On Tuesday morning, disaster analyst Chuck Watson pegged $42 billion as a reasonable estimate for the cost of destruction Tropical Storm Harvey would leave in its wake. By dawn Wednesday, he had raised that to much as $75 billion.
Harvey’s initial blast along the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane was bad enough, sending gasoline prices surging and crude futures plunging as refineries shut. Now the storm has returned, making landfall a second time in Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Harvey was 35 miles (56 kilometers) north-northwest of Lake Charles, Louisiana with top winds of 40 mile per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said in an advisory at 1 p.m. local time. As much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain, with some isolated spots getting 10 inches, are expected across parts of Texas and Louisiana and into Tennessee and Kentucky through Friday.
The storm has brought torrential rain that breached a levee, threatened dams and may be destroying drains. That combination has analysts raising damage estimates by the hour and could easily push the catastrophe above the rank of Superstorm Sandy, the second-costliest weather disaster in U.S. history. In fact, AccuWeather Inc. founder Joel Myers said he expects Harvey to be more costly than the most damaging hurricane, Katrina.
“We’re on the verge of having cascading failures,” said Watson, a Savannah, Georgia-based disaster modeler with Enki Research. “It is conceivable that we could get into the $60 to $80 billion range without that much effort.”
Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,800 and caused $160 billion in damage. Sandy, which slammed into New York and New Jersey in 2012, claimed 147 lives along its path from the Caribbean, including 72 in the U.S. The damage was about $70.2 billion, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina.
The number of confirmed deaths from Harvey had reached 21 on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. The New York Times cited Texas authorities as saying they believed Harvey caused at least 30 deaths.
A nighttime curfew, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., was imposed in Houston Tuesday night as the storm’s center drifted back toward the Gulf of Mexico. The storm made its first landfall between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor in Texas on Friday, stalling out further inland over the weekend. On Wednesday it came ashore again near Cameron, Louisiana, as a tropical storm and is expected to reach the Lower Mississippi Valley by Thursday.
“Harvey aligned perfectly to bring intense rain bands over Houston,” said James Done, a project scientist and meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. As it drifted along the coast on Monday and Tuesday, it also “perfectly aligned for Houston to get the peak rainfall.”
After crossing Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula as a ragged band of thunderstorms, Harvey gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico last week and slammed into Texas on Friday.
Predictions were that some areas east of Houston would witness 50 inches or more of rain by the time Harvey moved off into the central U.S. As of 3 a.m. local time Wednesday, the gauge at Mont Belvieu, east of the city, showed 51.88 inches had fallen since the start of the storm. That may be the most in recorded history for a tropical cyclone in the contiguous U.S., breaking a mark also set in Texas back in 1978.
The record for all 50 states in such a storm was set in 1950 in Hawaii – 52 inches.
Harvey’s deluge was made all the worse because the ground was already saturated by heavy rainfall earlier in the season. “We have had roughly a year’s worth of rain in the last three months,” said Wendy Wong, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Dickinson, Texas, a city that was evacuated.
Watson said disaster models just aren’t calibrated for a storm like Harvey. For instance, a typical scenario will assume infrastructure such as dams, levees and drainage systems will fail when stress rates reach 80 to 90 percent.
“We are seeing failures at 60 percent,” he said.
The pressure on the Addicks and Barker reservoirs west of Houston spurred the Army Corps of Engineers to release water, which flooded neighborhoods that had been dry before.
“We’re starting to get into the apocalyptic – this is what we don’t want to have happen,” he said.
The Army Corps didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but said earlier on Tuesday that no decision had been made to increase discharge rates and that dam releases were expected to occur for several months.
Watson’s other concern is how slowly water is draining away from Houston. Done said the reason may be that Harvey’s surge is keeping up pressure on bodies of water, preventing runoff.
It could also be evidence that the pipes and drainage systems are failing, Watson said. That would increase the ultimate financial pain from the storm.
New Orleans and the rest of coastal Louisiana are now feeling the brunt of Harvey’s soaking rains, threatening yet another major U.S. refining center. Storm surge warnings, which can signal a life-threatening inundation of water, are in effect for much of the Gulf Coast.
The storm shut an estimated 3.9 million barrels a day of refining capacity due to flooding and port closures, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts including Damien Courvalin. Buffalo Gas Plant at Stanton, Texas, reduced sale of natural gas liquids by 58 percent as fractionator plants in Houston were closed.
The forecast calls for the storm to continue into the central U.S., and it’s expected to become a tropical depression by Wednesday night. Even then, Houston won’t be free from threats. Rainfall over the state will eventually need to make its way into the Gulf, which means several more pulses of water could be coming the city’s way, Watson said.
“There is another train that is heading toward Houston,” Watson said. “Behind every one of these dollar signs is a family that doesn’t have a house anymore.”
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