As Tropical Storm Harvey continued to drench much of Texas today—drowning Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, in more than two feet of water in a matter of hours—the National Weather Service seemed to throw up its hands in wonder.
“This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced. Follow orders from officials to ensure safety. #Harvey,” it tweeted at 12:44 p.m. Eastern time.
The bluntness of the comment, even by the hammer-force standards of Twitter, was striking, apart from the message itself.
The powerful storm that had slammed the Texas coastline as a Category 4 hurricane Friday night, with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour, was now a broken fire hydrant, flooding streets in a raging current and drowning the foundations of buildings for miles on end. Emergency personnel traveled once-concrete byways in motorboats and dinghies, conducting over a thousand rescues overnight in Houston alone. It was unclear, as of Sunday afternoon, how many deaths could be traced to the storm—with some putting the number at five. But officials were “unable to confirm the number of fatalities because cars are fully submerged and they're unable to reach them,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
The devastation will get worse. Harvey’s destructiveness is no longer a function of its roof-ripping winds, but rather its intransigence. It refuses to budge. The National Hurricane Center in Miami now says the cyclone will remain in its current vicinity, spinning in place, through 7 a.m. Eastern Wednesday. It is hard to conceive of how much rain it will dump on poor Houston. As Mike Brennan, one of the NHC’s senior hurricane specialists told NPR on Saturday: “We could see isolated areas with rainfall amounts as much as 40 inches, and that's going to cause life-threatening flooding over the next several days. We're really looking at a multiday rainfall disaster unfolding.”
Which brings us back to that remarkable National Weather Service tweet: “Beyond anything experienced,” it said.
Yet there is something about this summer blockbuster that feels like a sequel. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, led to nearly 300 deaths and “unprecedented” damage, too—$71.4 billion worth of destruction, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division. Four years before that was Ike, which caused nearly 200 deaths and almost $30 billion in damage. And before that was 2005’s Katrina, who stole 117 lives and cost $108 billion before it was through.
In between these catastrophic events the earth showed off its extreme atmospherics from the equator to the south pole—brandishing Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 (which killed 6,000 in the Philippines); causing “unprecedented” back-to-back hurricanes off the coast of Hawaii last summer; and launching unheard-of storms in Australia, the UK, and the southern tip of the world.
The one thing that does seem clear is that we can expect the weather to keep redefining the word “extreme,” to keep humbling us with its lethal power. We can and should keep hoping that the toll from these disasters is low. But in an age of “unprecedented” climate change, we cannot keep being surprised.