7 September 2017

Reflections On the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, Hurricane Harvey, and the Increase in Extreme Weather Events

Posted by Joshua Speiser

By Ramesh P. Singh, Ph.D., AGU Natural Hazards Focus Group President, and Chapman University Professor of Earth System and Remote Sensing

On 8 September 1900, the town of Galveston, Texas, close to Houston, was hit by a category 4 hurricane with strong winds of 135 miles per hour and storm surges up to 15 feet high. As a result, more than 10,000 people were killed and more than 3000 buildings in the area were destroyed. Historically, it was the deadliest natural disaster to impact the U.S. Almost exactly 100 years later, Hurricane Harvey – also a category 4 storm – slammed into the Gulf Coast, making landfall on Friday, 25 August 2017. Dropping over 50 inches of rain on some parts of the Gulf Coast in a matter of days, Harvey will likely prove to be second worst natural disaster the history of Texas after Galveston.

With the advent of modern technological developments and tools in the areas of weather, climate and disaster monitoring, we now have the ability to produce near-real time information about the land, ocean, atmosphere and meteorological disturbances throughout their development, evolution, strengthening and landfall phases in terms of both track and intensity. However, about 123.3 million people or 40% of U.S. population now lives along densely populated coastal areas. Natural resources, employment opportunities, commerce, recreation and tour­ism attract people to live along the coasts. Moreover, the population along the coast is expected to increase by 8% from 2010 to 2020.1

As extreme weather events become more common in the wake of our changing climate, robust preventive measures along shorelines – including buildings levies and landscape modifications, bolstering efficient drainage systems to address heavy rainfall and flash floods – will prove increasingly necessary to help reduce impacts of storms surges and strong winds. Furthermore, we will have to continue investing in observational capabilities (surface, airborne, buoys, satellite data) that in the past decades have significantly helped develop and improve sophisticated physical models to assist with issuing forecast and early warning alerts associated with impending extreme events.

However, our ability to expand modeling of extreme weather events can be enhanced – particularly in vulnerable areas – to strengthen decision and support systems at local and regional levels for early warning, emergency and evacuation purposes. The scientific community has put into place a web of observing systems including ocean buoys, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and satellites that provide freely available data. To ensure that vigilance remains high and that we have the expertise to proactively act when extreme weather events threaten coastal communities, we need to train students – in both high school and university – to become skilled at both accessing data that visualizes day-to-day changes associated with hurricanes or storms and then interpreting this information in ways that will enable the threatened communities to respond quickly and decisively.

As Hurricane Harvey developed, the media provided the public with frequent updates. As a result, those living in areas in the storm’s path were able to stay abreast of the latest forecasts and prepare for evacuation if need be. Despite whole portions of cities and towns in the Gulf Coast being flooded by the storm, the loss of life was greatly mitigated. However, property damage due to strong winds and flooding was extensive, and cities like Houston will need many years and significant resources to recover. Harvey should stand as a reminder to scientists/engineers to develop plans and building codes that protect communities on coastal areas from severe weather events as they become ever more frequent and intense. Furthermore, cities close to coasts must have drainage and channels systems to avoid submerging of the low land areas and water logging.

Developing countries where one third of world population lives, are especially susceptible to dangers posed by cyclones/typhoons/ hurricanes and other natural hazards. As climate change increases the probability of extreme disasters like the Galveston Hurricane, AGU is well positioned to take the lead and work with scientific societies in developing countries to help prevent loss of life and property as well by sharing the expertise knowledge of our more 60,000 members from across the globe.

For Additional Information, please see AGU’s Natural Hazards Fact Sheet and the AGU Natural Hazards Focus Group page.

1Moser, S. C., M. A. Davidson, P. Kirshen, P. Mulvaney, J. F. Murley, J. E. Neumann, L. Petes, and D. Reed, 2014: Ch. 25: Coastal Zone Development and Ecosystems. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate As­sessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, , 579-618. doi:10.7930/J0MS3QNW.