Forewarning about the path and future disastrous evolution of Hurricane Harvey proved to be quite accurate. Hurricane Harvey may be an example of the long-predicted intensification of storms resulting from the warming of the seas.
As in every storm I’ve watched (always from afar), local residents are quoted as saying they are not leaving because they’ve already experienced hurricanes. What Harvey tells us is that experience in past storms is not useful because each hurricane is unique and dramatically different from others. Certainly Harvey is different, not only because it has hung around for days but also because a major city is in the center of the chaos and destruction.
Lessons, however, have been learned from past storms. The impossibility of evacuating cities became apparent in the attempts to evacuate New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. As Hurricane Floyd passed by Charleston out at sea, the fleeing population was caught and stalled in a massive traffic jam forcing people to spend the night in their vehicles a few miles out of town. To evacuate even a portion of Houston was impossible, and the order to stay put issued by the mayor was a wise move.
One of the satisfying aspects of the Hurricane Harvey response is the acceptance of pets as storm refugees just like people. Dogs and cats were even rescued by helicopter (in the laps of their owners). It was a lesson learned painfully from Katrina when people died because they refused to leave their treasured family pets.
The extent of property damage from Harvey appears to be immense, and preliminary indications are that much of the damage was not in areas designated as flood zones.
I think we should expect the following results from Harvey:
There will be an exodus of people from Houston, mostly from poor neighborhoods, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina.
Houston, a city without planning and zoning, will have to spend much money altering its drainage system and should begin restricting development in flood-prone areas. Houston was a disaster waiting to happen (according to a National Wildlife Federation report two decades ago). The combination of zero planning and the support of the federal flood insurance program encouraged the unsafe development that is now underwater.
Three points of particular interest to North Carolinians are:
The National Flood Insurance Program will go broke because of Harvey (it is $25 billion in the red right now). Major changes can be expected in the program, including bringing insurance premiums to a realistic level (i.e., raising the cost to a point that they will cover likely future disasters). This has been threatened for years, but Harvey may have finally turned the tide. Increasing the cost of federal flood insurance may profoundly affect future coastal development. If the cost of federal flood insurance is raised to the point that it pays for itself, the demand for and the price of beach houses will likely drop. This will mean that the rest of society will not be subsidizing beach development and the amount of development in hazardous areas should markedly decrease.
The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission should take note of the damage wrought by Harvey and implement major changes in coastal regulations, not only for beachfront development but also for development on flood plains and development on our low elevation and very gently sloping lower coastal plain. Storms are getting bigger and sea level rise is accelerating, so changes in how we develop our coast are important. The time has come for a new approach with future generations in mind and for tightened enforcement of existing rules.
North Carolinians faced with an approaching hurricane should not assume they know how the storm will affect them just because they have previous experience with hurricanes.
Orrin H. Pilkey is professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment, at Duke University, and founder and director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which is currently based at Western Carolina University.