Galveston-Houston readies for historic hurricane, first in 10-plus years

IMAGE: CNS photo/Darren Abate, EPA

By James Ramos

HOUSTON (CNS) — Hurricane
Harvey’s pending landfall is bringing up memories of the last major storm that
aimed for the Texas Gulf Coast.

Almost 12 years ago, Hurricane
Rita churned through the Gulf of Mexico, aiming straight for the Texas
coastline. While Houston escaped most major damage after landfall, the massive
Category 3 storm brought weeks without electricity, winds more than 100 mph and
mass evacuation headaches for the Greater Houston area, including Carla Martin.

“During Rita, evacuation was a
nightmare on roadways,” Martin, office administrator at Mary Queen Catholic
Church in Friendswood, told the Texas Catholic Herald, the Galveston-Houston archdiocesan
newspaper. “(That experience) lends me to start preparations much earlier.” Mary
Queen Catholic Church is located 33 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Like Martin, the Archdiocese of
Galveston-Houston is preparing for Hurricane Harvey, as well as a number of other
incidents that the Catholic community in Houston may face. Hurricane
Harvey was expected to make landfall on the mid-Texas coast the night of Aug.
25, then stall and
drift over the weekend of Aug. 26 and 27, according to the National Weather
Service. By late afternoon Aug. 25, it was upgraded to Category 3.

The storm is estimated to bring
10 to 20 inches of rain to the Texas coastline, and winds up to 110 miles per
hour. The National Hurricane Center said the historic storm will bring
“catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” with “heavy rainfall of 15 to 25
inches, with isolated amounts as high as 35 inches, through Wednesday” and a
“life-threatening storm surge” of 6 to 12 feet.

On Aug. 23, Texas Gov. Greg
Abbott declared a state of disaster for 30 Texas counties, including Austin,
Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston and Harris counties — each located in the
archdiocese — due to the threat of imminent disaster posted by Hurricane
Harvey. Grocery stores throughout the region were slammed with shoppers
gathering last-minute basic supplies in anticipation of the worst.

Dozens of parochial schools and
parishes closed early or suspended classes Aug. 25. The archdiocesan chancery
offices also closed early that day in preparation for Hurricane Harvey.

Elsewhere in the state, the Diocese of Brownsville, in the southernmost tip, announced via Twitter that Catholic schools in the Rio
Grande Valley were closed Aug. 25 in anticipation of the storm. It also
published an emergency plan, in English and Spanish, for families in the path
of the storm.

“Praying for
the safety of everyone as storm makes landfall,” the diocese tweeted.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores
of Brownsville said in a late afternoon interview Aug. 25 with Catholic News
Service that the diocese took precautions, such as closing schools and other
buildings, so people could prepare. Catholic organizations are communicating so
they can respond to emergencies depending on what happens, but, at the moment,
there are a lot of unknowns.

The biggest worry at the diocese, said
Bishop Flores, are the populations in places called colonias, spontaneous
subdivisions of makeshift homes on the outskirts of cities or towns, where the
poor establish homes. Many are in low-lying areas, have weak infrastructure and
the subdivisions may not have a sewer system, all which will become problematic
should flooding and strong winds occur, he said.

“We have a plan to immediately
coordinate our resources where they’re most needed,” after the storm, he said.

organizations, however, were on standby and planned to communicate with one another to
help, he said. “We’re praying,” he said.

The Harris County Office of
Homeland Security and Emergency Management was calling the storm a
“dangerous flooding event for most of (Harris) county, if the forecast
holds.” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner posted on Twitter: “It never
hurts to say a prayer for our city and for those in the path of the

To prepare for events like
Harvey, parishes were invited to experience a hurricane scenario and explore
their own policies and procedures step by step at workshops throughout the

Archdiocesan offices, including
the Offices of Risk Management and Human Resources, as well as emergency
officials from around the Greater Houston area, were on hand to provide
resources and help parishes identify weaknesses and develop strengths of parish
emergency plans. These meetings happen annually to help Catholic communities
prepare for the unexpected.

Focusing on continuous
improvement, Kirk Jenings, the director of Risk Management and Emergency
Operations, said, “the key point of this exercise is that it is a great
opportunity to learn about our (emergency operations) plan and develop our
strengths in planning and communication.”

Hosted by Mary Queen Catholic
Church in Friendswood, the workshop was facilitated by the Texas A&M
Engineering Extension. Many parish staff, pastors and parishioners, from across
the Archdiocese from parishes on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula and
Houston’s suburbs in every direction attend the regular trainings.

Delivered through a media
presentation featuring a series of hurricane graphics provided by the National
Weather Service, the scenario depicts the storm’s path, size and
intensity. The presentation helped Martin gain a better understanding of her
staff’s readiness for a hurricane and how to better prepare for the next one.

“The old plan did not start
early enough in the process,” she said. “We must start earlier in the process,
identifying needs to be done prior to evacuation.” Parishes in close proximity
to the coastline, like Mary Queen, can be especially vulnerable to severe
weather patterns.

The archdiocesan action plan for
natural disasters encourages parishes and parishioners to actively prepare for
any natural disaster.

“We encourage parishes with
well-developed disaster committees and plans to share their knowledge with
parishes that seek to improve their organization and plans,” Jenings said. “Our
goals are two-fold. We desire to reach an optimal level of preparedness at both
the parishes, schools and the chancery, and we want to resume normal operations
as soon as possible following and event.

“Everyone in our local
community, including our parishioners,” he continued, “needs to
understand the potential impact a hurricane or other similar event will have
upon the community and them as an individual.”

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Ramos is a staff writer and
designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of
Galveston-Houston. Rhina Guidos in Washington contributed to this story.

– – –

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