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'This Storm Has It All'

As the heavily developed Houston area braces for Hurricane Harvey, an urban flooding expert sees a catastrophe in the making.
A home is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas September 13, 2008.
A home is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas September 13, 2008.David J. Phillip/Reuters

Hurricane Harvey is about to slam into Texas this weekend as a Category 4 storm, the first of this magnitude to make landfall in the U.S. in 12 years. Some forecasts are calling for a staggering 40 or more inches of rain, with storm surges cresting between six and 12 feet. In anticipation of the deluge, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared a preemptive state of emergency and issued orders of evacuation spanning 30 counties. As the storm churns toward land, its precise path—and the destruction its 120-mph winds will leave behind—is somewhat uncertain. But by nearly all accounts, the situation is going to be dire.

The degree to which storms become “disasters” is determined, at least in part, by factors beyond wind speeds or rainfall numbers, as Laura Bliss pointed out in 2016. One major contributor is “how many people and buildings are in the wrong place at the wrong time.” On this front, the situation in Houston could hardly be worse.