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Texas prepares for ‘life-threatening’ Hurricane Harvey

August 25, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Hurricane Harvey is bearing down on the Gulf Coast of Texas, with sustained winds of 120 miles an hour and the potential to intensify. The storm could prove the most powerful the U.S. has seen in more than a decade. Lisa Desjardins reports then Judy Woodruff speaks with Edward Rappaport, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg about preparations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hurricane Harvey is bearing down on the Gulf Coast of Texas tonight, with all the makings of a major disaster. By early evening, the storm had sustained winds of 125 miles an hour, and could get even stronger.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.


LISA DESJARDINS: Waves battered Galveston and the rest of the Texas coast all day, the punishing winds and rain only beginning. From high overhead, cameras aboard the international space station captured the scope of the storm as it closed in.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott activated 700 National Guard troops and braced for the worst.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT, R- Texas: We are going to be dealing with immense, really record- setting flooding in multiple regions across the state of Texas. You may think that the initial surge is something that you will be able to deal with. What you don’t know and what nobody else knows right now will be the magnitude of flooding that will be occurring over the coming days, and the aftermath of the initial surge.

LISA DESJARDINS: Harvey is poised to make landfall overnight near Corpus Christi. But, it’s expected to stall and hover, inundating a wide swath of the state, including San Antonio and Houston, with up to three feet of rain. Then, another weather front could push it back into the Gulf of Mexico, to regain strength and strike again near Houston.

Seven coastal Texas counties ordered tens of thousands to evacuate from low-lying areas. Other areas, like Galveston, only encouraged residents to leave. But the city’s mayor warned, the flooding will be worse than usual.

JAMES YARBROUGH, Major of Galveston: That hovering effect will impact us. We’re going to see high tides come up. The highest tide, we anticipate, will be in the morning. The bad news is, they’re not going down for three or four days. And so, you get those high tides in the morning, any of this rain we anticipate is going to stack on top of that.

LISA DESJARDINS: Corpus Christi officials are also anticipating tough times.

JUDGE LOYD NEAL, Nueces county: When the power goes off, you can expect it to be off, depending on where you are in the city of Corpus Christi and in Nueces County, three to seven days.

LISA DESJARDINS: With that in mind, one hospital in Corpus Christi airlifted 10 critically ill infants from its intensive care unit. As thousands of others hit the road for drier land today, a few took advantage of pounding waves.

But a county sheriff put it plainly: stay at your own risk.

SKIPPER OSBORNE, Sheriff, Matagorda County:  I am not going to send the boat down there after we ask you to leave. We are not — I’m not going to put one of my deputies’ lives on the line to go down there and get you out. So, you’re on your own.

LISA DESJARDINS: Some boarded up their homes and hunkered down despite the warnings.

FEMALE: I’m scared. So I will do everything I can to protect our little place down here, and hope and pray for the best.

LISA DESJARDINS: In Washington, President Trump’s homeland security advisor Tom Bossert said federal disaster preparations are well under way.

TOM BOSSERT, Homeland Security Adviser: Right now, we’re executing and we’re going to do what it takes to save peoples lives and make their lives easier as they sustain damage.

LISA DESJARDINS: The president tweeted that he’d spoken with the governors of Texas and Louisiana, and will assist as needed. And later, the White House announced he’ll go to Texas early next week.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The National Hurricane Center has issued very clear warnings about the danger of this storm.

Ed Rappaport is the acting director, and he joins me now from Miami.

Thank you so much for talking with us.

What’s the latest on Harvey’s course?

EDWARD RAPPARORT, Acting Director, National Hurricane Center: The latest is that the center of Harvey is located about 50 miles offshore between Corpus Christi and Port O’Connor, Texas. And we think that the center will be moving ashore there by about midnight.

While the center’s offshore though, the strong winds and heavy rain and high storm surge are already approaching the coast. We’ve seen gusts now of over 80 miles per hour reported at Port Aransas, and the war levels are beginning to rise. That’s one of our big fears is that the storm surge associated with the hurricane is going to rise to life threatening levels.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. What is the greatest danger? It’s flooding, is that rain that’s going to hover over the area?

EDWARD RAPPAPORT: Yes. The greatest danger from hurricanes is always water, 90 percent of lives lost during hurricanes are due to water. And it’s split, many from storm surge, others from rainfall.

In this case, we have both hazards in play. First along the coast, we have that storm surge that could rise to six to 12 feet, above ground level. There will be waves on top of that.

Then, we also expect rainfall that’s going to be near record levels. Here’s the Texas coast. This area here we’re expecting at least 20 inches of rain, perhaps as much as 35 inches of rain.

So, very dangerous conditions both from the sea and from the rainfall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ed Rappaport, some concern this storm could go out and come back again and hit Houston twice?

EDWARD RAPPAPORT: There’s some possibility that down the road, three to five days, that we’ll have the system move back offshore. But at the moment, the biggest threat, the biggest concern is for the next three days with the storm surge which will linger through many high tides, as well as the rainfall, along the Texas coastal area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you to put this in context. We were looking at the warning the Hurricane Center put out just a few hours ago. Catastrophic flooding, life threatening conditions — this is very strong language.

EDWARD RAPPAPORT: That’s right. This at the moment appears to be the strongest hurricane that we’ve had make landfall in Texas in about 50 years. So, I hope that provides some perspective at what we’re looking at. The last time we had such a strong storm was actually in the Corpus Christi area back in 1970 or even before that, 1964, also along the Texas coast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know you are continually giving warnings and urging people to pay attention.

Ed Rappaport, we —


JUDY WOODRUFF: We thank you very much, from the National Hurricane Center.


JUDY WOODRUFF: In the city of San Antonio, they’re preparing for heavy rain, winds and evacuees from the coast.

Ron Nirenberg is the mayor. I spoke with him just a short time ago.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Nirenberg, thank you very much for joining us.

What have you been told to expect from this storm?

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG, San Antonio: Well, we’re expecting some localized flooding because of some significant rainfalls that will occur over the next several hours and several days. But more importantly than that, our area is a coordinated regional emergency operation center.

So, we’ve spun that up. We’ve been working with our emergency services departments over the last several days to prepare and we’ve received a lot of resources from the different parts of the state that are now being deployed to the coastal areas and we’re also receiving a lot of evacuees from the coastal communities. There’s a couple command tree evacuations and then, of course, there are people who are leaving which is a good idea, with the path of the storm going right over them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before I ask you about some of that, I do want to ask you about the flooding, the rain you’re expecting. What have they told you to expect? I know from historical experience in San Antonio had some serious rain episodes in the past.

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG: Yes. And the projections have changed. As we moved along in the storm and we’re cautioning everyone to be aware of the evolving nature of the storm that they could change again. But we know in San Antonio that a small amount of rainfall, falling in a short period of time can create some flash flooding, significant flooding. We saw that as recently as two weeks ago.

So, we have been told to expect anywhere from six to 15 inches depending where you are in San Antonio. The heavy rain will fall east of I-35 and I-37.

But again, that could all change. We’re asking residents to please stay home, use some common sense, stay off the roadways and if they have to travel, avoid low water crossings and be aware of their surroundings.

We’re going to have emergency crews operating. Currently, they are barricading known trouble areas with regard to high water areas, and we’re also asking people just to alert our authorities if they find areas that are low — you know, high water over the road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re not asking people in your area to evacuate?

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG: No. San Antonio is not under any kind of evacuation. We’re just asking people to clear path for first responders and to make sure that the roads are clear as evacuees continue to come here. We’ve had 700 of them come already that are sheltered and we have many more that are coming through our area or stopping in San Antonio on their own volition because they have wisely chosen to leave the coastal area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do you — do you feel you have what you need to handle the people who are coming into this city?

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG: Absolutely. And we’ve been coordinating resources throughout the week and San Antonio is ready. No one will be turned away if they need shelter in San Antonio and we certainly stand ready as we always are in the event of significant storm, you know, rain or winds here in San Antonio locally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are residents heeding your advice, the advice they’re getting from city officials and from weather officials as well?

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG: They are. Our residents here in San Antonio have been through this before. As I mentioned, we’re in flash flood alley, so we’ve seen small rain events turn into flooding situations. So, they’re aware.

But we want to make sure that also, we’re checking on each other, you know, neighbors checking on neighbors. But just doing the simple things, preparing for — staying in during the vast part of this weekend and into next week, staying out of the way of first responders. And in the event someone can help, we’re also taking volunteers and doing trainings through our American Red Cross, all the way through tomorrow, and asking people to call our non-emergency lines to help with any assistance they can provide. We also are asking them to download apps and stay aware of the changing nature of the storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s your biggest worry right now?

MAYOR RON NIRENBERG: You know, I’m not worried. I’m just presented and working with our emergency services, our neighbors to our south in the coastal areas.

We’re activated. We’re ready. We know how to handle this.

So, it’s not worry, it’s just making sure that we’re handling everything as it comes and ensuring that as people who do arrive from the coast who are worried about what they’re going to arrive back when they go home know that they have a friend and a neighbor and a safe place and shelter here in San Antonio.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, we certainly wish you the best with this and wish safety for everybody there. Thank you very much.