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Hurricane Harvey: rain, flooding and one death — but experts are still relieved

Worst fears didnt come true in first 24 hours

Hurricane Harvey Slams Into Texas Gulf Coast Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Tyner Little, a public information officer with the Nueces County Sheriff’s Office, drove back late Saturday afternoon to his Corpus Christi home, which he hadn’t seen since he holed up in a trembling courthouse with an emergency team, to prepare for Hurricane Harvey’s arrival.

As he steered through still pouring rain, he feared what he’d find.

“Nothing too bad,” he said by phone as he arrived: Downed trees and fences. With Harvey still a tropical storm, the rain fell too heavily for him to survey the house’s exterior, but Little was content.

The storm that spared his house toppled others along the South Texas coast, and it continues to to inundate a region nearly 300 miles wide as it swirls in place. It inflicted severe damage in communities on the coast, destroying homes, toppling trees and leaving at least one person dead.

Flooding is still a serious concern, even as the storm’s been downgraded to a tropical storm. The next few days could result in more damage or further harm to residents.

But despite Harvey’s coastal devastation, the first 24 hours of the storm, at least, has not come close to matching forecasters’ worst fears.

Damage from the storm generally stopped far short of the catastrophe some administrators feared, leaving response planners with a situation less grave than they'd prepared for.

“Everybody is real relieved,” said Goliad County judge Pat Calhoun. “Now we’re just looking at the cleanup thinking damn, this is going to get ugly.”

But the damage is not all done yet. The National Weather Service expects the remnants of Harvey to swirl around Texas, drifting southeast for the next two or three days, likely destroying homes and causing flooding on its way.

Local, state, and federal resources have been deployed to help Texas recover.

President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration for Texas before Harvey made landfall Friday night. FEMA has stationed rescue teams to Texas and opened bases in Seguin, Texas and Camp Beauregard, Louisiana with food, water and resources ready for possible displaced people.

The base in Seguin holds 306,00 meals, 96,000 liters of water, 4,500 tarps and 33 generators, FEMA said.

The response is an example of FEMA's modern approach to disaster relief. After a federal response to Hurricane Katrina lagged for days in 2005, agency rules were changed to allow disaster declarations before landfall. In recent hurricanes like Ike in 2008 and Sandy in 2012, FEMA also mobilized an emergency response before the storms finished raining.

“This is possible due to the quick response of Governor Abbott declaring Nueces County a disaster area, even before landfall,” Nueces County said in a press release. “In addition, President Trump also acted quickly to assist our county.”

Federal disaster declarations cover six coastal Texas counties: Nueces, Bee, Goliad, San Patricio and Refugio. Residents in those counties are now able to apply for individual federal assistance, possibly claiming federal compensation for property lost to the storm.

A FEMA spokeswoman in Texas said the agency was too stretched by immediate lifesaving operations to discuss the compensation program.

Harvey will heap more strain on the National Flood Insurance Program, which FEMA administers to help rebuild flood-damaged homes. More than $24 billion in debt, the program expires Sept. 31, and federal lawmakers aim to reform the nation’s approach to public assistance for disaster victims.

Those strains could still intensify in the week to come. The rain is expected to persist for days, and trillions of gallons of storm runoff will continue to cause problems as they consolidate in creeks, bayous and riverways.

“The flooding rivers will be an issue,” said Lt. Craig Cummings, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. “That’s going to be in a couple days though.”

Forecasters expect that Texas rivers from the Nueces to the Trinity could swell to record levels by mid week.

In that time, the storm system is expected to drift towards Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, which has anxiously prepared for a bout of severe flooding.

As of Saturday night the city had largely been spared, except for a few hurricanes that touched down in its west, on the fringe of Harvey’s swirl.

Neighbors labored to clear rubble from one suburban street near Houston where a cyclone had struck the night before.

Monty Ray was in bed when he heard a funnel cloud rolling his way. He and his wife darted from their bedroom just as the storm burst through his wall, lodging bricks on the drywall across the room, he said.

The storm also left a hole in his roof, along with several others on his street. By morning, about 50 neighbors hard turned out to aid the recovery effort, chopping downed trees, heaping shattered fences and gathering debris.

“We’re just helping people out like we’d want them to help us,” said Brad Howell, a 44-year-old attorney who brought his wife and two daughters out to clean. “It’s a community, it’s what we do.”

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