Reporters who covered both Harvey and Irma from the eye of the storm compare their damage

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hurricane irma
Storm
damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Tortola, British
Virgin Islands.

Jalon Manson
Shortte/AP


Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma are the only Category 4
Atlantic storms to ever hit the
United States in the same year
—let alone the same two
weeks.

Their landfalls turned the past few weeks into an emotional
maelstrom of displacement, property damage, and conversations about
climate change. While the full impact of the
two storms is still being tallied up, journalists who were on
the scene to cover both believe the back-to-back disasters also
serve as a testament to the overwhelming damage water can do to
our homes, and lives.

Despite a swirl slightly less imposing than Irma’s, Harvey
punched above its weight. The storm killed more
than 70 people
and caused billions of dollars in damage.
“It just looked a lot worse, just an ongoing crisis in
Houston,” says Jorge Ribas, a video journalist for the
Washington Post who covered both Harvey and Irma.
“That’s not to diminish what happened here with Irma, but …
when we were in Lumberton, Texas, we were driving in boats and
the water was at the top of stop signs, you know, covering
street signs. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

No one else has, either. Current calculations suggest Hurricane
Harvey dumped an unprecedented 27 trillion
gallons of water
on Texas and Louisiana. Parts of Houston
received almost 53 inches of rain, breaking a record for
rainfall in the continental United States and forcing the
National Weather Service to rewrite its
color-coding system
. And weeks after the storm, things just
keep getting worse: The storm water has been slow to
drain
and is getting dirtier by the day.


E. coliShutterstock/science photo

Early samples of Houston’s floodwater tested
positive for E. coli
, likely from leaking
sewage, according to an analysis paid for by the New York
Times.

Doctors in Texas have reported an increase in emergency room
visits for cellulitis, an infection that results in red and
irritated skin, and can be exacerbated by exposure to
contaminated water. Traces of heavy metals including lead and
arsenic were also detected in standing water at higher levels
than is normal, the Times reported, though exact
levels and risk are still unclear.

These early tests harken back to the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina, which walloped New Orleans with floods
10-feet deep
, providing plentiful breeding grounds for
disease. In the days following the historic 2005 storm,
standing water in the bayou turned similarly toxic, resulting
in at least 30 cases of
MRSA
, a drug-resistant bug that typically preys on people
with open wounds and weakened immune systems, and five deaths
from infection with Vibrio viruses, which are
usually relegated to undercooked seafood but can attack the
immune system through open wounds.

And that wasn’t the only health damage. Katrina’s floods also
resulted in long-term
mold damage
to remaining buildings, causing inflammation,
asthma, and allergies. The hope, then, is that lessons in
public health and disaster response learned during Katrina
will help Texans in this critical time.


hurricaneShutterstock

By contrast, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Florida found, at
least according to a headline in USA Today that
temporarily declared “damage but
no disaster
” (it was later changed). If that’s even true
in Florida, which some residents would surely contest, it’s
partly the result of the chance fact that Irma ended up
pummeling the Caribbean and then lost steam on its way to the
Sunshine State.

Irma was most remarkable in terms of the strength of the
storm, meaning it was wind, not water, that exacted the most
damage. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency
estimates Irma’s whipping winds racked up a $14 billion
bill
, raging floods and their associated horrors were
surprisingly scattered and subdued.

Still, the relative horror of one hurricane or another is
difficult to determine, akin to comparing rotten apples to
rotten Florida oranges. In its wake, Irma left at least 23
dead in the mainland United States
and more than
30 dead in the Caribbean
. And, while it’s unlikely to
rival the damage seen in flood-prone
Houston
, pockets from Jacksonville, Florida, to
Charleston, South Carolina, experienced historic deluges. Waterborne illness may
also start floating there, too.

Assessing and comparing the size of each storm is relatively
meaningless for the individuals who weathered them, says
Tamara Lush of the Associated Press, who lives in Irma’s path
but also covered Harvey. The distinction between damage and
disaster, she says, is razor-thin. Lush knew from experience
covering Hurricane Katrina and other tropical storms that she
must come prepared—with water, snacks, and a lot of
composure. “You do have to have a certain level of detachment
so you don’t fall to pieces at the end of your day in your
hotel room,” she says.


hurricane irma
A
member of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) monitors
the trajectory of Hurricane Irma in Santo Domingo, Dominican
Republic, September 6, 2017.

Ricardo Rojas/Reuters

But that detachment became impossible when Irma barreled down
on her own home in St. Petersburg, Florida, just outside of
the mandatory evacuation zone, as Lush chronicled
in a “storm diary”
for the AP. Though her home made it
through relatively unscathed, the experience of reporting on
Irma, while also dealing with felled trees and debris
surrounding her house, drained her in a way other storms
hadn’t.

Right now, people are rightfully focused on the immediate
problems at hand. The full extent of the damage in the
Caribbean has yet to be assessed, let alone remedied. In
Texas, many are still displaced by the floods and those who
have made it home have found their water-damaged houses in
shambles. And Floridians, meanwhile, are focused on finding
out when their power—and,
crucially, their A/C
—will return.

Economically, FEMA, the agency responsible for bailing
people out of disasters like these, is billions
of dollars in debt
after disasters like Hurricane
Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. And environmentally, we know
that extreme
weather events
like these are on the rise as climate
change accelerates. What happens to these battered Gulf
states next is anyone’s guess. End times, as science
fiction writer John Scalzi put it, may indeed have gotten in
a few dress rehearsals
this week. But most of the
people displaced by these storms are settling back in for
the rest of the show.



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