Hurricane Harvey


The smell after Hurricane Harvey was different than after Andrew…  It feels silly to try to describe the smell of the aftermath of a hurricane, like a wine critic using terms like “aromatic bouquet” and “silky complexity.” The sopping wet household goods destroyed in Harvey’s floods have an “old” musty smell. The houses ripped apart by Andrew were filled with fast growing mold and had a much sharper “new destruction” smell.  It’s an unexpected way for two of the most destructive events in our nation’s history to stick with me, but it’s how I remember them- or rather experienced them.

An F-16C from the 307th FS is damaged on the Homestead AFB tarmac in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, 25 Aug 1992.  USAF photo by MSgt. Don Wetterman

The eye of Hurricane Andrew had passed over my house at Homestead AFB in Florida exactly 25 years before the day Harvey had been upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane status.  That week in 1992 I had been in Las Vegas with my squadron, the 307th, flying F-16s in a joint exercise with the Army called “Air Warrior.”  Every 600 mph low pass looking down on those dirty and sweaty army guys in the desert, made me glad I joined the Air Force.  Especially, when my fighter pilot buddies and I returned to our hotel after a hard day of flying. Filled with thoughts of the poor GIs sleeping in their foxholes. On August 23rd, even though Andrew had made a turn toward Homestead, we still thought that it would hit a little to the north in Ft Lauderdale, maybe as a major hurricane.  Because we really didn’t understand just how serious this storm was… We celebrated the arrival of Andrew with a “hurricane party” at the motel pool, complete with a life-sized cardboard Elvis.  Fighter pilots are nothing if not able to deal with potentially disastrous situations with calm and humor.

I will never forget the morning after landfall.  Woke up and immediately turned on CNN, the first image I saw was of a young man running across a parking lot with a TV in his arms. I realized that this was the Cutler Ridge mall, just a few miles from my house at Homestead AFB, and it was clear that life had changed in South Florida. I called my wife, (she had evacuated to Ft Lauderdale, 50 miles to the north), and told me how stressed out our golden retriever “Einstein” had been.  He was only 3 years old but big circles formed around his eyes and turned grey overnight.

The squadron had to wait a week before we were finally allowed to return to Florida, and during that time the Air Force flew an RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft over the base.  They sent us the photos (back in the days of wet film). I was able to find my house. From the air it really didn’t look too bad. The roof was intact, and no major debris seemed to be around it.

I eventually returned to Florida, and as I drove down the Turnpike towards the base I missed the highway exit. Drove right past it. I had driven this road countless times …but the destruction left behind was massive, I didn’t even recognize the way home! As I arrived to my home it became clear that the reconnaissance photos didn’t tell the whole story.  The windows were broken and the inside of my home seemed to be run through a blender. There were large pieces of broken glass wedged into walls at 90 deg angles, and nearly everything inside was destroyed.  It was that moment I swore I would never stick around for a major hurricane; I would always evacuate. As I write this blog Hurricane Irma is churning as the most powerful Atlantic storm ever.  I hope and pray that the records that Andrew set are not surpassed by Irma.

Fast forward to 2017.  Coincidentally, I was again out of town for the main action for hurricane Harvey.  This time I was filming a project while at sea, without internet (which will be the subject of a future blog). When I left I was sure that Harvey would just be a minor “rain event. ” We had survived Allison in 2001 (at the time the “500 year” flood for Houston).  But, boy was I wrong!  Fighter pilots rarely lack confidence, but brains, well… that’s another story.

As I came back to the world of the internet, I began to get the full story. It was immediately clear that this had been a devastating storm. I’ve lived through Andrew, Ike and Rita but they just didn’t compare.

Resilient Friendswood, Texas residents in front of their house in the aftermath of Harvey.  Photo credit Terry Virts.

Typical hurricanes do the brunt of their damage via the storm surge, which is a big wall of ocean water pushed in front that causes rapid and uncontrollable flooding. Often many feet deep in coastal areas.  Then the intense winds ensue, especially near the “eye,” which can often destroy houses.  Cat 1 hurricanes don’t cause too much wind damage to modern countries like the US, but they can really devastate less developed island nations. When it becomes a monster Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm, the wind damage can destroy everything in it’s path.

Harvey left a path of destruction in Rockport and southern Texas after making landfall as a Cat 4 storm. The intense winds of Harvey were quickly a distant memory, as the “worst case” scenario began to unfold. A series of high pressure systems had formed to the north and west.  These steering currents were a nightmare- they formed a blocking wall like the Alabama offensive line, and Harvey was the poor defensive tackle trying to get past.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  So, Harvey continued to churn on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Houston for several days.  Sucking up very hot Gulf waters, rotating them counter-clockwise, and dumping them on Houston.

You could not have drawn up a worse flooding scenario.  If you look at the rain accumulation maps, they are unbelievable!   They say Harvey dumped the equivalent of more than a foot of water over an area the size of West Virginia.  More than 50” (1m 30cm) of rain in several towns, making it the worst rain event (and hence flood) in American history.  If Allison was the hundred-year flood, they’re calling Harvey the 1,000 year flood.  One local TV channel did the math (statistics) and claimed that this was the 40,000 year flood. Incredibly, centered on the nation’s 4th largest city, a metropolitan area of over 10 Million people.

When I finally made it back to Houston, the drive home from Bush Intercontinental Airport was surprising. I wasn’t back until a few days after Harvey because of cancelled flights.  And everything looked, well, pretty much fine.  Some dirt on the edges of streets.  But the highways were open, stores and neighborhoods looked normal; what was the problem?

As I turned into the first neighborhood I could see the flooding. Talk about devastation.  It was a scene that every Houstonian is now familiar with- street after street full of homes with mountains of their life piled out on their front yards. Couches.  Clothes.  Baseball cards. Golf clubs. Appliances. Everything and anything. The most bizarre thing was that tearing their houses apart became a necessary process to save their home.  And then I noticed a familiar smell…

If Hurricane Andrew looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off in South Florida, Harvey reminded me more of a neutron bomb. Designed to use neutrons to kill people but minimize destruction. Harvey did not leave a blatant “blast effect” but its destruction was nonetheless complete.

I felt a call to action, I needed to start working. For those of you who haven’t been involved with a flood, here’s how the drill goes.  You wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, you get a good pair of gloves, a crow bar, hammer, and boots. You find a group to join- mostly at local churches here in Houston (where, BTW, thousands of volunteers are pouring in from all over the country, this has been the Church’s finest hour, from my point of view).  And then you go to work.  In the past few days, I’ve been to five houses. Mind you these are total strangers. I’ve contributed to destroying their homes, with their blessing.  It’s not every day you can just walk into a house that you’ve never been before, and start swinging, tearing out drywall, wood floors, cabinets, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. It has been a  surreal experience.

Photo credit Terry Virts.

In the midst of this terrible disaster it has been very encouraging to see people from all walks of life just helping each other.  Harvey has affected rich and poor. It is certainly true that the wealthier victims will be able to recover quicker- as they are able to afford contractors and temporary living quarters, and likely had better insurance.  But in the midst of this tragedy I saw both rich and poor sweating and working non-stop.  I saw people who absolutely did not vote for the President welcome his visit.  I saw many, many church groups and other volunteers come to Houston from all over the country ready to help. Much more needs to be done, and significant recovery will take many months and even years.  But in a time of unprecedented division in our nation maybe this terrible storm will help unite us, in some small way.

There is another consequence that I hope Harvey brings in the long run, and it is one that I saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.  The area that was most affected, South Florida, was frankly in pretty bad shape in 1992. There were many neighborhoods around our base that were off-limits to military personnel, because they were crime ridden. But now, years later, the Homestead area is thriving, it is very modern and safe, and its economy is doing great.  As terrible as the storm was, and as much pain as it caused, the process of rebuilding made that region better in the long run.  I hope that in 10 years’ time we will say the same of Hurricane Harvey and the greater Houston area.  There is something about going through a very rough patch, whether in nature or in your life, that can lead to a better future- if properly handled.

I will close this blog by saying that as of tonight, Irma has practically destroyed small Caribbean Islands, has missed significant parts of the larger Caribbean nations, and will likely be a disaster for a significant part of Florida.  My prayer is that the damage be limited to things.  That can be rebuilt, better than before.  The same cannot be said of the people in the path of this storm.

This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows (L-R) Category 1, Hurricane Katia; Category 5, Hurricane Irma and, Category 1, Hurricane Jose at 1300UTC on September 7, 2017.   CREDIT AFP / NOAA / RAMMB / JOSE ROMERO / Getty Images