Irishwoman in Houston: ‘The horror we are witnessing is unimaginable’

Nobody imagined Hurricane Harvey would cause such destruction in Texas

Sarah McKevitt with her daughters Alannah and Izzie marking the level at the lake at the back of their house, which leads to the Addick’s reservoir.

Sarah McKevitt with her daughters Alannah and Izzie marking the level at the lake at the back of their house, which leads to the Addick’s reservoir.

 

We watch the weather closely in Houston during Hurricane season. Last week, there was talk of a tropical depression developing in the Gulf of Mexico. As I drove home from dropping the kids back to their first day at school, the freeway notification signs read: “Storm developing in the Gulf. Make preparations.”

As media reports trickled in, we all began to wonder, could this really happen to us?

Hoping to beat the rush, I went to the local supermarket that evening to stock up on supplies. The water aisle was already empty and people lifted slabs of water bottles from the pallets as they were wheeled in. The gallon drums were sold out.

Batteries, tinned food and bread are the first things that go and I randomly selected items and joined the queues to check out. Houstonians had been through this many times before and seemed a little nervy but resigned to a week of disruption.

Nobody was aware of the extent to which this disaster was about to impact the city.

The areas in and around Houston and south Texas are experiencing record floods after more than 24 inches of rain after Harvey made landfall, the most powerful to affect the US since 2004. Photograph: EPA
The areas in and around Houston and south Texas are experiencing record floods after more than 24 inches of rain after Harvey made landfall, the most powerful to affect the US since 2004. Photograph: EPA

Thankfully, I had attended a Ready Houston Hurricane and Disaster Preparedness Course when we arrived in Houston three years ago, following several years in Dubai after leaving Ireland. The insight it provided along with guidelines and measures to take have been a comfort and a focus.

I updated the waterproof grab bag from the kit with passports, insurance and financial documents, gathered torches, radio and chargers.

My daughters prepared our hurricane shelter in the laundry room, an internal room in the house with no exterior walls.

When the hurricane made landfall east of Houston at Rockport, it badly affected Port Aransas, a seaside town on North Padre Island, where we had visited numerous times on vacation. It was shocking to see a familiar landmark pummeled to the ground, and it now became personal.

Eastwards, along the coast, Houston has been located on the “dirty” side of the weather system since Harvey hit. We have been on the receiving end of more rain than the city has ever had to cope with before.

Our phones regularly buzz with flash flood warnings and tornado alerts, smaller yet destructive storm events which are a product of the huge weather overhead.

Mercifully, we have yet to be affected. However, our home is situated directly on the northern edge of the Addicks reservoir. Built it the 1940s by the Army Corps of Engineers, this is a vast area generally empty of water, bordered downstream by a flood control dam. This was put in place to prevent flooding in the downtown Houston area along the course of the Buffalo Bayou.

Harvey has weakened and been downgraded to a tropical storm and is expected to cause heavy rain for several days. Photograph: EPA
Harvey has weakened and been downgraded to a tropical storm and is expected to cause heavy rain for several days. Photograph: EPA

With the rapid growth of the city, a greater portion of the catchment area which feeds the reservoir, is now paved over. There is less land to absorb the water, a greater run off, and the reservoir is struggling to cope with the present deluge.

As the water rises in the Addicks, covering a normally dry woodlands and public parks area, it is putting pressure on the dam directly downstream of us.

Currently, volumes of water are being intermittently released into the already inundated Buffalo Bayou, in an attempt to contain the water levels below the spillway of the Addick’s reservoir dam.

This does not normally happen until after rain but this is an 800-year flood event and they cannot afford to wait.

This level at the top of the spillway is 108 feet (33 metres), the water level at which we expect to see street flooding in our area.

We hope it will not reach this level, but it is raining incessantly. The concern for the Addick’s dam is that if water levels exceed 108 feet, there will be an uncontrolled release of water over the spillway, and the dam could be breached, producing catastrophic flooding further downstream.

We are hoping the continued release of water will maintain water levels below flood level in our neighbourhood. We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. As the reservoir back fills, we don’t know what to expect.

Our furniture is propped up and valuable items are upstairs. We have made preparations to leave, should we be given an evacuation order.

Thankfully, we still have power and we are dry. But people living here are jittery. Some have already taken in families from flooded homes.

All we can do is wait and hope. We are so much more fortunate than our fellow Houstonians.

The effect of Harvey on Houston is devastating. Freeways and familiar downtown landmarks are unrecognisable. The true story is the human suffering it has unleashed. The horror we are witnessing is unimaginable. It is hard to see how the city of 3 million will begin to recover when this finally ends.

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