Hurricane Harvey: As Texas prepares for monster storm, Indian cities are left with much to learn

A monster storm, threatening to flatten coastal cities of Texas has spread panic among hundreds and thousands of Americans and tourists. Many are fleeing from the impending path of the hurricane while others are hoarding up essentials that would come in handy if Hurricane Harvey runs amock as feared.

Six counties in Texas were declared mandatory evacuation zones while others were deemed voluntary evacuation zones. Firstpost/ Vedam Jaishankar

Six counties in Texas were declared mandatory evacuation zones while others were deemed voluntary evacuation zones. Firstpost/ Vedam Jaishankar

Thus, when on arrival in Houston, news that a humongous amount of rainfall — from a staggering 381mm to an incredible 889 mm — was expected, courtesy Hurricane Harvey, it was met with unbridled curiosity: How would this state of Texas handle this Category 3 hurricane? And, importantly how was the state primed to manage this epic deluge.

Back home, in Bengaluru, the state government had confessed that they were grossly unprepared for the massive rains and that ‘nobody could have managed’ that quantum of rainwater. So much so, high profile ‘start-up ventures’ localities like Koramangala were reduced to resemble low-lying slums.

Even in July 2016, a mere 90 mm of rain flooded Bengauru leading to the BBMP claiming that they would spend crores of rupees in an attempt to clear storm water rains. But the work has remained largely incomplete even after a year, leading to the massive floods this year too.

Thus Texas’ approach on a war-footing to the potential disaster was most impressive and an absolute eye-opener for someone coming from Bengaluru, a city seemingly abandoned to fate.

A day before Texas Governor Greg Abbot declared a state of disaster in 30 counties, we drove down the Blue Water Highway through Galveston and surrounding areas that would take a huge chunk of the hit. Six counties were declared mandatory evacuation zones while others were deemed voluntary evacuation zones.

The mayor of one of the counties where evacuation was mandatory, asked all people to get out and stay elsewhere with friends, relatives or whoever.

"I’m not going to risk the lives of my firemen and police just because you want to ride out the storm," he thundered. "They too have friends and relatives. So don’t be stubborn. Take your pets and go. I can’t endanger the lives of my men to try and save you."

Another mayor, Corpus Christi’s Mayor Joe McComb was upbeat. “Game on,” he said. "We're looking forward to having a very good positive result from this storm. We'll get through this, we'll be better for it because the community has been pulling together."

Meanwhile the Texas Military Department has deployed about 700 members of the State Guard and National Guard around the coastal region. Black Hawk and Lakota helicopter crews were put on standby for search and rescue, while ground teams with high-clearance vehicles prepared to make incursions into flooded communities after the storm.

The Red Cross was mobilising staff from across the country and sending them to Texas, where it is helping to man dozens of shelters along the Gulf Coast.

Elsewhere, 250 buses and 75 ambulances were dispatched to Corpus Christi which was in the eye of the storm. A ‘Catastrophic flood warning’ was issued and those without transport were asked to assemble at bus stops for free evacuation.

University classes were cancelled and schools declared holiday on Friday.

But these were only elementary precautions. The real movement was at the citizen level where it seemed everyone knew the drill and thus moved with alarming haste and purpose. Major highways leading out of the hurricane-prone areas were jammed with people fleeing to safer zones. Galveston, a pleasure island where we went on a cruise before the alert was sounded, emptied itself in a jiffy, with thousands of pleasure, sun, sea and fun seekers making a beeline to abandon the place.

By now the winds had further picked up, from 176 kms per hour to 200 kmph and the Hurricane alert was upgraded from Category 2 to 3 (Hurricanes are categorized from 1 to 5 depending on wind speeds, with 120kmph for Category 1 to speeds of over 248kmph for category 5).

This triggered a run on bottled water, huge water cans, petrol, batteries, torches and food. Entire shop shelves were emptied in major supermarkets while long queues were formed at petrol stations.

As soon as wind speeds picked up, it triggered a run on bottled water, huge water cans, petrol, batteries, torches and food. Firstpost/ Vedam Jaishankar

As soon as wind speeds picked up, it triggered a run on bottled water, huge water cans, petrol, batteries, torches and food. Firstpost/ Vedam Jaishankar

In Houston — Sugarland, Katy, Woodlands and elsewhere highly visible measuring scales stood out in low-lying areas, including road underpasses, to alert road users of the depth of water. These scales were marked all the way up to 13 feet to caution road users of rising water levels.

The National Hurricane Centre issued a recommendation for building individual emergency kits. These included water at one gallon per person per day, 3-day supply of non-perishable food, battery powered radio, flashlight, first-aid kit, whistle for signal to help, moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation, cell phone with chargers and backup battery, pet food, cash, important documents, medicines, clothing, blankets, chlorine bleach, paper cups, plates, canned food with can opener, paper, pencil, toys, maps, match box in waterproof container, etc.

Sand bags were made available everywhere. Importantly the Bayous that catch the water and later drain them to the rivers and sea via the Buffalo Bayou are primed to do their work. Bengaluru had a similar system—its self-balancing tanks and lakes. But greedy politicians, land developers and bureaucrats ensured that the link was snapped and the tanks and lakes were encroached upon; hence the excessive flooding for even 90 mm of rains.

Meanwhile, its bayous notwithstanding, forecasters warn that Harvey will deliver historic amounts of rain — leading to mind-boggling accumulations of water. Flooding is likely in and around Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city and the headquarters of the United States oil and gas industry.

"Rivers and tributaries may overwhelmingly overflow their banks in many places with deep moving water. Small streams, creeks, canals, and ditches may become raging rivers. Flood control systems and barriers may become stressed," the National Weather Service cautioned in an advisory.

Yes, looks like Texas will take a hit. But if the state can prime itself so fast and so thoroughly for water dumps in excess of 800mm, there is no reason why Bengaluru or other Indian cities cannot activate an action plan to handle 1/10 of that gargantuan volume of water. Is anyone out there listening?


Published Date: Aug 26, 2017 09:01 am | Updated Date: Aug 26, 2017 09:01 am


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