Hurricane Harvey Facts, Damage and Costs

What Made Harvey So Devastating

Hurricane Harvey rescue
Joe Dodson, a Korean era Marine veteran, gets a lift on an air boat out of his flooded neighborhood after it was inundated with rain water, remnants of Hurricane Harvey, on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photo: Scott Olson/ Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm that hit Texas on August 25, 2017. It caused $180 billion in damage. That’s more than any other natural disaster in U.S history, except the largest estimates of Hurricane Katrina damage. Texas Governor Greg Abbott will need more than $125 billion in federal relief. It affected 13 million people from Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky.

As of September 9, 2017, 70 people have died. (Source: "Hurricane Harvey Death Toll Hits 70," NBC News Dallas Ft. Worth, September 9, 2017.)

Harvey made landfall three separate times in six days. At its peak on September 1, 2017, one-third of Houston was underwater. Two feet of rain fell in the first 24 hours. Flooding forced 39,000 people out of their homes and into shelters. Dallas created a mega-shelter for 5,000 evacuees out of its main convention center.  (Source: "Texas Faces Environmental Concerns as Wastewater, Drinking Water Systems Compromised," The Washington Post, September 3, 2017. "Dallas Preps Mega-Shelter as Texas Braces for More Rain," CNN, August 29, 2017  "Hurricane Harvey: Storm Roars Ashore Near Corpus Christi, Texas," The New York Times, August 26, 2017.)

Harvey is expected to have a considerable economic impact. The Houston metro area is the nation’s fourth-largest city with 6.6 million residents.

if it were a country, it would be the world’s 23rd largest economy, larger than Poland and Sweden. It will probably affect U.S. gross domestic product in the third quarter just like Hurricane Katrina did. It will also affect September's employment report.  (Source: “The Daily Shot,” September 1, 2017.) 

Timeline

On August 25, 2017, Harvey hit Port Aransas and Port O'Connor near Corpus Christi with 130 m.p.h. winds. The category 4 hurricane left 250,000 people without power. 

On August 26, Harvey moved on to Houston. It remained there for four days. Two reservoirs overflowed. The highways became waterways. Between 25 and 30 percent of Houston's Harris County was flooded. That is an area as large as New York City and Chicago combined. It was home to 4.5 million people.

Total rainfall hit 51.88 inches in Cedar Bayou on the outskirts of Houston. That’s a record for a single storm in the continental United States. "Harvey Broke a National Record Rainfall for a Single Tropical Storm," Vox, August 30, 2017

On August 29, Harvey made landfall for a third time as it hit the coastal cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont Texas on the border of Louisiana. It dumped 26 inches of rain in 24 hours. It flooded Port Arthur, a city of 55,000 people. Water entered one-third of the city's building, including the shelter. Beaumont has been without drinking water since the storm. (Source: “Harvey Aftermath: Death Toll Rises, So Do the Floodwaters,” CNN, August 32, 2017. "Harvey Crashes into Texas," Washington Post, August 30, 2017.)

On August 31, an Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, ignited. The chemicals required refrigeration to stay inert. When the storm disabled the cooling equipment, temperatures rose and the chemicals ignited. (Source: "Texas Explosions Show Chemical Industry Pushed to Its Limits," Bloomberg, August 31, 2017.)

On September 1, Harvey dropped 10 inches of rain on Nashville, Tennessee. (Source: “Harvey Floods Tennessee, Kentucky as Hurricane Irma Spins up the Atlantic,” USA Today, September 1, 2017.)

The Facts on Hurricane Harvey's Damage

As of September 5, 2017, Hurricane Harvey damaged 203,000 homes, of which 12,700 were destroyed. There were 507,000 people who registered for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency delivered 80 tractor-trailer loads of emergency supplies.

These included cots, blankets and meals.

There were 37,000 people in shelters in Texas and 2,000 in Louisiana. Almost 7,000 people were in the George R. Brown Convention Center, where 1,700 received medical treatment.  FEMA moved 14,900 in temporary housing. As of the first day of September, 8,000 families had moved into 9,000 hotels rooms. (Source: “Harvey Floods Tennessee, Kentucky as Hurricane Irma Spins up the Atlantic,” USA Today, September 1, 2017.)

Federal forces rescued 10,000 people who were trapped in their homes or on flooded highways. A flotilla of private boats rescued an unknown number of additional victims. The Houston Police Department's Dive Team rescued 3,000 people in four days. Houston police officer Austin Huckabee said he and four other officers saved 40 people in the first 24 hours. (Source: "Hurricane Harvey Death Toll Hits 70," NBC News Dallas Ft. Worth, September 9, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Wreaks Historic Devastation: By the Numbers,” ABC News, August 31, 2017.)

Houston’s school district said 75 of its 275 schools were closed due to flood damage. The district is the nation’s seventh largest. (Source: “Houston Quickens Pace of Harvey Recovery as New Storm Threatens United States,” Reuters,

The highest storm surge was 12.5 feet in Aransas County. It did not create a lot of damage to humans or property because it occurred in a wildlife refuge. (Source: "Hurricane Harvey Death Toll Hits 70," NBC News Dallas Ft. Worth, September 9, 2017.)

In the Gulf area, 1 million vehicles were ruined beyond repair, according to auto data firm Black Book. That includes 300,000 to 500,000 vehicles owned by individuals. (Source: “Harvey May Have Wrecked 1 Million Cars and Trucks," USA Today, August 31, 2017.

Harvey flooded 800 wastewater treatment facilities and 13 Superfund sites. That spread sewage and toxic chemicals into the flooded areas.  (Source: "Texas Faces Environmental Concerns as Wastewater, Drinking Water Systems Compromised," The Washington Post, September 3, 2017.)

Harvey's impact spread across the country as gas prices rise. Harvey forced 25 percent of oil and gas production to shut down in the region. That affects 5 percent of nationwide output. U.S. average gas prices rose from $2.35 a gallon before Harvey hit to $2.49 a gallon on August 31, 2017.

Even the Northeast will feel it, since pipelines deliver some of its gas from the Gulf. To maintain supply, the Department of Energy released 500,000 barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. By September 5, gas prices had returned to pre-Harvey levels. (Source: “Gasoline Prices Jump in Harvey's Wake," The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2017.)

Rainfall

Much of Harvey's damage came from massive rainfall. It created a 1-in-1,000-year flood event. That means nothing of that size has happened within modern recorded history. Flooding covered southeast Texas the size of the state of New Jersey. Thirty inches of rain fell on a area near the coast the size of the state of Maryland. (Source: "Harvey Is a 1,000-year Flood Unprecedented in Scale," The Washington Post, August 31, 2017.) 

Houston lies in Harris County. Its Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner reported that a foot and a half of water covered 70 percent of the 1,800-square-mile county. The shear weight of the water depressed the Earth's crust. Houston sank 2 centimeters as a result. It will rebound once the waters recede. (Source: "Geophysicist: Weight of Harvey Rains Caused Houston to Sink," NBC News Dallas Ft. Worth, September 9, 2017. "As Houston Begins Cleanup, Residents Face Up to Losses," The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2017.)

In comparison Hurricane Katrina dropped just 5 to 10 inches of rain in 48 hours. Most of its flooding came from storm surges that overwhelmed the levee system. (Source: "How Does Harvey Compare With Hurricane Katrina? Here’s What We Know," The New York Times, August 28, 2017.)

Federal Aid Package

On September 8, 2017, President Trump signed a bill approving $15.25 billion in storm aid. It includes an increase in the debt ceiling and an extension of government spending to December 8, 2017. Without a debt ceiling increase, the U.S. Treasury does not have enough to disburse the funds to FEMA. (Source: "Trump Signs Debt Limit Suspension Tied to $15 Billion Storm Aid," Bloomberg, September 8, 2017.)

Three Ways Global Warming Made Harvey Worse

Climatologists agree that global warming contributed to Harvey’s impact in three ways. First, the Gulf region air temperatures are 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the past. That allows the air to hold more moisture.

Rising sea levels make flooding more likely near Gulf Coast cities. The sea levels around Houston are six inches higher than 20 years ago. That's because warmer temperatures have melted the ice caps in Antarctica. They are shrinking at 1.6 meters per year, compared to 3.8 centimeters annually before 1992. (Source: “Earth Flirts with a 1.5-Degree Celsius Global Warming Threshold,” Scientific American, April 20, 2016.)

Third, global warming stalled weather patterns in the region. That allowed Harvey to hover over Houston instead of moving back out into the ocean. The convergence of all three effects allowed Harvey to drop feet of rain instead of inches. (Source: "How Global Warming Likely Made Harvey Much Worse, Explained by a Climatologist," Vox, August 28, 2017.)

How Does Harvey's Damage Compare to Other Natural Disasters?

Harvey's extensive damage was unusual. Typically, the most damaging hurricanes hit the densely populated East Coast. But Harvey remained over a major metropolitan area for a longer time than most hurricanes. 

A few weeks after Harvey, Hurricane Irma began heading toward Miami, Florida. It is a Category 5 storm that's the largest Atlantic storm ever. Its 185 mph winds lasted for 37 hours, a new record. That's because it's being fed by 86 degree water. If Irma hits Miami, the damage could reach $300 billion, according to insurance firm Swiss Re. (Source: "Hurricane Andrew: The 20 Miles That Saved Miami," Swiss Re Insurance Company, 2017.)

Here are the 10 most destructive storms to hit the United States. Notice that nine of them have occurred since 2000. That's further proof of the impact of climate change.

RankNameStatesYearCategoryDamage in Billions
1

Katrina

FL, LA, MS

2005

3

$108 - $250

2HarveyTX, LA20174$50 - $100 (est.)
3

Sandy

NY, NJ, MA 

2012

1

$50

4

Ike

TX, LA

2008

2

$29.5

5

Andrew

FL, LA

1992

5

$26.5

6

Wilma

FL

2005

3

$21

7

Irene

NY, MA

2011

2

$15.8

8

Ivan

AL, FL

2004

3

$18.8

9

Charley

FL

2004

3

$15.1

10

Rita

LA, TX

2005

3

$15.1

(Source: "The Deadliest, Costliest U.S. Tropical Cyclones," Table 3a. Not adjusted for inflation. NOAA Technical Memorandum, August 2011.)