CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Hurricane Harvey continued to intensify early Friday and is on track to be the strongest hurricane to strike the United States in 12 years. The storm is expected to make landfall as soon as late Friday night near this South Texas city, where officials have issued a voluntary evacuation notice.
A light rain began Friday morning and then grew heavier as the first outer bands of Harvey reached the Texas coast. At 11 a.m. EDT, Harvey was about 115 miles southeast of this city, with winds of 110 miles per hour.
The National Hurricane Center reported that the storm could intensity further, and if it did, would be poised to be the first Category 3 hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005.
The storm is continuing to evolve, and observers at radar stations and in hurricane hunter airplanes reported Friday that Harvey had developed two concentric eyewalls in recent hours. As the core of the storm changes shape, the intensity of maximum winds could drop, but the wind field would expand in diameter.
Already, several hundred miles of the Texas Gulf Coast are under hurricane and storm surge warnings. After battering the coast, Harvey is expected to stall for days and potentially drift back offshore, which would enable it to feed continuously off the hot Gulf waters and remain a tropical storm.
Forecasters warn that Harvey will likely deliver historic amounts of rain — some models show mind-boggling accumulations in feet rather than inches — and cause “catastrophic flooding,” including in and around Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city and the headquarters of the U.S. 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 said in an advisory Friday.
A steady and orderly stream of traffic flowed out of Corpus Christi on Thursday, headed toward higher ground inland. But with Harvey just hours away now, many thousands of people apparently are going to ride out a storm.
The American Red Cross is mobilizing staff from across the country and sending them to Texas, where it is helping to man dozens of shelters along the Gulf Coast. Paul I. Carden Jr., regional disaster officer for the National Capital Region in Washington, arrived last night in Corpus Christi as part of the leadership team. Friday morning he said that it is foolish for residents not to evacuate.
“When the Weather Service uses the language that it has been using, I know this is going to be a severe event,” said Carden, former director of emergency and international services for the Red Cross. “A hurricane in its own right is bad, but a hurricane with five to seven days worth of rain over the same area, I know it’s going to be a significant disaster.”
He added, “This is your life. This is your family’s life. This is not a time to gamble with both.”
Carden said the Red Cross is already working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to plan for the aftermath of the hurricane, but he warned residents to be prepared for extended hardship. After the storm, the Red Cross will be dispatching feeding stations cleanup kits, health and mental health professionals and even spiritual care workers to Texas to help residents cope.
“This is going to try a person’s faith,” Carden said.
Friday morning, residents Phyllis Sweeney and Gary Balding told their story of fleeing the wrath of tropical storms. They live on a 41-foot sailboat, having moved to Corpus Christi from Key West. Two weeks ago they tried to sail to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico but were battered by Hurricane Franklin.
“We got within 20 miles, and couldn’t get there because the winds and currents were blowing in the wrong direction,” said Balding, 68. “We thought, “Okay, we’ll go to Corpus Christi and everything will be cool.”
Now they’re in the path of Harvey. They fled the boat early Friday and checked into the Holiday Inn downtown. The hotel has become a refuge for stranded tourists, boaters, storm chasers and journalists. But Sweeney, 70, is worried that the hotel, which is surrounded by several other skyscrapers, will also suffer significant damage.
“I’m worried about the roof of this building and if we get chased off the boat, and chased out of this this hotel, it’s not going to be fun,” she said.
Officials in Corpus Christi have scrambled to respond to the sudden hurricane threat but decided against mandatory evacuations. Instead, officials instructed residents on the barrier island and low-lying areas inland to evacuate on a voluntary basis.
“We are up to and almost at the threshold of mandatory evacuations, but we are not going to cross that line right now,” Mayor Joe McComb said Thursday. “We are going in the strongest possible terms to encourage the residents in the low-lying areas, as they say, ‘Get out of Dodge.’ ”
McComb said officials didn’t want to put police and firefighters at risk by forcing them to remove residents who didn’t want to evacuate.
“I think people are smart enough to make their decisions and they don’t need the government to tell them what to do,” McComb said.
Nueces County Judge Samuel L. Neal, who is the county executive and is overseeing its emergency response, did not rule out mandatory evacuations but said such a move would not be done lightly.
“We will do it if we feel it’s necessary,” he said. “This would create a major, major impact on the way a lot of people do business.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared a preemptive state of disaster in 30 counties, including Harris County, home to Houston, the fourth most-populated city in the country.
Charles Bujan, mayor of the barrier-island city of Port Aransas, Tex., ordered all citizens to evacuate except those working as emergency responders.
The surprise hurricane is poised to be the first major test of disaster response for the Trump administration.
William B. (Brock) Long, President Trump’s appointee as director of FEMA, has stressed in interviews with The Washington Post that state and local officials need to improve their emergency readiness and recognize that it is not the federal government’s responsibility alone to respond to natural disasters.
Long has also urged citizens to understand that they will often be their own first responders in a crisis.
“People need to be the help before the help arrives,” he said earlier this month.
Long met with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) on Tuesday and discussed preparations for hurricane season and the Aug. 5 flooding in New Orleans.
“Preparedness is a partnership between the local, state and federal level,” Long said. “Here, there is great concern over the city of New Orleans’s ability to pump water out of the so-called bowl.”
The city has 120 water pumps, but currently only 105 are operational, said Tyronne Walker, communications director for Landrieu. He said the city has brought in 26 generators to provide electricity during an emergency.
“Right now, there’s no reason to panic, but you know, everybody should just be focused on getting their plans in order,” Walker said. “While we’re in a stronger position than we were in the last drainage incident, we’re still vulnerable.”
Harvey would be the first hurricane to hit Texas since Ike, a high Category 2 storm, came ashore in September 2008 in Galveston and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage.
In Corpus Christi, some residents on Thursday left work early to begin preparing their homes, while others headed out of town or contemplated hitting the road before the storm arrived.
“Everybody’s just trying to get away from this area right now,” said Ricky Nesmith, the kitchen manager at Blackbeard’s On the Beach.
Nesmith said a full staff came into the restaurant Thursday morning, but most workers left early to get their homes ready. The looming storm has not slowed business, Nesmith said, saying that large groups kept the restaurant busy Thursday before the owner decided to close early.
Bill Sissamis, who owns the Silverado Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant about two miles from the water, said that he would stay open as long as the weather allows.
“We do tend to get a lot of false alarms here,” said Sissamis, 54, of previous storm warnings, adding, “The city goes a little bit nuts.”
The Gulf of Mexico is vitally important for the nation’s oil infrastructure. Offshore platforms produce about 1.7 million barrels a day, nearly a fifth of U.S. crude oil production. More than 45 percent of U.S. petroleum refining capacity lies along the Gulf Coast as well as 51 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity, according to Energy Department data.
ExxonMobil said at noon Thursday that it was already reducing production at its Hoover oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico about 200 miles south of Houston and was evacuating personnel working offshore.
Shell said that it had evacuated about 200 offshore workers by helicopter and that it had shut in production and secured equipment at its deepwater Perdido oil and gas production hub. Two other platforms continued to operate as of Thursday night.
A Citigroup report to investors said more than 85 percent of Texas’s refining capacity is located inside the highest precipitation zone for the storm.
Samenow and Achenbach reported from Washington. Mark Berman, Steven Mufson, Brian McNoldy and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.