As Texans begin to rebuild, a process estimated by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to cost up to 180 billion dollars, the most pressing consequence may not be the environmental impact on the state but the financial one. And that may be a lesson for people in Georgia and the Athens area. Just ask Sarah Dillingham, Storm Specialist and Expert Weather Producer at the Weather Channel.
“A big thing is going to be whether or not individual homeowners have flood insurance, because flood insurance is a policy that has to be purchased separately outside of your homeowners insurance. So there are a lot of concerns that the number of flood insurance policies has gone down in the Houston area.”
One estimate Dillingham had heard put only one fourth of Houston residents with flood insurance. “That’s going to be a huge financial burden on not only those individual families but the state of Texas.”
Harvey has set records in Houston and Beaumont for river flooding, not only causing not only causing damage to the cities’ infrastructure but also creating health concerns for victims exposed to contaminated flood waters.
Despite minimal environmental impacts from Hurricane Harvey on the southeastern United States, the region may not be out of the woods as Hurricane Irma is expected to strengthen before making landfall in Florida later this week.
The issue of accurately predicting the intensity of storms like Harvey and Irma is a time sensitive one.
“We don’t get those high resolution [weather] samples of the storm until they get closer to land. If we were able to observe these storms more, internally, the structure of the storms when they’re out to sea, the better the intensity forecast can get over time,”said Hurricane models are dependent on real time observations that are hard to predict more than five days in advance as a storm develops at sea. That means that the accuracy of such predictions only improves when the storm approaches locations that organizations like the Weather Channel can send aircrafts to monitor.
“They (intensity forecasts) have gotten better in a lot of ways, but there’s still some things that we’re going to have to correct, at least observationally before we can really get intensity forecasting to make huge jumps in forecasting.”
Southerners will have to keep checking for updated information as the storm strengthens and makes landfall. As contaminated flood waters begin to drain from the streets of Houston, Texas, the immediate impacts of Harvey are on display.
“Even though the rain has stopped, which is good news, they have a very long road ahead of them,” said Dillingham.
Texas also faces long term impacts from the storm that may cause problems for residents as the filter back into the state to find their new normal.
The proximity of Southeast Texas to the Gulf of Mexico already creates a high average humidity.
“As those flood waters start evaporating, that moisture is going to be put into the atmosphere,” said Dillingham, “And that can actually help the atmosphere to become even more humid than it would otherwise be, which makes it that much more uncomfortable for residents as they’re trying to recover.”
Dillingham predicts that in addition to flood damage, the heat and humidity will be conducive for the growth of mold. “Even if someone’s home wasn’t completely destroyed by the flood, they are probably going to have issues with mold, which [presents] additional health hazards depending on the type of mold it is,” she said.
The immediate impacts of Hurricane Harvey were slim on the Southeast United States, Memphis experienced flash flooding, while Mississippi and parts of Alabama faced severe weather and tornadoes.
Over the last 40 years, Athens removed some of the pipes, plugged a dam, and placed restrictions on the floodplain areas.
Through zoning and fema and flood insurance, Athens has been very proactive in getting things done and enforcing it using the FEMA maps.
Michael Moody, long-time paddler on the Oconee River, explained how the city removed the pipes, plugged the Tallassee road dam, and placed restrictions on floodplain areas over the last forty years.
When asked about the potential flooding from Hurricane Irma, Moody expressed that Athens is probably way better off than Houston even though there are some areas in danger of flooding.
“Most of the development I’ve seen has been above the one-hundred year flood plain so Athens will be okay with a normal high water situation,” said Moody.
However, if the storm system stalls, then there are areas in Athens at risk of flooding.
“There is some bad development that got pushed through before they did zoning by North Avenue and Oconee Street. There are some apartments on the Oconee River at risk,” said Moody.
Dillingham said the immediate threats to the state of Georgia were slim. “[Georgians] are going to be some of the people impacted, at least on the lower end of the scale. We’ve had some showers and thunderstorms come through the state.”
While the southeast faced few immediate environmental threats from Harvey, the region could suffer economically in the form of rising gas prices. The American Automobile Association tracks gas prices by time and state and it shows the steadily rising price of gasoline. Dillingham’s remarks were of a similar tone.
“One of our biggest impacts might be gas prices in the coming weeks, because some of the refineries in Houston were impacted, and whatever impacts some of the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico had.”
According to the American Automobile Association average gas prices in Georgia were most expensive in Atlanta, Savannah and Athens as of Aug. 28. AAA data on Sept. 4 has Athens listed at $2.68 only behind Atlanta at $2.77 for the highest average metro prices. A spokesperson for AAA said until it is known when refineries can again be operational, prices will still increase.