Hurricane Harvey brought flooding of biblical proportions to Houston, Texas. Is this the new normal?
At about 11 p.m. on August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey swept ashore in Texas as a Category 4 tropical cyclone with winds in excess of 130 mph. Then the storm stalled over Houston for several days.
More than 50 inches of rain fell in some areas—the equivalent of one year’s worth of rainfall. As incredible as it may sound, the hurricane dumped about 27 trillion gallons of water on the city, literally sinking it by about one inch due to the weight of the water, according to research from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The study was based on the agency’s intricate network of GPS sensors that were able to track the depression in the earth’s crust as the hurricane progressed.
Harvey caused about $125 billion in damage, roughly the same as Katrina in August 2005, the costliest hurricane to ever hit the US mainland. Hurricanes Irma and Maria followed Harvey about a month later, racking up about $265 billion in combined damage for the three monster storms.
Now those are some astounding statistics. With global warming on the rise, the incidence of severe hurricanes is increasing. It’s safe to say we’ll see more flooding hurricanes like Harvey, and that means we’ll see more storm-related property insurance claims well into the future.
We started getting calls from potential clients almost immediately after the storm.
Our Houston office was located in the Houston Galleria, an area that was never expected to flood. But it did. Levees and dams broke or were overwhelmed all over the city. The antiquated infrastructure was completely inadequate in a hurricane like Harvey. We weren’t fully operational in Houston for two weeks.
Harvey spawned two distinct types of calls from victims. The first set were typical hurricane claims due to damage from wind and storm surge. The second set of calls came from victims who were flooded out because government officials opened dams to release water from flooded reservoirs. In short, the government decided who would get flooded and who would not in some cases.
The resulting legal mayhem from the second set of victims is still playing out in court. The clients argue that their properties wouldn’t have flooded if the government had not opened up the floodgates, or if the government had properly maintained the levees and dams. The government argues that the water releases were essential in an emergency to protect the greater good.
Who is right? It’s a complicated question, and I don’t expect the courts to sort the issue out anytime soon. The central lesson learned in Hurricane Harvey should be that flood insurance is definitely worth having, even if you’re nowhere near the coast. A burst or opened dam upstream of you can absolutely ruin your day. It’s best to insure against flood risks that may never result in a loss. You’ll sleep better knowing that you’re covered if a flooding hurricane makes a surprise appearance at your doorstep.