Harvey’s first strike leaves ‘catastrophic’ flooding in Texas

As Harvey’s winds die down, trouble for Texas may have just begun with forecasts for unprecedented flooding in Houston. In addition, auto shippers, manufacturers and retailers face potential disruptions.

Harvey smashed ashore near Rockport, Texas, on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane. As the winds subsided Sunday to about 45 mph, from 130 mph initially, rain and flooding took over as the main threat from a storm that’s the strongest to hit the U.S. since 2004. The projected rainfall is 15-20 inches, with some places getting as much as 40 inches.

“This is catastrophic,” said Greg Waller, a service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s West Gulf River Forecast Center in Fort Worth. “When we say record setting it means you cannot use history on your side because the rivers have never been this high before.”

“It is very bad flooding, rivaling the Katrina disaster in some cases,” said Brett Rossio, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc.

Damage from the initial strike won’t tell the whole story, said Chuck Watson, director of research and development at Enki Holdings in Savannah, Ga. “If it was a traditional hurricane it would be a $2 billion storm, maybe $3 billion, but that is not what this storm is about,” Watson said.

Harvey was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since 2004. At least two deaths have been reported, a toll that’s expected to rise as emergency crews were yet to reach some of the hardest-hit areas, the Associated Press reported.

Harvey, stalled northwest of Victoria, Texas for the last day, will likely start drifting toward the Gulf of Mexico, according to Rossio. The worst that could happen is it re-intensifies Monday into Tuesday, before once again swinging back into the southeastern Texas coast lands, he said.

“The thing that is even worse when you have this much water is you get contamination of the clean water,” Rossio said. “A lot of places are going to lose their drinking water.”

Harvey is flooding a region that has a cluster of refineries that process 5 million barrels of oil a day. About 1 million barrels a day of crude and condensate refining capacity in Texas have been shut by companies including Valero Energy Corp., according to company statements, government releases and people familiar with the situation. Its path through the Gulf shuttered 24 percent of oil production, along with the port of Corpus Christi, which ships the largest amount of U.S. crude overseas.

In addition to the energy threat, crops and livestock may struggle to cope with rising waters, while airlines have canceled flights at multiple Texas airports. At least 1,140 inbound and outbound flights were canceled Saturday from Texas airports in Houston, Dallas, Corpus Christi, Austin and San Antonio, according FlightAware, a Houston-based airline tracking company. At least another 1,224 were scrubbed for Sunday.

Nearly 250,000 customers were without power across the state, according to a Bloomberg survey of electric utility outage maps as of 1 a.m. local time. The drop in electricity demand could depress natural gas prices.

In addition to the rain and flooding forecast, tornadoes along the coast are possible, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory issued at 4 a.m. local time. Rainfall totals near 20 inches were reported in the Houston area by early Sunday, the hurricane center said.

Harvey sent thousands of residents along the coast fleeing and caused Gov. Greg Abbott to declare an emergency. 

President Donald Trump approved a major disaster declaration, making federal assistance available to supplement state and local recovery efforts. The EPA waived certain fuel requirements for gasoline and diesel supplies in Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to allay concerns of fuel shortages.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, meanwhile, is prepared to be in the Houston area “for years” as the fourth largest U.S. city takes the brunt of rainfall and flooding from Harvey, Administrator Brock Long said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday.

If the storm does significant damage to the refineries in the region, or causes the Colonial pipeline to go offline, the effects could ripple to other parts of the country that rely heavily on the Gulf Coast for fuel supplies. Gasoline futures settled at a three-week high Friday as the storm approached.

Automotive impact

It was too early to tell earlier this weekend how much the storm would impact automotive manufacturing, parts shipping and retailing in Texas.

On Friday, the Kansas City Southern railroad, a primary transport mode for vehicles shipped to the U.S. from Mexican assembly plants, said on its website that it has suspended train operations between Kendleton and Laredo, Texas. The company warned customers to expect delays of at least two to three days as it evaluates its network for damage before resuming operations. The railroad has extra crews assigned to monitor and react to developments.

The other major cross-border railroad, Union Pacific, said it is moving rail cars in yards prone to flooding to higher elevations and has curtailed operations in the path of the storm.

Vehicle imports and exports also will be temporarily stalled at the ports of Houston and Galveston. Port Houston handled 85,600 vehicles last year. Volkswagen has a facility at the port, and third-party processor Auto Warehousing Co. handles vehicles for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Nationwide Auto Transport Inc., a small auto hauler based in Oklahoma, already has rerouted trucks out of the storm region and put shipments on hold, President Julie Delp said.

Her company operates eight trucks and primarily hauls vehicles purchased by dealers from auction houses or dealer-to-dealer trades. Vehicles bought from Manheim auction houses in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston are sitting, as are shipments in Plains states destined for Texas, she said.

Dealers prepare

Mitchell Dale, co-owner of McRee Ford in Dickinson, Texas, just south of Houston, said even though his area is under voluntary evacuation, his dealership closed before noon Friday to allow employees the opportunity to leave town.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Dale said. “Our main concern is our employees, and making sure they had time to leave if they want to.”

Dale said this is the worst storm event the dealership has seen since 1979, when a similar tropical hurricane swept more than 30 inches of water into the building.

“We were totally shut down for about two weeks,” he said. “We had to replenish inventory and it just creates a real mess.”

While flooding remains his main concern, Dale said the store recently finished a new building higher than the previous one.

Automotive News staff contributed to this report.