A little look behind the scenes during Harvey.
Eight Days That Changed My Life
Lindner, Jeffrey (Flood Control) <Jeff.Lindner@hcfcd.org>
Today, 6:49 AM
On August 25, 2017, one of the most destructive hurricanes in American history crawled ashore along the middle Texas coast. The storm would gradually move inland and then stall northwest of Victoria while focusing unprecedented rainfall across the coastal bend into southeast Texas. Lives were forever changed and the name “Harvey” added to the list of other memorable Texas hurricanes such as Carla, Alicia, Ike, Rita, and Tropical Storm Allison. Those days would challenge this region and state unlike anything we have ever experienced in our lives, but together we would rise to meet those challenges. The following paragraphs is some of what I experienced through those days.
Every meteorologist imagines a storm that they will one day work that may change their own life. For me, it was a large category 4 hurricane making landfall near Freeport and moving NNW across southeast Texas. In the days leading up to Harvey, I never once thought Harvey would be “the” storm for me. I knew it was certainly going to be bad, maybe even historic, but it was not what I had in my head as “that” storm or “the” storm. It was hard to grasp the magnitude of what was happening and the disaster that was unfolding over such a widespread area…even today, it is still hard to try and quantify the numbers of homes damaged, the volume of rain dropped, and the endless meteorological and hydrological records that will stand for many generations to come. How do you describe or explain what 3 or 4 feet or rain looks like without any previous historical context to compare against? Most of us had never experienced such quantities of rainfall prior to Harvey…we all knew there would be flooding…maybe it would be like “Tax Day” or even “TS Allison.” I don’t think any of us fully could understand how widespread and far reaching the impacts would be, affecting every county and every watershed from the Sabine River to the Guadalupe River, and also the devastation of the impact of a category 4 hurricane on the middle TX coast.
Early on the morning of Sunday, August 27, 2017 (12:08 am to be exact) was the moment I realized that Harvey would be historic for Harris County as water levels in certain creeks and bayous were either near or exceeding our previous benchmark flood of Tropical Storm Allison. I could barely believe we were hitting Allison water levels and we were expecting another 10-15 inches of rainfall before sunrise. The onslaught of 911, phone bank, and rescue calls between 1:00 am and 5:00 am that morning confirmed what the data was showing. Thousands of homes were flooding…some to very deep levels…even life threatening levels (per calls into 911 and phone bank operators). Residents were pleading to be rescued with water to their neck or chin…many climbing into their attics to escape the rising water. I thought for the first time ever people were going to drown in their homes. The gravity of the seriousness of the situation could be seen in the faces of those of us working in the Emergency Operations Center…blank stares of stress and apprehension and incredible focus on the tasks at hand. Agencies asked when would it stop so they could rotate, move, and dispatch additional resources, some of which that had become trapped at locations. My answer was the same - it won’t and we could easily double what had already fallen - which at that point was 10-12 inches.
Through coordination with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, we crafted the messaging asking residents with life threatening flooding in their homes to get on their roofs instead of going into their attics. We knew from Katrina that if the water kept rising, those in their attics would be trapped in a potentially fatal situation. I sent this message out via NWS Chat to all TV media stations about 600 am Sunday morning and it was followed quickly by a Civil Emergency Message from the National Weather Service at 610 am. I knew I was asking people to go out in the pouring rain amid the numerous tornado warnings and await rescue on their roof…but that was the situation we faced early that Sunday morning. By mid-Sunday morning, surface travel across the county and region was nearly impossible, and every major freeway artery in and out of Harris County was flooded, greatly hampering the ability to move resources that had been pre-positioned just outside the area into the county. With government resources fully committed, Judge Emmett made the decision to ask for residents to help in the rescue efforts.
There is a spirit of this region that is hard to describe to those that do not reside here. When Don Nelson retired from Channel 13, he was asked in all his years of working what would he remembered most. His response was “the giving spirit of this community”. When the message went out for residents to bring their boats to assist in the rescue operation, the response was overwhelming. At that moment in time we all knew the primary task was to save lives and many people left the safety of their own homes to go out and rescue people that had never met and will likely never meet again. I don’t think anyone really needed to be asked, we just do what needs to be done here…it is our mentality. If people need help we are going to help…it is just what we do. You saw an equal response in the immediate aftermath of the storm with teams helping “muck” out homes that had been flooded, people staffing shelters and providing supplies, and the massive amount of funds raised to help those who had been impacted.
I suppose there is some sort of balance between fatigue, exhaustion, and adrenaline. Adrenaline will drive you without sleep much longer than anyone believes they can actually function without sleep. I was tired before Harvey ever made landfall on the Texas coast from days of forecasting, conference calls, meetings, and preparation for the eventual impacts. As a meteorologist you don’t actually sleep much leading up such events…it is more of not being able to turn if off when you close your eyes and going over all the different possibilities that may play out. You wonder if your forecast will verify, if you have been too aggressive or not enough, if people are listening to what you are saying and do they realize the threat and what could happen, and do you even fully realize it.
Thursday night (August 24) I got home from the Emergency Operations Center about 945 pm and I knew this would be my last night to sleep at home. I had to be back Friday morning (August 25) at 445 am for the 500 am media interviews. My wife asked what she and the kids should do leave or stay. I knew we were not going to have hurricane conditions at our location, and I really did not think we would flood even though we live in the northern end spillway area of Addicks Reservoir. I thought it was best they left and they went to stay at my parent’s vacation place in Smithville, TX with the plan if things were ok on Sunday they could come back home. I could not sleep at all Thursday night…it was more the knowing of the potential of the rapid intensification parameters in place as Harvey neared the coast that kept me awake. Finally at 300 am Friday morning I had enough and got up, packed my “go bag” with enough items to get me through the weekend and put on the “blue” HCFCD shirt. I would not return home for 8 days and not sleep again until Sunday afternoon. I stayed up all Friday night during the landfall of Harvey, took a bit of a break midday Saturday, but could never sleep, and then of course things went very bad very fast on Saturday evening.
At 834 pm on August the 26th I got a text message from the meteorologists in charge of the Houston/Galveston NWS, Jeff Evans, saying “I think the show has started…just have a bad feeling about tonight”. The weather forecast model the HRRR had been forecasting a feeder band of rainfall across Harris County all day, with rainfall totals of 10-20 inches expected that Saturday night into Sunday morning. By 830 pm Saturday evening, the actual radar reflectivity was matching what the HRRR had been forecasting nearly perfectly. I remember doing a long 15-20 minute interview with David Paul and Brooks Garner (channel 11) about 10:30 pm Saturday evening as intense rainfall rates overwhelmed the southern portions of the city. I was really worried about Brays and the potential flooding in Meyerland at that moment and kept expressing it during that time as well as the fact that no one should be traveling anywhere…”Stay where you are at”. Fatigue Saturday night into much of Sunday morning was masked by sheer adrenaline. Sunday morning at 300 am was 48 straight hours without sleep for me. Eventually adrenaline will subside and exhaustion will set in…about 300 pm Sunday afternoon I was at that point after 60 hours. I knew I could not go much more on coffee and Diet Coke as I was starting to slur words. We had made it through the difficult morning hours and the rainfall banding had slightly subsided although more bands were developing to our west. I walked into the office of Bill Wheeler, Deputy EMC for Harris County, took off my shoes and laid down on his futon with the lights and TV’s on, Bill talking on the phone, and any number of people walking in and out of the office. I slept for about 2 hours, occasionally being awakened by a conversation or a phone ringing. It is amazing what only an hour or two of sleep can do. About 500 pm I returned to my seat in the EOC. If the previous night was bad, Sunday night into Monday morning would be equally rough as another foot of rain fell and concerns increased over both the Inverness Forest and Northgate Levees in northern Harris County, the rapidly increasing potential for flooding of homes in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and expected major and potentially historic flooding across the San Jacinto River basin. I sept early Monday morning for about 1.5 hours in a chair in the back of the Emergency Operations Center before I was awakened by a pain in my neck from the weird way I sitting in the chair.
Fatigue and exhaustion was not unique to me during the event. Every single person working Harvey in the Emergency Operations Center and other county emergency operations, the Flood Control District, the National Weather Service, The West Gulf River Forecast Center, The San Jacinto River Authority, the USGS, TXDOT, law enforcement, fire personnel, TV anchors/reporters and TV meteorologists all pushed ourselves as far as we could absolutely go. We gave every ounce we had and in my opinion we did the absolute best we could do given the storm we were dealt. I cannot say enough for the staff at the National Hurricane Center, local National Weather Service Office, and West Gulf River Forecast Center for their dedication and teamwork through those days as well as those at the Harris County Emergency Operation Center and the Harris County Flood Control District…there is not a finer group of individuals to work with. You can never go through an event like Harvey on your own, critical partnerships forged over the years and dependable unwavering staff under immense pressure allowed this region to deal with unprecedented challenges. For many of us, it goes deeper than “it is my job”, but an unspoken commitment of dependability that we have to each other to offer help and information so critical decisions can be determined. The professionalism displayed across vast amounts of staff and numerous agencies responding to the crisis demonstrated that commitment, even as in some cases their own homes were flooding and their own families were being rescued. The commitment given by so many working the event is that same commitment given by this region both during and after the storm to help each other find our way through one of the most challenging moments of our lives. For that week each one of us whether if it was our job or not operated under one common goal…to help…and in our darkest hours the unspoken spirit of this community would not be broken and we would all rise to overcome the daunting challenges we faced.
As confidence grew the flood pools of Addicks and Barker Reservoirs would be engaged, we devised a plan to hold an early evening news conference on Sunday to explain the complex situation. We had large 32x40 inch maps of each reservoir plotted, but could not find any board to post them on nor any stands to hold them during the news conference. I went downstairs and ask the various media reporters in the lobby what they thought would be the best way to show these maps and could they get in close enough to show some of the details. We tried hanging them on the wall, but that didn’t work and in the end settled on having four people have to hold them. I thought to myself this is not going to look very professional, but I need to get this information out and in the end that is the most important aspect. It was the middle of the evening on Sunday when that news conference was held and it went on for 20-30 minutes…there were lots of questions about the reservoirs, the flood pools, where the water was coming from, where water was going, etc. The next morning…Monday morning…would begin the joint news conferences with Dr. Russo with the Corps of Engineers that would continue for the next five days, three times a day. One of the most difficult aspects of the following days was the balance between providing information on Addicks and Barker and the need to provide information to the other 22 watersheds across the entire county. There was a lot of attention on the reservoirs, and rightly so, but there was also flooding in nearly every other part of the county and region and those messages had to be conveyed also.
One of the hardest decisions that I had to help execute during the event was to announce the evacuation of a portion of the Inverness Forest subdivision along Cypress Creek near FM 1960 and the Hardy Toll Rd. Staff at HCFCD had been monitoring the rise in Cypress Creek at I-45 and the forecast from the West Gulf River Forecast Center and there was growing concern that the levee would be overtopped. While HCFCD staff worked on the wording of the evacuation statement and the outline of the streets that would be included, I worked the logistics with the planning section in the Emergency Operations center to facilitate the evacuation (law enforcement needs and shelter locations). The initial plans had to be modified due to the lack of mobility of both law enforcement and Spring ISD staff to reach the needed locations. Alternative plans had to be devised and implemented, but this took time and it was now well after dark on Sunday evening. I knew we had to go forward with the evacuation because if the levee overtopped during the night the water would rise rapidly to life threatening levels, but at the same time I was going to ask people who were completely fine in their homes at the moment to get in their cars and drive through flooded streets in the dark to a shelter which is the exact opposite of what we normally ask people to do…which is to stay where they are at. As I read the prepared statement crafted by HCFCD late Sunday evening I was fully aware of what I was asking those residents to do and I wondered as I rode the elevated back to the 3rd floor from the lobby if I had just sent someone to their death in a vehicle on a flooded road.
I completed at least 300 media interviews over the course of the Harvey, at least the ones that were documented. In the chaos of everything, documenting things goes way down the list of things that need to be done. I made myself available as much as I possibly could to as many outlets, with a priority on the local stations and The Weather Channel since that is where most people turn during major weather events. I remember two interviews very well: One was the Friday before Harvey made landfall (I think it was in the evening) with channel 13. I had just put the IFB (the little hearing device that goes in your ear so you can hear the anchors questions) in my ear when I heard a question asked. I paused for a moment and then asked “Are we live?” to which the answer was ‘yes, we are on live Jeff”… I said Ok and then answered the question, thinking in the back of my head the entire interview how much of an idiot I must of looked like. The second interview was with The Weather Channel on Sunday morning around 700 am. I started the interview with the statement: “I have some really important information to get out” The anchors just let me talk for 5-6 minutes without a single question or interruption. Usually The Weather Channel interviews are very short with tight timelines (1-2 minutes) and a producer counting down the time on the phone while you are talking. That morning they just let me have all the time I needed.
Most major storms have a “face” that goes with it…a person that carries the region through the event. In 1992, it was Bryan Norcross, a local meteorologist, with a TV station in Miami when Hurricane Andrew moved across south Florida and in 1999 it was Gary England with a TV station in Oklahoma City that talked Moore and Bridge City through a catastrophic EF 5 tornado . I don’t think anyone ever thinks they will be that person one day…I never thought that, but Harvey became that storm for me...more the “blue” shirt maybe than the face. To this date I have not watched a single interview I did during Harvey and I did not see much of the news coverage during the storm. You have to stay focused on the information that needs to get out “as timely and accurate as possible” so people can make the decisions they need to make. I have always approached interviews from the standpoint of what would I want to know if I were watching from home: what is going to happen, when is it going to happen, and what do you want me to do…those are the three basic questions I would want to know and I think anybody would want to know. The more I was able to get information out and answer the questions that so many people had, the better the decisions that could be made. In the end it all boils down to…I just did my job. I had information and provided it in a way that people could understand…if I didn’t know I said I didn’t know. I never had a script unless it was an official evacuation notice…I would write important notes, facts, information on a notepad, but most everything else was in my head. I spoke with facts and would never speculate on topics and tried as much as possible to stay away from words like possible or maybe instead using likely or unlikely which commits more in one direction or the other. I knew people’s lives were being devastated and information can be of great help to ease fears during such times. I don’t know what it was or why I became the “face” of Harvey, and I really did not know how big an impact I was having until about Wednesday or Thursday when the volume of messages of support were simply overwhelming on social media, texts, and e-mail. I still to this day have a hard time comprehending that people I don’t know would raise $26,000.00 to send me on a vacation. That money was instead used to help 26 different families recover from the damages of Harvey. Each one of those 26 people I would visit would have a story from the storm, what they did when the water was rising, describing what it was like to come back to their destroyed house, and how they planned to move forward. Some were simply in complete shock and disbelief, unable to comprehend how they would ever recover. I remember each one of the 26 people I visited, but one has stuck with me to this day. It was one house in Kingwood that had flooded with about 6 feet of water and had never flooded before. I remember walking up to the door and noticing neatly stacked novels on the front porch that had been clearly flooded and beyond repair. After talking with the individual for a few minutes I asked about the stacks of books…probably about 150. She paused for a moment clearly upset and said those novels I have collected all my life and each one is autographed by the author and I just cannot bring myself to throw them away. It is the horrible realization of the loss of what can never be replaced that in many cases was so tragic.
Of the 8 straight days I worked Harvey from the Emergency Operations Center, it was not until Friday, September 1, that I would fully realize just how widespread and devastating the event truly was. That moment came while having a conversation with a FEMA representative that had arrived from Washington. I remember asking him how he thought Harvey would compare to Katrina. His reply was “I think this is about as bad as Katrina”. He went on to elaborate, how for the last five days the nation had watched the disaster of Harvey unfold, nearly the same as I remember watching the devastation of Katrina each evening. When working from that Saturday night-Wednesday, I knew Harvey was really bad, historic, but never did I ever think we were at the level or even near the level of Katrina.
I would return home on Saturday, September 2nd, the same amount of time my wife and kids were gone since we had lost power at some point during the flooding. One aspect that many times gets lost in such situations is that of our spouses and family members must bear the brunt of all tasks of life while we work, many times without much communication and not always knowing what is happening. My wife did an amazing job of keeping everything going and helping to answer some of the many questions of family and friends that I could not. Two other individuals I have to mention were Jeremy Justice and Sandra Ortiz who sat on either side of me in the Emergency Operations Center. Sandra coordinating the hundreds of media interviews so I was never double booked and helping manage the HCFCD social media accounts and press releases and Jeremy who did everything I could not from answering questions and sending out critical information to partners to attending numerous conference calls and coordinating with various HCFCD staff. The 20 or so HCFCD staff that worked Harvey from both the Emergency Operations Center and HCFCD never waiver in their dedication to provide useful and accurate information. It was a true team effort.
Harvey impacted each of us in some fashion unlike any other storm that has struck the TX coast since the “1900 Galveston Hurricane”. The scars of have now been embedded within our history, and for many of us, our own lives defined by “before” and “after” Harvey as previous generations before us have compared to Carla and Alicia. No other hurricane disaster in modern times, really since the 1900 Galveston hurricane, has resulted in such widespread resolve to do something to help reduce the risk of flood and hurricane damages. Harvey changed us, like no other storm in our lifetime, and I am not sure we fully understand yet how much we have changed and what the final legacy of Harvey will be. From the coastal towns of Rockport and Port Aransas to the metropolitan cities of Houston and Beaumont, Harvey is forever a moment in our history representing both the worst of unthinkable devastation and at the same time the greatness of humanity and community and our undeniable resilience.
Director Hydrologic Operations Division/Meteorologist
Harris County Flood Control District
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