As Hurricane Harvey draws nearer, South Texans head north

Amid warnings from family and memories of past hurricanes, scores of Texans in the Corpus Christi area are grabbing their belongings, boarding up their homes and hitting the highway to flee Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf of Mexico as seen from the International Space Station on August 25, 2017.

NASA

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LIVE OAK COUNTY – Victor Lara rattles off with great ease the roster of hurricanes and tropical storms that have threatened or directly hit the Texas Coast in the past six decades. No matter how menacing they seemed as they moved up the gulf, the Corpus Christi resident always stayed at home and waited them out.

Harvey won’t be getting that same reception.

Early Friday morning, Lara and his wife, Mary Lou Isaguirre, stood outside an Exxon gas station about 80 miles north of home and said they planned to let this weekend’s expected disaster play out without them. The couple had hours earlier boarded up their house on Corpus Christi’s southside, grabbed as many belongings as they could and begun the trek to a hotel more than 400 miles away in Fort Stockton.

“They said it’s gonna be stationary, it’s not going to move, it’s going to dump a lot of rain,” Lara said, of the looming hurricane, before he and his wife continued north again on Interstate 37.

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Harvey is expected to be a Category 3 hurricane with wind gusts more than 110 miles per hour when it makes landfall late Friday or early Saturday. The wind speeds, storm surge and flooding from rainfall are expected to pose high to extreme risks to people and property across a wide swath of southern Texas, according to the National Weather Service. Rainfall east of Interstate 37 is expected to be between 15 and 25 inches, with the storm pouring as much as 35 inches on some areas. 

Houston has already experienced deadly floods in recent years that caused more than $1 billion worth of damage. The Texas Tribune and ProPublica last year found that the state's biggest city is largely unprepared for a major hurricane.  

President Donald Trump offered Texas federal support on Thursday. Gov. Greg Abbott has already declared a state of disaster for 30 Texas counties. Officials in several counties have issued mandatory evacuations. Corpus Christi and Galveston officials have issued voluntary evacuations.

It’s the forecasts of dozens of inches of rain – and subsequent flooding – that prompted Lara to evacuate his home for the first time in his life.

Lara recalled not even evacuating for Celia back in 1970, which hit Texas' middle coast as a Category 3. A storm that reached Category 3 or higher is classified as a major hurricane.

Celia hit Corpus Christi dead on and devastated the house next door to Lara’s family. 

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“His whole roof fell in my backyard,” Lara said. “But our house wasn’t even damaged.”

Like Celia, Harvey is expected to reach Texas as a Category 3.

If evacuation orders continue — and more Texans like Lara and Isaguirre voluntarily leave — southern Texas highways are expected to become log-jammed.

“That’s why we left tonight, because my mom said she did not want to be sitting through traffic,” said Melody Guerrero, whose family also stopped at the same gas station as Lara and Isaguirre. “Plus we know it’s going to start raining.”

Guerrero’s father didn’t want to leave their Corpus Christi home, but his wife and kids talked him into it after they started receiving phone calls from relatives all over the globe.

“We were freaked out enough to leave,” Luis Guerrero said as he pumped gas into one of the family’s three cars. “We’re not going to to risk anything.”

Even loved ones in Houston called to ask if the family was safe. Alex Guerrero, one of Luis Guerrero's two sons, said he knew those relatives may not fathom Harvey's potential impact when they offered the family a place to stay.

“We were like, ‘Nope,’” Alex Guerrero said before getting back in his car and joining his family's caravan to San Antonio.