Damaging Hurricane Harvey settles in over southeast Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Hurricane Harvey settled over southeast Texas early Saturday, lashing the state’s Gulf Coast with damaging winds and dumping torrents of rain over hundreds of miles of coastline that braced for what forecasters predicted would be life-threatening storm surges — basically walls of water moving inland.

The fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in more than a decade made landfall the previous night about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Corpus Christi as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph (209 kph) winds. It gradually weakened over the next several hours and the National Hurricane Center said that by 5 a.m. Saturday Harvey was downgraded to a Category 1 — still sustaining winds of 90 mph (144 kph). It had already deposited more than 9 inches (228.6 millimeters) of rain in the South Texas city of Victoria and other places.

Harvey’s approach sent tens of thousands of residents fleeing inland, hoping to escape the wrath of a menacing storm that threatens not only the coast but a wide swath of Texas that is home to oil refineries, chemical plants and dangerously flood-prone Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

No deaths were immediately confirmed in the hours after Harvey’s arrival, but officials noted emergency crews couldn’t get out in many places due to high winds. Melissa Munguia, deputy emergency management coordinator in Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi, said early Saturday that it could be hours before crews could fully assess the damage in coastal communities.

Early reports did begin to emerge from Rockport, a coastal city of about 10,000 people that was directly in Harvey’s path when it came ashore. Officials confirmed that the roof of Rockport’s high school had partially caved in and that the community’s historic downtown saw extensive damage.

Rockport City Manager Kevin Carruth told local media outlets that multiple people had been taken to the county’s jail for assessment and treatment after the roof of a senior housing complex collapsed. KIII-TV reported that 10 people were treated there.

Earlier Friday, Rockport Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios had offered ominous advice, telling the station that those who chose to stay put rather than evacuate the area “should make some type of preparation to mark their arm with a Sharpie pen,” implying doing so would make it easier for rescuers to identify them.

In Corpus Christi, the major city closest to the storm’s center, wind whipped palm trees and stinging sheets of horizontal rain slapped against hotels and office buildings along the city’s 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.

Fueled by warm Gulf of Mexico waters, Harvey grew rapidly, accelerating from a 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 U.S. in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since 1961’s Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record. Based on the atmospheric pressure, Harvey ties for the 18th strongest hurricane on landfall in the U.S. since 1851 and ninth strongest in Texas.

Aside from the winds of 130 mph (209 kph) and storm surges up to 12 feet (4 meters), Harvey was expected to drop prodigious amounts of rain — up to 3 feet. 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 meandering time, the storm will likely dump 2 feet (0.61 meters) to 3 feet (0.91 meters) of rain, often on areas that don’t handle much smaller rainfall amounts well.

Sometime early next week forecasters said it could 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.

Just hours before the projected landfall, the governor and Houston leaders issued conflicting statements on evacuation.

After Gov. Greg Abbott urged more people to flee, Houston authorities told people to remain in their homes and recommended no widespread evacuations.

In a Friday press conference that addressed Houston officials’ decision to not have a voluntary or mandatory evacuation, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said there might be a “greater danger” in having people who don’t need to be evacuated on roads that could flood.

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 gas 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 100 miles (161 kilometers) inland and stir up dangerous surf as far away as Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) from the projected landfall.

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.

All seven Texas counties on the coast from Corpus Christi to the western end of Galveston Island ordered mandatory evacuations from low-lying areas. Four counties ordered full evacuations and warned there was no guarantee of rescue for people staying behind.

State officials said they had no count on how many people actually left their homes.

The storm posed the first major emergency management test of President Donald Trump’s administration. The president was expected to receive briefings during the weekend at Camp David, and signed a federal disaster declaration for coastal counties Friday night.

The last Category 4 storm to hit the U.S. was Hurricane Charley in August 2004 in Florida. Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled New York and New Jersey in 2012, never had the high winds and had lost tropical status by the time it struck. But it was devastating without formally being called a major hurricane.

Harvey is the first significant hurricane to hit Texas since Ike in September 2008 brought winds of 110 mph (177 kph) to the Galveston and Houston areas, inflicting $22 billion in damage.

It’s taking aim at the same vicinity as Carla, which had wind gusts estimated at 175 mph and inflicted more than $300 million in damage. The storm killed 34 people and forced about 250,000 people to evacuate.