As skies clear over Houston, a nation takes stock

While the full extent of the devastation has yet to be determined, the resilience of those affected – and those helping – is abundantly evident.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
A woman hugs her rescuer (c.) after being evacuated by boat from tropical storm Harvey floodwaters in western Houston, Texas, Aug. 30, 2017.

The sun made an appearance in Houston on Tuesday for the first time since hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday and inundated the region with as much as 50 inches of rain.

Amid record flooding and damage that is expected to cost billions, if not tens of billions, there's also a bright spot in the way so many have come together to help – from state and federal officials to folks from out of state who brought their pick-up trucks and boats.

And even as American televisions are inundated with images of rescue and relief efforts, similar scenes are unfolding in southeast Asia, where more than a million people have been displaced by particularly severe monsoons. BuzzFeed has compiled a heart-rending photo essay from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

While the full extent of the devastation has yet to be determined both in those countries and in Texas, the resilience of those affected – and those helping – is abundantly evident.

Here's a round-up of key developments we thought you'd appreciate:

Neighbors helping neighbors

Throughout the disaster, ordinary citizens from nearby communities and neighboring states have aided official rescue efforts. Local furniture salesman Jim McIngvale, or “Mattress Mack” as he’s known around Houston, converted his two furniture stores into temporary shelters. Residents in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio have offered their homes up free of charge via Airbnb's Disaster Response Program for people who have been displaced by the storm.

And an unofficial “Texas Navy,” a fleet of Texans with pick-up trucks and fishing boats, has been patrolling the flooded streets of Houston in search of stranded residents. “I've been able to rescue 10 to 15 people at a time,” Ray Ortega, an oilfield tool salesman, told NPR. He drove nearly 130 miles from Victoria, Texas, with his 23-foot fishing boat in tow.

Another grass-roots fleet known as the Cajun Navy poured into Houston from Louisiana – even as Harvey shifted course toward their home state. Many in this ad hoc crew of rescuers have first-hand experience of how meaningful a helping hand can be during such a crisis. “I was young during Katrina and I know how it feels to lose everything,” Jordy Bloodsworth, a member of the Cajun Navy from Baton Rouge, La., told The Washington Post. “So being able to help others going through this situation that I have experienced, there’s no way – no way – I could pass up helping.”

Why Harvey stalled over Houston

For Americans watching on from far-away states, it can be difficult to fathom the scope of Harvey, now a tropical storm. Even many coastal residents who are familiar with hurricanes are having a hard time envisioning the scale of this particular disaster. The sheer volume of water – more than 9 billion gallons, by one estimate – is difficult to imagine.

Atmospheric scientist Russ Schumacher of Colorado State University offers a bit of perspective on the science behind the relentless rainfall seen during this historic storm. In an article published by The Conversation, Professor Schumacher explains how an “intense band of storms” lined up within the cyclone storm system, producing as much as six inches of rain per hour.

“This is a process known as ‘echo training,’ in which it appears that the individual thunderstorm cells are like train cars that repeatedly pass over the same spot and bring with them heavy precipitation,” he writes.

The effects of that heavy precipitation were compounded by the storm’s lingering nature. Meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, adds further context in an interview with Scientific American’s Mark Fischetti. Rather than sweeping through Houston, the storm system stalled over the city, locked in place by two high-pressure systems.

“It’s highly unusual to have two highs on either side of a hurricane of equal strength,” Dr. Masters told Mr. Fischetti. Masters added that he only recalled seeing that happen to a storm system of this magnitude once before, when hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998, killing 7,000 people in Honduras.

In this case, Harvey was able to continually refuel itself by sucking up water that had already washed over the streets. That process is a key mechanism in how hurricanes build and sustain themselves over the ocean, but typically, these storms lose momentum as they release rains over land. The situation in Houston, however, is far from typical. “The flood area is so far and wide that it is acting like part of an ocean, feeding warm moisture up into Harvey,” Fischetti writes.

How zoning has made Houston particularly vulnerable

Adding to this rare confluence of meteorological circumstances is Houston’s unique layout.

Unchecked development and lack of zoning requirements have left the city especially vulnerable to flooding, according to a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune published last year. Over the years, the city has contended with back-to-back storms and flooding events. None have been as severe as the current situation, but many have taken a human toll.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation, told the reporting team. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Shoring up cities against future flooding

Residents along the Gulf and Southeast coasts contend with flooding on a regular basis. The state of Louisiana has embarked on a $50 billion effort to restore its coastline in hope of reducing the frequency of coastal flooding from routine rain events, as the Monitor’s Henry Gass reported earlier this month in a special series on Louisiana's rising seas.

In Miami, crews have torn up sidewalks and streets to raise them above ocean waters that surge on-land during King Tide events (unusually high tides) at a rapidly increasing rate. And in Norfolk, Va., where tidal surge has devastated businesses and homes more times than residents care to remember, city planners have embarked on an ambitious planning strategy to bolster resilience.

As William Stiles Jr., a wetlands protection advocate and key participant in Norfolk’s Vision 2100 planning, told Pew Charitable Trust: “If we do this right, cities all over the country will be able to learn from us.”

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