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What it was like in Houston bracing for Hurricane Harvey

“When these events happen lots of people have their lives washed away in water.”

Texas Gulf Coast Braces For Hurricane Harvey Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

HOUSTON — For a brief moment, a quiet descended here on Friday afternoon, as Texans prepared for an onslaught. And then frightened residents picked grocery store shelves clean of water, bread, and canned soup. They filled their bathtubs with water and, in many cases, headed out of town. Many service stations ran out of gas.

“I think people are preoccupied trying to prepare for the unknown,” said Lou Brucculeri, an attorney in downtown Houston with Blank Rome LLP, which closed at noon. “When these events happen lots of people have their lives washed away in water, and it’s sad.”

And the battering has begun. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas late on Friday night as a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds reaching 130 mph. It immediately began to soak the state. And the National Weather Service forecasts it will dump between 15 to 40 inches of rain over areas of southeastern coastal Texas, including Houston, as the storm lingers for days.

By Saturday morning, winds had subdued, to 80 mph, and the storm had been downgraded to a Category 1. It’s expected to further weaken to a tropical storm later today. Still, officials warned of potentially massive flooding in the days to come, as Harvey spills a projected 15 trillion gallons of water on the coastal plain.

Texans have seen their share of storms — but they haven’t seen anything like this in a while.

This is what it was like on the ground, waiting for the hurricane to blow into Houston.

Life slowed down, local officials ramped up

Mandatory evacuations forced thousands from their homes as the edge of Harvey blew ashore across more than 300 miles of Gulf coast. The state and national guards deployed about 700 members to man Blackhawk helicopters and high clearance vehicles, or to man shelters for hurricane evacuees and likely refugees.

"We got to worry about all the folks who moved here in the last years and haven't seen a hurricane yet," said Jennifer Cantrell, a 37-year-old social worker in Houston as she loaded up on cigarettes for the storm at a Citgo station in Houston on Friday. "You've just got to be prepared to be indoors for days with no electricity, no water."

Cantrell had just bought four 40-pound bags of dirt to lean against her door, hoping to keep the water out.

Across Houston, residents left town or made preparations for a long weekend indoors. Business people sauntered out early on Friday afternoon, as many workplaces closed after lunch.

“Real quiet today. Phones aren’t ringing,” said Mike Niebruegge, an attorney who works downtown. “A lot of people didn’t come in.”

Khoa Nguyen, a 32-year-old banker, booked a room with his wife in a Hill Country town 250 miles away, but still took precautions. He filled his bath tubs with water and bought a generator for his house.

“In case we can’t get out of town,” he said as he filled up two 2-gallon gas cans.

Many gas stations in Houston ran out of gas after a mad rush on Thursday night. Most refueled and some questioned how long their supply would last.

More severe gas shortages happened in routes leading out of Nueces County, which took the first and most direct hit from Harvey. State emergency planners coordinated delivery of gasoline to dry stations, helping traffic to move out of the danger zone.

Local governments prepared to respond to the storm — and see what federal help they might need

As the storm’s edge made first contact in Corpus Christi early Friday afternoon, authorities there announced: “The evacuation period has ended. It is now time to shelter in place.”

But for areas hundreds of miles inland and up the coast, the threat still loomed. Torrential rains are forecasted to settle over the state for two to five days.

“We’ll still have a tropical storm over Galveston Bay on Wednesday morning,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District. “Obviously with that type of rainfall we’re looking at very significant flooding.”

The Harris County Emergency Operation Center in Houston, a facility which is brought online during times of need, is at its highest alert stage. Ninety-eight representatives from various agencies and organizations fill every desk at the facility, gazing at a matrix of flat panel screens and planning a response as the situation unfolds. Representatives from local, state, and federal agencies caucus with folks from utility companies, hospital systems, weather authorities, and first responders.

The group is determining how and to what extent the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the National Guard should plan to get involved with the recovery effort once hurricane-force winds subside.

“This is going to be a very powerful flooding event,” said Francisco Sanchez, a spokesman for the Harris County office of homeland security and emergency management, who was at the operation center.

“This area hasn’t seen one of these storms in 47 years,” said Tyner Little, a spokesman for the Nueces County Sheriff’s Office, recalling Hurricane Celia, a category five storm that destroyed much of Corpus Christi in 1970.

Brazoria County sheriff Charles Wagner told local media that first responders won’t risk their lives to rescue folks who ignored the mandatory evacuation. Across all of the damage zone, rescue operations will begin when the hurricane-force winds subside.

Meanwhile, emergency planners will be coordinating a response and assessing the need for federal backup — in what looms as the first big disaster-response test for the Trump administration.