Hurricane Harvey set to move ashore late Friday

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A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Harvey confounded forecasters and frayed nerves among flood-weary Houston residents Thursday, as it neared the Texas coast with winds expected to approach 130 mph and the potential for 30 inches of rain in some areas.

No hurricane has struck Texas since Ike in 2008. Fresher still are memories of the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods of the last two years in Houston.

“Oh my God, I totally moved into the wrong apartment,” said Latrice Richardson, who moved to Greenspoint from Memphis into one of the apartment complexes that took on water in April 2016.

The storm is expected to lumber ashore overnight Friday between Matagorda Bay and Port O’Connor southwest of Houston, flanked by dueling high pressure systems that could force it to hover and drench everything in its path.

By late Thursday, Harvey was still intensifying with sustained winds of 85 mph, located 275 miles southeast of Corpus Christi and moving northwest at 10 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Nearly all of the Texas coast remained under a hurricane or tropical storm warning or watch.

The increasing threat on Thursday triggered mandatory evacuations from Port Aransas to Palacios, a span of about 80 miles. Parts of Galveston County were under voluntary evacuation orders. And Houston shuttered classes Monday on what would have been the first day of school.

Houston and the Galveston area could face rains from the initial brunt of the storm, but what happens after that could be worse.

The forecast models diverge. Harvey might head inland or – in a worst case for Houston – move offshore.

There, it could draw more strength before tracking slowly along the coast toward Louisiana.

In any of the models, the storm is slow-moving and could dump isolated amounts of up to 30 inches of rain, with life-threatening floods occurring anywhere from Corpus Christi to southwestern Louisiana into next week, forecasters said.

Even if the storm were to move inland and peter out, the outer rain bands would still reach the upper coast, said Dan Reilly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“So Houston proper, could they miss out on extreme rains? They could, but even with that weakening scenario, the rain is still very significant,” Reilly said.

Evacuations begin

Harvey ballooned from a disorganized cluster of storms into a Category 1 hurricane in a day, and officials said it could be nearing Category 4 strength, with winds close to 130 mph, before making landfall.

It will be the first “major” hurricane to hit Texas since 2005, when Rita came ashore as a Category 3 storm with winds above 120 mph. But Galvestonians and residents of Bolivar Peninsula – who watched about 19 feet of water cover parts of the island and float entire houses into the Gulf of Mexico in 2008 – remember the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ike, which was a Category 2 by the time it came ashore.

Harvey’s increasing threat of destructive winds and storm surge – wind-whipped waves combining with tides to sweep water onshore – forced a mandatory evacuation Thursday of Calhoun County, which includes Port Lavaca, Port O’Connor and Seadrift.

People south of FM 521 and in Palacios were to leave by 8 a.m. Friday, said Doug Matthes, emergency management coordinator for Matagorda County.

Parts of that county were also under mandatory evacuation orders.

Farther south, Port Aransas, Aransas Pass and San Patricio County ordered mandatory evacuations. Corpus Christi and Nueces County issued voluntary evacuations. Officials in San Antonio were preparing to shelter people fleeing the storm.

Galveston issued a voluntary evacuation for residents with medical needs in the West End, which is not protected by the island’s seawall, and for Bolivar Peninsula.

Beginning Friday, coastal flooding of 6 to 12 feet above ground level is expected from South Padre Island to Sargent; 5 to 8 feet from Sargent to Jamaica Beach; and 2 to 4 feet from Jamaica beach to High Island and around Galveston Bay, according to the weather service.

Tone of urgency

At the Galveston Yacht Basin, harbor master Lance Parks was prepping the marina, but didn’t expect much more than rain and high tides, cautioning against media hype.

“This isn’t Hurricane Ike,” he said.

But public safety officials struck a tone of urgency.

“We’re looking at a huge swath of territory on the southeast coasts that are getting a large amount of rain,” said Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County Office of Emergency Management. “If you have flooded in the past, you know to be watchful. If you are in an area that’s gotten lucky over the past two years, please don’t rely on that luck anymore.”

Once the hurricane nears the coast, Sanchez said, the county will have a better understanding of just how bad flooding may be and whether more evacuations are in order.

Houston public schools planned to send employees home early Friday, canceling weekend activities and the first day of classes on Monday. Some other districts followed suit or planned to watch and wait before making a call.

Meteorologist Eric Berger, who runs the Space City Weather blog, predicted tropical-storm-force winds are possible Friday night and Saturday morning for Houston, with rainfall the primary threat and roads becoming impassable Saturday afternoon through Tuesday.

Isolated tornadoes may form within Harvey’s outer rain bands through Saturday afternoon, said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District.

Stocking up

People from South Texas to Louisiana flocked to stores, wiping out stocks of bottled water and batteries as officials advised people across the coast to prepare to get stuck in their homes, possibly without power, for several days.

In Meyerland, where homes along Brays Bayou flooded in 2016 and 2017, Harriet Babichick, 76, stocked up on water and canned tuna, even though her home hasn’t flooded in 46 years.

“I’m really panicky about it,” she said.

A nearby hardware store sold 50 generators in more than a day, where it usually sells just two.

“Water is gone. Sand is gone. Generators are gone,” said Larry Gardner, a human resources manager at Lowe’s.

Industrial activity along the Gulf Coast slowed as energy companies evacuated oil platforms and ships left ports from Corpus Christi to Galveston. Several ports halted inbound traffic, and almost 10 percent of offshore oil production was temporarily cut off, the equivalent of 167,000 barrels a day, according to the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Some industries were already looking ahead to the aftermath, readying utility crews to respond to power outages and staging insurance adjusters in Austin and Dallas.

At the Texas Medical Center, hospitals advised employees to bring sleep gear for weekend shifts and enacted its flood mitigation plan, coordinating the efforts of all institutions in the complex and thousands of staff.

Tropical Storm Allison, which stalled over Houston in 2001, killed 22 people and inflicted $2 billion in damages to the Texas Medical Center alone.

Water entered underground parking garages and tunnels, flooding hospital infrastructure, records and generators and forcing thousands of patients to evacuate. The medical center, which lies in a 100-year flood plain, has since installed flood gates and elevated its most critical equipment.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency moved 21 trailers of supplies from a government warehouse in Fort Worth to Randolph Air Force Base northeast of San Antonio, FEMA spokeswoman Vanessa Winans said.

“They are basically staged there, if needed,” Winans said.

They contain meals for 250,000 people, 77,000 liters of water and 4,000 tarps.

The Red Cross put out a call for volunteers for warehousing, shelter management, supply distribution and administrative support.

“We want to be sure we have enough people to help us help others,” said David Brady, a Gulf Coast regional official for the Red Cross.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Wednesday pre-emptively declared a state of disaster for 30 counties on or near the coast, activated about 700 members of the Texas Army and Air National Guards and Texas State Guard, with more on standby to provide emergency rescues, evacuations and shelter.

Resigned to fate

Back in Greenspoint, south of Bush Intercontinental Airport, apartment owner Steve Moore said he expects to do a better job protecting people than during the Tax Day flood, which caught everyone a bit off guard. He’s still repairing some of his 14 complexes.

Crews at his Biscayne at Cityview apartments attached wood panels to the bottom of the wrought iron fence surrounding the complex, aiming to fortify against flooding.

Cleo Joseph was resigned to whatever fate Harvey had in store.

“It don’t bother me,” said the 64-year-old, who lives on the first floor and has endured several floods in her decades living at Arbor Court.

Joseph’s daughter was planning to pick her up Friday to ride out the storm in Channelview, but Joseph would stay if it were up to her.

“I don’t want to go. This is my house,” she said. “I know I can’t swim, so if I gotta go like that, I’m fine.”

Reporters Todd Ackerman, Dug Begley, Emily Foxhall, Cindy George, Ryan Maye Handy, John D. Harden, Margaret Kadifa, Andrea Rumbaugh and Shelby Webb contributed to this report.

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