Case Study: Hurricane Harvey


The data that I have used about the damage that Hurricane Harvey caused is taken from The Balance.

Original caption: Hurricane Harvey: taking the pets to higher ground so they can relieve themselves. Photo by Matt B. Diehl, taken from Flickr.

Hurricane Harvey was by far the deadliest hurricane during the 2017 hurricane season. Classified as a Category 4 storm, Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, 2017, killing 88 people and causing $125 billion in damages, making it the second-costliest hurricane after Hurricane Katrina. Harvey dumped two feet of rainfall on Texas within the first 24 hours, 60.5 inches total in Nederland, Texas.

Hurricane Harvey left the city of Houston completely underwater; a landmass in southeast Texas equivalent to the size of New Jersey was flooded, and 70% of Harris County, the county that Houston is in, was under 18 inches of water. The highest storm surge from Harvey was reported in Arkansas County at 12.5 feet.

In the days after Harvey, federal forces and the Houston Police Dive team collectively reported rescuing 13,000 people from their homes. Over 37,000 people were moved to shelters in Texas, and over 2,000 in Louisiana; 14,900 people were moved to temporary housing by FEMA, and 8,000 families were places in 9,000 hotel rooms. Hurricane Harvey damaged over 200,000 homes, and over a million vehicles were destroyed in the Gulf area. FEMA reported the 738,000 people registered for assistance, and $378 was distributed as direct assistance. As a result of the flooding, 800 wastewater treatment facilities and thirteen Superfund sites were damaged, disseminating toxic chemicals and sewage throughout flooded areas of Texas. Additionally, a quarter of oil and gas production came to a halt in the Gulf area, affecting 5% of the national output.

Like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey was amplified by climate change. According to a scientific study, the precipitation brought on by Harvey was 38% higher than expected. This is mainly in part due to the warming of the atmosphere caused by humanmade pollution. The warmer air in the atmosphere can hold more moisture, which generally causes it to rain less. However, when it does rain, it pours. Rising sea levels also allowed Harvey to grow larger than it would have in previous year s — since 1880, sea levels have risen 8.9 inches. Historically, a storm as severe as Harvey would only occur every one in 3,000 years. Under today’s climate, the chances of a Harvey-like storm occurring in the Gulf have increased one in every 1,000 years (New York Times).

A shelter set up after Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Boaz Guttman, taken from Flickr.

As many natural disasters do, Hurricane Harvey attracted a plethora of humanitarian action. The Georgia Salvation Army dispatched units to help feed people in need, and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief sent teams into Texas before Harvey even made landfall, anticipating the severity of the storm. The Red Cross arrived on the scene with supplies for over 50,000 displaced people. There was also a huge surge of individual humanitarian action. Kim Kardashian West announced on Twitter that her family was planning on donating $500,000 to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to aid their humanitarian efforts. Individuals with large trucks and even jet skis participated in rescue missions; after Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez asked in a Tweet is anyone with a “high-water safe boat or vehicle” would reach out to coordinate with rescue missions, hundreds of people responded to the call. Even notorious YouTuber Jake Paul brought his jetski to Houston to aid in the rescue effort.

Climate change is making superstorms like Harvey the norm, not outliers. More developmental work needs to be done to protect urban areas from the deadly effects of storms like these.

Written by Alexandra Huelbig, Innovation and Design Intern, Summer 2019

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The Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) prepares current and future aid workers with the knowledge and skills needed to respond effectively in times of humanitarian crisis and disaster. Our courses are borne of an interdisciplinary curriculum that combines academic theory with the practical experience of seasoned humanitarian professionals. The IIHA also publishes on a wide range of humanitarian topics and regularly hosts a number of events in the New York area, including the annual Humanitarian Blockchain Summit and Design for Humanity Summit.

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