Aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma felt miles away

Alekya Raghavan | Staff Writer

The nation was faced with chaos when disaster stuck in the form of two consecutive hurricanes–Harvey and Irma.

Hurricane Harvey marked the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States in 12 years when it hit southern Texas in mid-August. But before Harvey had a chance to dissipate, and certainly before the nation had time to recover, Hurricane Irma made its way through the Caribbean, hitting the mainland.

Not since Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005 has the U.S. seen destruction to this extent. And, in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, it is clear that the impact is being felt far beyond state lines.

On August 25 at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Harvey made landfall as a category four hurricane near Rockport, Texas. Winds were measured to be as high as 130 miles per hour, rainfall was predicted to reach 18 inches by morning and more than 40 inches by the time it dissipated.

Houston and its surrounding cities were devastated extensively. Arianna McDonald, a class of 2017 Mason graduate, attends the University of Houston and has family in the city. McDonald said her family and community is struggling in the wake of Harvey.

“It has been a hard two weeks,” McDonald said. “In our town and the surrounding towns the roads were shut down; all the stores are shut down. I helped my church out a lot in the past two weeks to help provide food to all of our firefighters, policemen, and the [people in] surrounding neighborhoods that need our help. We went to La Porte last week and were able to help churches rebuild houses because of all the water damage. In the last two weeks, it was pretty bad. I was trapped in the house for a week, the whole town was shut down, there was so much water and no one could do anything. My school was shut down for two weeks. Still, some of the surrounding towns are still shut down.”

Another community would soon face a similar magnitude of disaster, for Irma was only two weeks behind. Irma formed in the Caribbean on August 30, making landfall in the U.S. on September 10 as a category four hurricane with wind speeds of 130 mph.

In Florida, the hurricane was responsible for major damage to buildings, roads, the electricity supply, mobile phone coverage, internet access, sanitation, and the water and fuel supplies. Due to a loss of power, millions of gallons of raw sewage rose to the streets, neighborhoods, and water bodies. The death toll climbed to 32, as of September 15.

Former class of 2018 Mason student Brin Wexler, who now resides in Orlando, said that she was not expecting the situation to be so bad, to the point where a curfew regulating hours and activities was imposed, since there had been false alarms before.

“Last year, Matthew was coming, which was another hurricane that was supposed to hit us, and there was all this hype about it, but nothing ended up happening,” Wexler said. “So this year, we were like ‘It’s going to be the same thing; nothing’s going to happen,’ and then Sunday night, the wind started picking up, and the streets were flooding, and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real.’ Starting (September 10) at 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. (on September 11), we were not allowed out on the streets, walking, driving, or anything. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Unsurprisingly, the combined effects of Harvey and Irma on the U.S. economy have been monumental. Early projections estimate the damage from the two storms to be $290 billion, which alone make up a quarter of all reparation costs inflicted onto the nation by all natural disasters in the U.S. since 1980.

Consequently, the labor market has taken a hit. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment claims have increased by over 62,000, the largest since Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Areas directly hit by the hurricanes will be feeling the brunt of the damage to the economy; however, due to the nation’s dependency on both affected areas for products, Americans all over will feel Harvey and Irma’s impacts.

Family members try to check on safety of relatives in hurricane
impacted areas

A third of Houston’s economy is directed by the oil and gas industry. The unprecedented flooding disrupted oil, natural gas and petrochemical production and forced these refineries to close. Houston is also home to many non-energy companies, which shut down as well after Harvey. The havoc being wreaked on America’s vital energy facilities has lead to national gas prices hit $2.67, and there may be an increase the price of groceries in Irma’s wake. According to the Bank of America, Irma could pose a threat to $1.2 billion worth of crops in Florida.

Senior Yana Artemov said scarce resources and inflated prices due to panic prior to Irma reaching the mainland made evacuating a difficult task for her aunt and friends.

“She lives in Tampa, so she knew there was a hurricane coming, and she knew she had to evacuate,” Artemov said. “Four or five days before the hurricane even struck, Walmart was out of water. A lot of gas stations were out of gas completely or super long lines, so she brought gallons of gas with her. She has two labs, but all of the animal shelters in Atlanta were booked full of pets, so she had to take them with her. A lot of her friends just stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave, or some of them were nurses, so they had to stay and help the victims.”

Outside of the U.S., however, the situation has proved itself to be even more serious, especially in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other U.S. territories in the Caribbean. The islands have been devastated; most areas have no power, plumbing, or running water and will not for months. On some islands, as much as 90 percent of buildings have been destroyed.

Senior Elena Velez, who has immediate family in San Juan, Yauco, and Mayagüez said the situation in Puerto Rico was alarming, for Irma caused a lot of physical destruction, and everyone, especially the poor and homeless, was impacted.

“I was reading a lot about how it was one of the strongest storms in many years and how most of the paths were headed straight for Puerto Rico, so it really made me nervous and scared,” Velez said. “(The hurricane) was on the path of total destruction, and we saw the other Caribbean islands get hit first, so I was worried about my family. They lost all their light and weren’t able to get it back. There was a lot of flooding; they had some cars flip over. In San Juan, there’s a lot of crumbling buildings, and a lot of the homeless were affected very badly.”

Shelters in both Houston and several Florida cities are housing displaced families. More than 100,000 homes were destroyed by Harvey and over 30,000 families are in staying in emergency housing and are looking for permanent shelter, according to White House estimates. The state of Florida ordered the evacuation of over 6.5 million people, about a third of the state’s population. For some, however, following such an order was not possible.

Senior Natalee Jobert said the situation was stressful for both her family in Florida and in Mason due to the unpredictability of the storm.

“My aunt and uncle had to evacuate and live with friends because they live on the coast,” Jobert said. “I know my [other] uncle had been staying up all night last weekend, because he wanted someone to be awake in case something happened. Knowing my family was being impacted was stressful, especially last weekend when the hurricane was strongest. My mom had the weather channel on constantly. I couldn’t imagine having to go through that, and even now, almost a week later, they’re still not fully back to normal and trying to clear out debris and figure out how bad the damage is.”

As the Hurricanes migrated, several students were also displaced. About 1 in 6 or 8.5 million students nationwide lost school time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Harvey damaged at least 200 Houston schools; six of these Texas school districts are among the largest in the country. Over 24 schools in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina cancelled classes as Irma moved north. Classes were cancelled for 1.1 million public university students when Florida Governor Rick Scott ordered all state colleges and universities be closed for a period of time while the state recovers from the most deadly hurricane season in a decade.

The response to the damage caused by the storms has been quick and extensive. There has been an almost immediate influx of cash, clothing, food, and rescue equipment into the affected areas. Millions of Americans and American businesses are opening their wallets and donating to the relief fund; many others are donating their time by volunteering to clean up the damage and bring water, food, and other supplies to those who need them.

McDonald said the hurricanes have demonstrated the nation’s ability to come together in times of need and forget about differences.

“Houston is a very multicultural city, and the nation saw how we all came together,” McDonald said. “We don’t care about religion, we don’t care what background you come from. All we care about is helping each other, and I think that has helped the country. It helped the nation as a whole to realize it doesn’t matter where you came from, we just have to help each other in times of need.”