AUSTIN, Texas—As tens of thousands of people are leaving the path of Hurricane Harvey, Wade Walker is heading directly into the eye of the storm.
As head of Dallas-based search and rescue outfit Texas Task Force II, Walker had some idea what to expect when Harvey was set to make landfall on the Gulf Coast. The last big hurricane he deployed to on the Texas Gulf Coast was Ike, which, after causing massive destruction and hundreds of deaths in Haiti and Cuba, made landfall on the island of Galveston in September 2008.
“We’re currently at a staging area in San Antonio,” he told The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon. “Texas Task Force II has 66 people including four canine handlers. We have six boats and enough food and water to sustain us for 72 hours. We’re basically just waiting now to see when the storm comes ashore.”
Harvey arrived on Friday night as a category 4 hurricane, the strongest storm to hit Texas since 1961. Corpus Christi was supposed to get pummeled, but Harvey struck 30 miles up the coast at the seaside town of Rockport around 10 p.m.
But even there, reports that the town would be flattened as night fell and the storm swirled inland, were wide of the mark. Josh Morgerman, a storm chaser who was holed up in a hotel in Rockport when the hurricane hit, tweeted that the upper floors were swaying. The next morning, the lobby had flooded and there was substantial damage. But it was still standing.
Social media was alight with stories the local high school had been completely destroyed: it hadn't, but there was substantial damage and windows had blown out. A senior center said to have been destroyed, did see its roof collapse and its occupants suffer minor injuries, but it wasn't flattened.
Keith Pierre, a U.S. Coast Guard commander based at Corpus Christi, told The Daily Beast on Friday that they’ll have to wait until the hurricane tracks away from the coast before they can conduct rescue operations.
“Hopefully people have taken heed and evacuated but it could mean potential casualties,” he said.
The Coast Guard has established a command post 20 miles inland from Corpus in Robstown.
“We have well over 100 people here, helicopters ready and surface assets like small boats and flood punts that can get into shallow areas,” Pierre said. “Once the storm passes we’ll go to work and try to make sure everyone’s safe.”
For most of the Texas coast, Harvey left a trail of road debris, downed power lines, and felled trees in its wake. It's now been downgraded to a category 1 hurricane and expected to weaken to a tropical storm later Saturday. But it was known the wind that wasn't the biggest threat – it was the water. According to the National Weather Service, Harvey will cause catastrophic flooding to east-central Texas well into next week.
Cliff Schlabach, born and raised on the Texas coast, still remembers Hurricane Celia that made landfall near Port Aransas, a barrier island just across Corpus Christi Bay, in the summer of 1970.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And this one looks like it’ll be similar. When Celia got close to the coast it had a strength of 85 to 90 miles an hour, but all of a sudden it exploded and got up to 150 mph—even more in some places. It blew the wind gauge out of the Naval Air Station and tore everything up in Corpus, shredding trees and destroying houses. It was like an atomic bomb had gone off.”
But Celia hit and then moved on, Schlabach said. Harvey is predicted to linger over the coast before moving toward Houston.
“Hurricane strength winds for maybe three or four days. That’s devastating. It’s a different ball game.”
While Schlabach and his wife have evacuated their home, boarded up the windows, and temporarily moved inland, he has friends and family still on the coast. “Time is getting short if they’re going to try to get out,” he said.
“Anybody that has a brain needs to get out of there,” Schlabach said.
Jeff Dolan, a fashion and surfing photographer who lives close to Corpus, has decided to ride it out. He said the first signs that a storm was coming had arrived.
“It’s just hitting us. The wind is picking up,” he said. “A lot of my friends have decided to stay behind. I’ve been living here 12 years but this is the first hurricane I’ll sit through. My house is right on the edge of a development and there’s nothing between me and the national seashore so I’m not worried about flying debris or trees. I’m only worried about the storm surge.”
Dolan has piled sandbags against his front door and boarded up his windows.
“My house sits on about 10-feet elevation so if the storm surge gets up to 12 feet it’s going to be a bit of a problem. If it’s 15 feet I’ll sit on the roof and surf my way into downtown Corpus. But I’m hunkered down. I’ve got food. I’ve got water. If my power goes out I’ll eat what’s in the fridge then eat stuff cold, out of a can. I’m a Boy Scout, so I’m prepared. I can ride this thing out.”
A hundred miles up the coast from Corpus, David Janssen, a game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife, has been helping tie down Gulf shrimp boats.
“When Hurricane Claudette hit in 2003 it kind of snuck up on us,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to come to Matagorda County, but it made a beeline right for us. 100 mph winds. An 18-wheeler got blown over and campers at an RV park here were pretty much destroyed. Streets were impassable from all the tree branches.”
While Harvey isn’t supposed to make landfall that far north, Janssen isn’t taking any chances.
“Right now our basin is full of Gulf shrimp boats, 125 of them,” he said. “We can’t take them out of the water so they’re tied up and you cross your fingers and hope they’re alright. Everyone’s worried. The boats are their livelihood.”
Mauricio Blanco, a shrimper and oysterman based north of Aransas, knows only too well what that would mean.
“I’m tying up the boats,” he said. “I can’t talk right now.”