CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a Category 3 storm as it churns toward what is certain to be a devastating landfall Friday night or Saturday morning near this city of 320,000.
The storm, which evolved explosively since Wednesday over the steamy waters of the western Gulf of Mexico, would be the first major hurricane — Category 3 or higher — to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005.
Forecasters and government officials were emphatic in their warnings Friday: Harvey, they said, will be a full-blown natural disaster, one that will test the resilience of millions of people over the coming days and weeks. In addition to bringing ferocious winds and a storm surge that could reach 12 feet, Harvey is primed to be an historic rain event, with the cyclone expected to stall on the coast.
Forecasters warn of “catastrophic flooding.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday afternoon urged citizens to evacuate immediately from low-lying and coastal areas in the final hours before the storm comes ashore. People may think they can ride out the initial tempest, he said, but “what you don’t know and what nobody else knows right now is the magnitude of flooding that will be coming.”
Abbott sent a written request to President Trump asking him to declare a major disaster in Texas.
“The storm surge, coupled with the deluge of rain, could easily lead to billions of dollars of property damage and almost certainly loss of life,” Abbott wrote. “It is not hyperbole to say that if the forecast verifies, Texas is about to experience one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the state.”
Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said during a White House briefing Friday that the declaration is under consideration. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Trump was contemplating visiting Texas sometime early next week.
William B. “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, issued a blunt warning in an interview on MSNBC: “Let’s set the expectations: Texas is about to have a very significant disaster.”
City officials in Corpus Christi insisted they’re ready for the worst.
“Game on,” said Mayor Joe McComb at a news conference. “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.”
But many people here are nervous. In Aransas Pass, 66-year-old Mike Taylor said he was left behind during the evacuation process. As part of routine hurricane preparations, the town maintains a list of residents who need help evacuating. Taylor, who doesn’t own a car and lives with his disabled 40-year-old son, said he thought he was on the list.
No one ever came for him.
“I thought I had been on the list, but no one came so now I am just out trying to find some groceries,” said Taylor, who was trudging down Route 35 in a yellow raincoat, even though all the grocery and convenience stores appeared closed. “I lost my driver’s license because I am nearly blind.”
Taylor declined an offer of help and said he was resigned to ride out the storm in his one-story house just a few blocks from the water.
The first outer bands of Harvey reached the South Texas coast on Friday morning. By 2 p.m. CDT, Harvey was 75 miles east-southeast of this city and moving northwest at 10 miles per hour.
Texas has seen many hurricanes over the years, most recently in 2008, when Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston as a a very high Category 2 storm, with a massive storm surge that helped cause tens of billions of dollars in property damage. The National Hurricane Center reported that Harvey is poised to be the first Category 3 hurricane (on the 1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale) to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005.
Several hundred miles of the Texas Gulf Coast are under hurricane and storm surge warnings. What makes this storm so unusual and dangerous is its minimal migration after landfall. It may even drift back out over open water, siphoning energy from the hot Gulf waters before meandering ashore again closer to Galveston.
If that scenario holds, Harvey will likely deliver historic amounts of rain. Some models show mind-boggling accumulations in feet rather than inches. Flooding is likely in and around Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“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.
In the Houston region, voluntary evacuation orders have been issued for coastal regions and a few neighborhoods on the edge of Galveston Bay, said Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County office of homeland security and emergency management.
“What people need to understand is every hurricane if different,” Sanchez said. “This one is going to be a very powerful flooding event.”
The Texas Military Department deployed about 700 members of the State Guard and National Guard around the coastal region on Friday as the storm moved in. Black Hawk and Lakota helicopter crews were put on standby for search and rescue.
The American Red Cross mobilized staff from across the country. Paul I. Carden Jr., regional disaster officer for the National Capital Region in Washington, said in Corpus Christi that residents are foolish if they decide not to evacuate.
“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 said. “This is your life. This is your family’s life. This is not a time to gamble with both.”
After the storm, the Red Cross will be dispatching feeding stations, cleanup kits, health and mental health professionals, and spiritual care workers to Texas to help residents cope, he said.
“This is going to try a person’s faith,” Carden said.
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.
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 hotel, it’s not going to be fun,” she said.
In the ranching town of Kingsville, about 40 miles southwest of Corpus Christi, Nick Harrel III, 65, who runs Harrel’s Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, said he’s weathered many hurricanes and is going to ride this one out.
“After the initial fear, you just take a deep breath, and do what you can to prepare, “ he said. “I have storm shutters that fit my windows and I bought a generator last year. I am coming late to being a Boy Scout.”
Silver Marquez , 34, went from table to table at the crowded El Tapatio taqueria in Kingsville, selling pan de campo, a flat bread traditionally cooked in Dutch ovens at cow camps in south Texas.
“I have plain, bacon and cheese and jalapeño,” said Marquez, a Kingsville native. “They are fresh and hot and I am selling a lot of them because people are stocking up for the hurricane. “
Santos Rojas, 72, said he isn’t preparing for the hurricane much beyond buying bottled water and pan de campo.
“I am legally blind, so if I try to board up windows I will just smash my thumb,” He said.
His son Daniel Rojas, 47, also is disabled and is on dialysis.
“We didn’t even think of leaving,” he said. “We never leave for hurricanes. We don’t have anywhere to go. I hope I can still get my dialysis tomorrow, but I don’t know if they will be open.”
Many small towns and low-lying areas in South Texas are under mandatory evacuation orders, but officials in Corpus Christi and Nueces County chose to stick with voluntary evacuations. Mayor McComb said Thursday that he didn’t want to force police and firefighters to try to pull people from their homes against their wishes.
McComb defended that decision at Friday’s news conference: “When it’s all said and done we made the right decision and I think time will prove us right.”
Nueces County Judge Samuel L. Neal, who oversees the county’s emergency response, implored residents to be patient as the storm blows in and the city copes with what is likely to be days of rain and ongoing power outages.
“This storm is not going to play out overnight,” Neal said, adding that electricity is likely to be out for up to a week. “Forty-eight hours is going to seem like an eternity without power. Please be patient.”
Harvey is the first major natural disaster faced by the Trump administration. Trump on Friday said that he had spoken with the governors of Texas and Louisiana and was “here to assist as needed.”
In a pair of statements posted to Twitter, Trump said he was “closely monitoring” the storm and had been briefed by Elaine Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary; John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who held Duke’s job until late last month; Long, administrator of FEMA; and Bossert, the homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa (R) gave the president a warning via Twitter: “keep on top of hurricane Harvey dont mke same mistake Pres Bush made w Katrina.”
The storm’s forecast track could eventually take it to New Orleans, which has struggled this month already with major flooding after thunderstorms on Aug. 5 dropped about nine inches of rain in just a few hours. The city relies on pumps to remove water from low-lying areas, but 15 of the pumps have been out of commission and are in the process of being repaired, the mayor’s office said this week.
In New Orleans on Friday, shoppers at a Walmart in the Gentilly neighborhood said they were unfazed by Harvey’s approach.
“I’ll be 78 next month,” said Judith Triche. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve never gotten ready.”
The Gulf of Mexico is crucial to the nation’s oil industry, with offshore platforms producing 1.7 million barrels of oil every day — close to a fifth of the country’s overall crude oil production. Refineries line the coast. The storm and subsequent flooding is certain to have a massive economic impact here that will ripple across the nation.
Valero, the nation’s largest refiner, shut down its Corpus Christi and Three Rivers refineries. Meanwhile, the price of gasoline jumped over the past two days as consumers worried about supplies. The Gulf coast is home to about half of U.S. petroleum refineries, though most companies in the supply chain hold substantial inventories.
Shell, which had evacuated workers from the offshore Perdido production platform, said it had also shut down its Enchilada Salsa platform late Thursday. Through August 24th, almost 10 percent the nearly 1.7 million barrels a day of all Gulf oil production was temporarily cut off, Zola said. He added that property and businesses may be severely damaged by wind, rain and the loss of electricity, and some may remain shut down for days if not longer.
The storm is also threatening other energy infrastructure. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan declared force majeure, acknowledging that some of its sales would be interrupted.
Independent oil and gas companies that have tapped shale oil and shale gas reserves have slowed or stopped drilling in the Eagle Ford shale, one of the most lucrative places to drill for shale oil and shale gas.
Samenow and Achenbach reported from Washington. Dylan Baddour in Houston, Mary Lee Grant in Kingsville, Tex., Ashley Cusick in New Orleans, and Mark Berman and Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.