Lessons in history: How do Harvey and Irma stack up?

Producer Note: Associate Producer Meaghan Summers authored this blog post. She promotes the Road to Now's social media pages, helps with edits on the website and makes our lives so much better.

Hurricane Harvey has wreaked havoc all over the eastern United States since it hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 25.

Damage caused by Harvey

The death toll has reached 60 as a result of flooding and dangerous winds. Within the last few days following Harvey’s beginning, though, officials say that at least 14 are declared missing. Numbers are expected to change as the aftermath of Harvey is fully examined. Emergency relief teams and Good Samaritans have been saving people trapped in flood waters and efforts to rescue stranded animals are being reported.

harvey aftermath.JPG

“The good Lord put out his hand over (my house). I am still here. Others are not so lucky.”

Resident Joe Collins

According to the Texas Department of Safety, more than 185,000 homes were damaged and 9,000 destroyed after Hurricane Harvey struck. Estimates claim the storm has accrued between $70 and $108 billion in damages and left over 70,000 homes without flood insurance in dire circumstances. Already, over $157 million has been raised to aid in relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey with more donations daily. This trend seems comparable to that of Katrina: just one year after Katrina, more than $4 billion had been raised. As Irma makes its way through to the United States, the nation is reminded of other life-altering hurricanes that have hit the nation’s coasts and hearts. The history of these storms, and others like them, help people prepare for the worst, hope for the best and count their blessings.

Comparing Harvey to past storms

Despite the devastation Harvey left behind, the death toll from past storms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were among the deadliest. For instance, Katrina differed greatly in size and severity from Harvey and brought unimaginable destruction and pain. Many lives were lost, and people are still grieving. Katrina resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,833 people in addition to at least 705 people who are still reported missing. 


"...the city of Galveston is in ruins."

-- short message sent to Texas Gov. Joseph Sayers and President William McKinley

The Great Galveston Hurricane hit Texas in 1900 is considered the deadliest hurricane in United States history. The storm lasted 20 days and killed 8,000 people. A few decades later, 1928, a large hurricane made landfall by Lake Okeechobee, Florida. This storm had higher winds than the Great Galveston Hurricane, top speeds up to 160 mph, but it lasted only 15 days. Still, the hurricane took 2,500 lives.

What's on the horizon?

Now, Hurricane Irma is projected to be one of the largest and strongest hurricanes on the Atlantic coast. Irma threatens to exceed Katrina’s top wind speed of 175 mph, challenge Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall total and hit Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and parts of Florida and Cuba. It’s a category five hurricane, which means it may more closely resemble the devastating aftermath of Katrina, another category five storm than Harvey already has.

Economic impact

Hurricane Harvey's impact on the oil industry is clear, but it's difficult to determine how much of an impact Harvey will continue to have on gas prices and the economy, especially due to Irma’s impending strike and the other tropical storms heading towards the east coast later this month. The United States is no stranger to natural disaster's impact on the economy. Hurricane Katrina spiked gas prices and left over one million Americans unemployed. Similarly, Harvey has risen gas prices to a 2-year high and shut down the nation’s largest oil refinery. Total unemployment rates are unclear after Harvey as of yet, but officials anticipate the worst. While the number of houses destroyed during Harvey is less than Katrina’s total of over 800,000, most homes were not covered by insurance. FEMA estimated that about “450,000 people were likely to seek federal aid” as a result of poor insurance coverage. As a comparison, Harvey will likely be just as expensive as, if not more than, Hurricane Katrina.

Nature will win if we decide that we can beat it.
— Bill Read, NWS Galveston

Environmental Impact

While the financial destruction of the two hurricanes is similar, the impact on the environment is not as easily measured. In Katrina’s case, “Rain was not the main problem.” Relatively little rain fell during Katrina, but, during Harvey, rainfall reached up to 50 inches, causing massive amounts of flooding and damage - more than Houston sees in an entire year. The sheer size and speed of Katrina managed to ruin New Orleans whereas Harvey doused Houston in more rain than it could handle. With the threat of more storms, it is still uncertain how long recovery will take.


"unusually warm" waters caused Katrina's 

rapid intensity

-- Robert Leben, George Born and Jim Scott


Not only do hurricanes’ means of destruction vary, but the lessons the nation learn as a result of the disaster also differ. For instance, after Katrina, the nation realized how unprepared it really is and started planning hurricane relief efforts in hopes to bolster the economy and lessen the damages caused by severe hurricanes. On the other hand, Hurricane Harvey has inspired concerns about climate change and conversations about new insurance policies. The 2014 National Climate Assessment told Insideclimate News that “the intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s” because of climate change. Consequently, the United States will likely face stronger storms - category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The widespread effect these hurricanes have on the nation could lead to helpful government action and increased public awareness.

Lessons in history

As the country mourns its losses sustained during Hurricane Harvey and prepares for Hurricane Irma, it's important to remember that comparing current storms to storms of the past allows the United States to learn from them to better predict how future storms will impact the nation and avoid costly mistakes.