Why Is Hurricane Harvey so Destructive?

Over the past weekend, and continuing throughout this week, the coast of Texas has been hammered by Hurricane Harvey, a storm of massive proportions. It has caused flooding and damage the likes of which we have not seen since Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast twelve years ago. It is expected that Harvey will be just as economically devastating as Katrina was, though thankfully the loss of life is currently much lower than that inflicted by the previous storm.

What’s making this storm so disastrous is its peculiar behavior. It is unusually slow-moving and will remain poised over Texas’ coast through the middle of this week, pounding the area in one week with as much rain as typically falls there in one year. It first hit the coast near Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane. It then hovered over the coast after weakening to a tropical storm, dropping over nine trillion gallons of water on the area, which includes Houston, the 5th largest city in the United States.

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It is set to move back out into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday. But this will not be the end of the storm. The warm waters of the Gulf will only add more fuel to feed the storm’s fury. While it won’t reach hurricane strength again, it is predicted to return to hit the Gulf region again, causing flooding from Houston all the way into Louisiana.

This situation is unprecedented, according to meteorologists. But what has made this storm so terrible? There are several reasons.

Normally, strong winds in the Earth’s atmosphere (at roughly 40,000 feet) can normally stop or slow down a hurricane so that they don’t last as long. The winds are quite calm at the moment, so they could not dissipate the heat and moisture that fed the hurricane. This allowed the storm to gain more strength before making landfall.

Harvey’s speed has also affected its ability to devastate the coast. Had it moved faster, it obviously would not have been able to remain over the same area. While it would still have caused damage, the rains would have been spread over a larger area instead of being concentrated on the Texas coast. The flooding looks likely to be the greatest cause of damage resulting from this storm.

Finally, the water in the Gulf of Mexico has been abnormally warm. Since hurricanes need warm water (the warmer the better) to survive and gain strength, the high temperatures in the Gulf certainly contributed to Harvey’s strength. Though climate change does not fully explain this phenomenon, many scientists agree that it did contribute to the storm’s intensity.

So, for now, Houston and its surrounding areas are bracing for another round of heavy rains and flooding. We likely won’t know the full extent of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation for several more weeks, as everyone waits for the floodwaters to recede and reveal all the damage.

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