Hurricane Harvey, the strongest storm to hit the United States in more than a decade, is expected to make landfall in southeast Texas on Friday. It could drop as much as 35 inches of rain in some parts of the state and cause massive storm surges—that is, raising the water as much as 12 feet above coastal land.
Unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico are likely to strengthen the storm just before it hits the Texas coast, where it's expected to stall and spin in place for as many as five days. An advisory from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued Thursday afternoon warned of "devastating and life-threatening flooding."
Slow-moving storms like Harvey have devastated Texas cities—particularly those in the southeast—for a long time; since 1960 Houston has had more deaths and property loss from flooding than anywhere else in the nation. As Grist's Eric Holthaus writes:
In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison stalled over the Houston area, bringing about 10 months worth of rain in just five days. The rainiest day in Houston history was on June 26, 1989, when a slow-moving tropical storm brought just over 10 inches. (Nearby Alvin, Texas, recorded 42 inches in 24 hours in 1979, the all-time U.S. record.)
Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster in 30 counties in Texas on Wednesday, and mandatory evacuations are now underway across the state. In the coastal city of Corpus Christi, where evacuation is still voluntary, city buses began evacuating residents to San Antonio for free early Thursday. So far, there's no evacuation orders for Harris County, where the low-lying, and thus particularly vulnerable, city of Houston is located.
The massive storm will be the first major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new leadership under the Trump administration. Brock Long, the former director of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency, was confirmed to head the agency less than two months ago (a few weeks after this year's hurricane season had already started). A number of other positions within the agency remain vacant. "We've gone 11 years without a major hurricane land-falling in the U.S.—that's a one-in-2,000 chance," Long presciently told Bloomberg just days ago. "We're gonna get hit by a major hurricane. I worry that a lot of people have forgotten what that's like."
FEMA has already stockpiled water, food, blankets, and other supplies in Seguin, Texas, should state or local authorities request assistance when the storm hits. "I encourage residents who will be affected to follow directions from their local officials," Long said in a statement Thursday. "Know your threats, heed the warnings, and, if you're in the path of the storm, ensure your family is prepared for possible prolonged disruptions to normal services."
President Donald Trump, whose proposed budget include cuts to FEMA of up to $600 million, is closely monitoring the storm, according to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "There's probably no better chief of staff for the president during the hurricane season, and the president has been briefed and will continue to be updated as the storm progresses," Sanders told reporters on Thursday. "And certainly it's something he's very aware of and will keep a very watchful eye on. He stands ready to provide resources if needed."