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What a lot of neighborhoods look like right now. Texas National Guard Creeks across the region are swollen. It is all of those things. Houston is a great place to live. But not on that Saturday night. Nor the next day. Nor, well, any time through Wednesday. As this article publishes, periodic heavy rains are still pulsing through parts of the upper Texas coast as Harvey finally pulls away.
Already, the city has nearly set an annual record for rainfall, and the month is only August. The city, quite literally, is drowning. It was only 16 years ago that another tropical system, Allison, moved into the upper Texas coast. The storm had gone inland, up into the piney woods of Eastern Texas.
But four days later it sagged back toward the coast and refueled itself on warmth and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. On the night of Friday, June 8, 2001, it would soak downtown Houston. I remember this night vividly. It predated the existence of smart phones, weather apps, and, well, I was younger and stupider then. So even though it was raining heavily that Friday evening, some friends and I left work and went to a local club to see a Bob Schneider show. The rain got so intense, that even as Schneider crooned songs from his new album, Lonelyland, we could hear the storms outside over the music.
It was time to go. Outside, the roads were rushing with water, seeking their way to bayous, which in turn carry water out into the Gulf of Mexico. As I said my goodbyes and dashed to my car it dawned on me—how, exactly, was I going to get home? The Saturday morning after Tropical Storm Allison was pretty bad. It was such a surreal scene. The last thing you should do in floodwaters, especially at night, is to walk into them.
You might stumble into a drain. And, yes, there are a few alligators and snakes in the bayous of Houston. But I was in my 20s then—again, young and stupid. At least now we knew how bad it could get here. The city could be hardened. I began paying closer attention to the weather. As a science writer for the Houston Chronicle, I wrote stories about flooding and tropical weather. By Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I had a science blog and filled it with dispatches about the storm. Hurricane Rita followed three weeks later.
I pursued a meteorology certification from Mississippi State University. I left the Chronicle in 2015 to cover space full time for Ars. And it more or less remained a hobby until last week, drawing perhaps 25,000 page views a week.
I had some loyal fans, but really, who wanted to read forecasts day after day when the seven-day outlook called for hot, sunny days with a slight chance of rain? A big low pressure system moves into the Texas coast, dragging a bunch of moisture with it.
Usually, when big tropical systems achieve hurricane status, they have some capacity to forge their own steering currents. But when Hurricane Harvey made landfall, it ran into a ridge of high pressure over the southwestern United States. This blocked further movement. Once inland Friday night, Harvey was essentially a marble on a flat table, wobbling around.
And when warm, moist air rises, it rains. Harvey came inland about 200 miles south of Houston, and the outer rain bands pushed into Houston on Saturday, setting the stage for the first of several exceptionally wet nights.
Houston lies a few dozen feet above sea level, and during normal rainfall residential yards drain into streets, streets drain into bayous, and bayous carry water into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. But this was not normal rainfall; it was extreme tropical rainfall. Meteorologists measure rainfall rates in inches per hour at a given location. Over Clear Creek near where I live, from 11pm to 1am that night, 10. That happened in two hours.
The next night, the heaviest band of rainfall set up over western Houston, where affluent suburbs are generally protected by two large reservoirs. Combined they have a capacity to store about 400,000 acre-feet of water, or about the same amount of water that goes over Niagara Falls in 10 days. The reservoirs filled up for the first time ever during Harvey, forcing the US Army Corps of engineers to release water into bayous that were already flooded, worsening conditions downstream in central Houston.
Dramatically, this occurred near the very height of the storm. It seems insane, but this was the best of several bad options. Listing image by Texas National Guard Page: A certified meteorologist, Eric lives in Houston.