(HOUSTON) — With time running out, tens of thousands of people fled Friday from the path of an increasingly menacing-looking Hurricane Harvey as it took aim at a wide swath of the Texas Gulf Coast that includes oil refineries, chemical plants and dangerously flood-prone Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned that the monster system would be “a very major disaster,” and the menacing forecasts drew fearful comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest ever to strike the U.S.
“We know that we’ve got millions of people who are going to feel the impact of this storm,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman and meteorologist for the National Hurricane Center. “We really pray that people are listening to their emergency managers and get out of harm’s way.”
The outer bands of the storm arrived Friday, with rain pelting the coast, water levels rising and winds accelerating to tropical storm force.
Aside from the wind and storm surges, the system was expected to drop prodigious amounts of rain — up to 3 feet. The resulting flooding, one expert said, could be “the depths of which we’ve never seen.”
Galveston-based storm surge expert Hal Needham of the private firm Marine Weather and Climate said forecasts indicated that it was “becoming more and more likely that something really bad is going to happen.”
At least one researcher predicted heavy damage that would linger for months or longer.
“In terms of economic impact, Harvey will probably be on par with Hurricane Katrina,” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. “The Houston area and Corpus Christi are going to be a mess for a long time.”
In the final hours before the storm came ashore, home and business owners nailed plywood over windows and filled sandbags. Steady traffic filled the highways leaving Corpus Christi, but there were no apparent jams.
At a convenience store in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, at least 12 cars lined up for fuel. Brent Borgstedte said this was the fourth gas station he had visited to try to fill up his son’s car. The 55-year-old insurance agent shrugged off Harvey’s risks.
“I don’t think anybody is really that worried about it. I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I’ve been through several hurricanes.”
Scientists warned that Harvey could become powerful enough to swamp counties more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) inland and stir up dangerous surf as far away as Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, 700 miles from the projected landfall.
It may also spawn tornadoes. Even after weakening, the system could spin out into the Gulf and regain strength before hitting Houston a second time Wednesday as a tropical storm, forecasters said.
By afternoon, the storm was about 115 miles (185 kilometers) southeast of Corpus Christi, moving 10 mph (17 kph) to the northwest.
All seven Texas counties on the coast from Corpus Christi to the western end of Galveston Island ordered mandatory evacuations from low-lying areas. Four counties ordered full evacuations and warned there was no guarantee of rescue for people staying behind.
Voluntary evacuations have been urged for Corpus Christi and for the Bolivar Peninsula, a sand spit near Galveston where many homes were washed away by the storm surge of Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Abbott has expressed concern that not as many people are evacuating compared with previous storms.
People in the town of Port Lavaca, population 12,200, appeared to heed the danger. It was a ghost town Friday, with every business boarded up. But at a bayside RV park that looked vulnerable, John Bellah drove up in his pickup to have a look at an RV he had been told was for sale. He and his wife planned to ride out Harvey.
“This is just going to blow through,” said Bellah, 72, who said he had been through Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Carla in 1961. He described those storms as “much worse.”
The storm posed the first major emergency management test of President Donald Trump’s administration.
The White House said Trump was closely monitoring the hurricane and planned to travel to Texas early next week to view recovery efforts. The president was expected to receive briefings during the weekend at Camp David.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said the administration was “bringing together the firepower of the federal government to assist the state and local governments, but the state and local governments are in the lead here.”
Fueled by warm Gulf of Mexico waters, Harvey became a Category 3 storm Friday afternoon, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (193.11 kph), the hurricane center said.
The last storm to reach Category 3 hit the U.S. was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005 in Florida. Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled New York and New Jersey in 2012, never had the high winds and had lost tropical status by the time it struck. But it was devastating without formally being called a major hurricane.
Harvey was expected to continue gathering strength before coming ashore late Friday or early Saturday, possibly as the fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in nearly a dozen years. The hurricane center said it had potential for winds up to 125 mph (201 kph) and storm surges of 12 feet (4 meters).
Landfall was predicted near Rockport, a fishing-and-tourist town about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi.
The heavy rain could turn many communities into “essentially islands” and leave them isolated for days, said Melissa Munguia, deputy emergency management coordinator for Nueces County.
The rain and the storm surge could collide like a car and a train, particularly in the Galveston and Houston areas, Needham said.
“There’s absolutely nowhere for the water to go,” he said. Galveston Bay, where normal rain runs off to, will already be elevated.
The heavy rain was expected to extend into Louisiana, driven by counter-clockwise winds that could carry water from the Gulf of Mexico far inland. Forecasts called for as much as 15 inches in southwest Louisiana over the next week, and up to 6 inches in the New Orleans area.
The Texas governor activated about 700 members of the state National Guard ahead of Harvey’s landfall.
Harvey would be the first significant hurricane to hit Texas since Ike in September 2008 brought winds of 110 mph (177 kph) to the Galveston and Houston areas, inflicting $22 billion in damage. It would be the first big storm along the middle Texas coast since Hurricane Claudette in 2003 caused $180 million in damage.
It’s taking aim at the same vicinity as Carla, the largest Texas hurricane on record. Carla came ashore in 1961 with wind gusts estimated at 175 mph and inflicted more than $300 million in damage. The storm killed 34 people and forced about 250,000 people to evacuate.