Why You Don’t Travel Into a Hurricane: Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

Sep 11, 2018

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Even if you have been living under some sort of disconnected rock this week, you probably know there are hurricanes heading this way. And that way. And the other way. We are at peak hurricane season, and Mother Nature is hellbent on reminding us of that fact in a very dramatic fashion.

If you live in one of these likely hurricane impact zones, I’ll go ahead and assume that you are fully aware of the situation and are taking the appropriate measures. If not, please get on that right now – NOAA’s National Hurricane Center has a great Hurricane Preparedness page to get you going. 

However, if you live outside of one of these zones, it can be very easy to not fully grasp the seriousness or exact timing of these storms. In part, that is because that information can change quickly, but in part it is because hurricanes mean one thing if you have lived through a bad one and another if you haven’t.

Lessons learned from living through Hurricane Harvey

Last year, my family lived through Hurricane Harvey. The day before Hurricane Harvey hit, it was a Category 1 storm. That’s obviously not good news, but the coast is largely designed to withstand a Category 1 storm. Certainly those an hour or more inland from the coast (as we are), shouldn’t be devastated by a Category 1 storm outside of a stroke of really bad luck. But then Harvey quickly became a Category 4 storm and made landfall not once, but three times. That wasn’t even the worst of it — Harvey lived on in some fashion for a week and parts of Texas, such as close to where we live in Houston, received close to 50 inches of rain in a short period of time.

The flooding was deadly and catastrophic. What was a Category 1 storm that originally hit another part of the state became 50 inches of rain that caused 13,000+ people to need rescue, 30,000+ to be displaced, dozens of people to die and hundreds of thousands to be without power and temporarily cut-off from major thoroughfares. All of this happened in my community from a storm that made landfall many miles from Houston. It was easy to not take that scenario seriously, but doing so would have very bad consequences.

Don’t travel to or through a hurricane zone

From a travel perspective, we were scheduled to fly out of Houston for an anniversary getaway the day before Harvey made landfall. Grandparents had arrived from Kansas to watch our girls during our trip a day or two earlier. They made the trip when Harvey looked like it should be more nuisance than disaster, but looking back, having them come wasn’t the right call. By the time we were close to departure, it was clear we weren’t going to risk leaving and not being able to get back. If we were erring, it was going to be on the side of caution to be home to protect our house and girls – but even then we had no clue how bad it would really be.

When a hurricane hits, it doesn’t all end when the winds die down. In fact, that’s when it can start to get worse. The power outages, flooding, flight cancellations and related backlog of stranded passengers combine to create a very serious mess that isn’t fixed overnight. Hurricane Harvey cancelled more than 11,000 flights. That easily means hundreds of thousands of impacted passengers.

In fact, when Harvey hit the Houston area, the two Houston airports (HOU and IAH) were 100% closed from 12:00 p.m. on Aug. 27 until 4:00 p.m. on Aug. 30 – save for five extraordinary rescue flights by Southwest. During that time, no one was getting in or out, and even when they began to ramp up operations, many flights were still being cancelled – including my in-laws’ flight home that was cancelled more times than I can remember. By the time they actually got out by air, they were mere hours from getting a one-way rental car to just get the heck out of here.

The winds and rain had stopped, but they had been stuck with us for days in a house that now had a collapsed ceiling from all of the rain. There was stuff everywhere trying to save what we could, lots of people in the house, nowhere to go, no school, and for a while, no end in sight. In fact, that water-slogged ceiling virtually collapsed on Grandma in the middle of the night. Even still, we were the lucky ones as others in our town had raging water go through their second stories.

One of our ceilings that collapsed after 50 inches of rain in Hurricane Harvey (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

We were all stuck in our home, but if you are stuck in a hotel as a visitor to a hurricane-hit area, you are using up a room that may be needed for folks evacuating from the storm.

Shift travel plans away from the storms now

Hurricane Harvey was far from my first storm, but it was the most recent. Because of my experience with Harvey and other storms, I keep a close eye on the water and divert travel away from hurricane zones whenever practical. You do not want to travel into a hurricane zone because you may get in, but you can easily end up trapped there for days. You don’t want to connect through a hurricane zone too close to anticipated impact because those flights may be cancelled. Sometimes storms downgrade or shift directions at the last minute and your change of travel plans may have been for naught, but I’d rather be high and dry in that scenario than stuck somewhere with no power, a collapsed ceiling and widespread flooding – or worse.

Damage in our community from Hurricane Harvey
Damage in our community from Hurricane Harvey (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

In fact, this week I have meetings about 30 minutes from Charlotte, which may very well be impacted by Hurricane Florence. The meetings haven’t been postponed or cancelled, so I’m going, but I’m not waiting for United to issue a weather waiver to make back-up plans to get home. Instead of traveling home Thursday night as originally scheduled, I booked myself on a refundable ticket home on Wednesday because, by Thursday, I don’t want to be crossing my fingers I get out in time. When they talk about landfall, they are often talking about the eye – the outer bands (which can be no joke) can cause impact to travel well in advance of the eye making landfall.

Look at the forecasts, check out what the airlines are saying, and ultimately, do what you can to avoid traveling into a hurricane zone unless you are going to help and are ready to stay put for a number of days. In case you need a final nudge to avoid travel near Hurricane Florence, they’re saying it could pull a Harvey and dump rain for days.

Stay safe, don’t travel to hurricane zones if at all possible, and send your donations if and when they need it.


Featured photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


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