or punishing brown people for existing.

      Thoughts, prayers, and other gestures are not helpful. Vote in people who will address the climate issues the Gulf Coast is facing.

        • I don’t live in Houston or Harris county. It’s great that you’ve got Sly and Lena, but they can’t help the huge portion of the Houston metro outside of Harris county.

          • There is no war on brown people around here, and prayers are helpful. Keep false political insults off of weather sites.

        • Sly and Lina have to walk a fine line in a mostly Republican controlled state might we remind you. It’s no easy job either when you have a governor, state house, attorney general, and lieutenant governor who have been bought and sold a number of times over by bigger powers or are afraid to cross one very large obstacle to anything remotely progressive.

      • Obviously. But I’m interested in solutions beyond politics. We need leaders who believe in climate change and will enact policy change, but we don’t have time to wait for the next election(s?) for that to happen. I think people across Houston, regardless of political affiliation, can get behind prevention and mitigation efforts.

        For example, Reliant sponsors this site. They’re a huge company with an interest in preserving their assets in Houston. Large corporations that are located here (should) have interest in not having their properties damaged every 5 years in a major hurricane. Billion dollar insurance companies must get tired of paying out all these damage claims. Why isn’t more being done by these big guys to get some action going? And what can we do to hurry that along?

        Not interested in talking politics on this site, just finding solutions.

        • It’s an unfortunate reality that major infrastructure initiatives to mitigate the impact of natural disasters necessarily involves politics. That’s what government is supposed to be for. Just because it’s inconvenient doesn’t make it any less reality. You would think companies like Reliant would be interested in protecting their assets long term. But companies don’t voluntarily implement long term mitigation strategies in this country because it may negatively impact short term profit margins. That’s why the solution and the power to implement it has to come from government.

          • ^. Yes, and it would be dangerous for a powerful corporation like Reliant to try to influence our local government.

        • What we really need for the long term is a program to encourage builders to always build homes with the floor SEVERAL feet off the ground if they are in a floodplain. At the least, future homeowners should refuse to buy flood-prone homes (don’t count on flood insurance!!!) if only to encourage builders to build properly. Perhaps we could use a subsidy as well, if affordable.

  9. Thanks for all you guys do, we all appreciate it. I was curious on why the temperatures are so cool. I thought hurricanes\tropical storms were made up of warm, moist air? How are we getting such cool temperatures from Nicholas if that’s the case?

    • These types of storms draw a lot of latent heat from the atmosphere. Once they’ve exited the immediate region, there’s generally a cool pocket left behind. A big part of the reason these storms are crucial in helping to maintain the earth’s energy balance by transporting heat from the lower latitudes and moving it poleward.

      • The wind in Houston is coming out of the storms, where it cooled off a lot. If we were on the southeast side of the storm, it would be warmer.

  10. Thank You!!! for your forecasts and updates. I have lived all of my 67 years on our coast and y’all are by far the best meteorologists I have ever seen. I look so forward to getting an update from y’all and I hope you know how much it means to us to get an honest, non-hyped up, tell it like it is, informative forecast that we can understand and make decisions from. Thank Y’all Again!!!!!!!

  11. I’ll tell you, I will be calling Centerpoint today about the tree across my street that is wrapped in power lines. Had the wind been any worse, it would have ripped the lines out. Don’t want to take that chance. And if the worst I experience is having to kill two massive cockroaches that hid in my tub I’ll count myself lucky (although still not the funniest morning. Yuck).

    Thank you again so much for your hard work, SCW! I count myself extremely fortunate.

  12. Thank you both for taking the time to analyze and present the data in a digestable manner for all the people who follow the website and the notifications. The three paths that you guys presented were great work and it contrasted with the “the sky is falling” presentations in the media. My colleagues at work have been impressed and they will be following Space City weather. Regarding the flooded backyard, mine is too, so there will be no mowing for the next few days. (Here is the lemonade from the lemons, unless you like riding the mower)

    Best regards

  13. When will Centerpoint restore power to Galveston—mine has been out since 10:30 last night and it is now 11:16 am

  14. Thank you Ed and Matt.
    I am happy to clean my iron grate on street. Could have been so much worse.

  15. You do realize that not everyone agrees with your political views, and there’s no need to share them on a weather blog.

  16. You are so right it could have been much much worse. I went through Ike and and Harvey and this was nothing like that. We dodged a bullet this time.

  17. It’s so good to have yr experience and perspective on all things related to this storm. I hope yr personal damage and flooding was not too serious. Time to relax a bit hopefully. Do you think we are done with storms for this season?

  18. Thank you for all your diligence in keeping us informed. Agree that we were exceptionally fortunate that the storm scooched over. With Ike and Harvey still fairly recent memories, I am very grateful.

  19. So looking forward at that blob off the west coast of Africa.. I certainly don’t like that spot relative to us. Those are the ones that have a express lane to the Gulf. How is the long term model treating that and is there any interaction with our potential front (yes I realize that 10-14 days out and that anything can happen)?

  20. Thank you ever so much
    You and Matt provide intricate details tirelessly
    I heavily rely and follow your predictions, advise, and judgment!

  21. You do an incredible job reporting the weather and making us feel like you are living it, right alongside us! Thank you, thank you!

  22. I totally agree…it could have been much worse. Last night at 1am I stood outside and watched the 40 to 50 mph gusts of wind whip the trees around. I remembered the awful clean up after Hurricane Ike. And I remembered the path of destruction from Carla back in 1961. I was 6 years old and we went to stay with relatives in San Antonio while my dad stayed behind with the Wharton County sheriff’s auxiliary. These two past storms are what I think about while I pick up branches today AND of course thank my lucky stars we have electricity right now.

  23. I love reading your website. I find them extremely easy and helpful in understanding. You have a calming and creative flair in your writing. I appreciate the explanation of things that the public may not be aware of. Thank you so much for what you do! Best to you all!

  24. Thank you for your excellent updates and explanations we can understand. Also, thank you for being with all of us every step of the way. Your forecast and predictions are incredibly accurate. Your forecast are the only ones I really monitor and enjoy. Thanks also for not putting the drama behind what’s not really there. Weather can be frightening. We were very lucky this go around. Look forward to hearing more on the flip side.

  25. Intensity prediction may be hard, but you guys gave me enough info to make an informed decision about staying or going. Grateful to you both, and grateful for that wind shear. Also glad I invested in some major tree pruning last month.

  26. Thank you guys for all you do!!! I’m beyond exhausted so I can only how tired you guys are! Take the week off! 😆

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