By Alan Blinder and Manny Fernandez
HOUSTON – With a potentially calamitous hurricane bearing down on Texas and the nation's fourth-largest city, residents on Friday faced contradictory guidance from authorities on whether to evacuate or shelter in place.
Hurricane Harvey, which was upgraded to a Category 4 storm Friday night, was set to hit Texas on Saturday morning. It was expected to unleash astonishing amounts of rain – as much as 3 feet – and bring punishing winds of as much as 130 mph.
Some coastal residents scrambled to evacuate out of the storm's path, fearful of the type of destruction left by hurricanes in Texas about a decade ago. Refineries along the Gulf Coast, a nerve center for the nation's energy industry, shut down operations in preparation for the storm, sending jitters through global energy markets.
The sense of anxiety and confusion that preceded landfall was exacerbated Friday by mixed messages from state and local officials. The conflicting views from the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor of Houston reflected the tension that has come to define much of Texas politics.
At an afternoon news conference, roughly 12 hours before expected landfall, Gov. Greg Abbott strongly urged Houstonians to consider evacuating. "I think it would be a good idea to take a few days off, get out of the Houston area," he said.
Soon after the governor's message, Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner, who for days had been telling residents to shelter in place, advised in a Twitter post: "Please think twice before trying to leave Houston en masse. No evacuation orders have been issued for the city."
With alarmist messages about the wrath of Hurricane Harvey ricocheting around social media, experts on emergency preparedness stressed the importance of clarity in the face of such a potentially cataclysmic weather event.
"You need to be clear and forceful in your messaging in dealing with a natural disaster like this," said Rafael Lemaitre, the director of public affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration. "It is vital that everyone, from the president to people at all other levels of government, are speaking in one voice."
But while forecasters were warning of epic rains in Houston, some in the city were approaching the storm with aplomb.
"We've never evacuated," said Rita Kehoe Welsh, 97, who sat calmly Friday at the Bellaire Coffee Shop, working on a crossword puzzle. Asked how she was preparing for the storm, she laughed and said, "I'm not."
Forecasters are calling this the first "major hurricane" to hit the United States in nearly 12 years, a galling assessment for those who went through storms like Sandy in the Northeast in 2012, or Ike, which was so destructive to the Texas Gulf Coast in 2008.
To be called a major storm, a hurricane must be Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which means winds of 111 to 129 mph.
Those winds can bring devastating damage, stripping off roof decking and bringing down many trees. Ike was a Category 2, though it pushed a monster storm surge. Sandy, despite the devastation it caused, had become what is known as a post-tropical storm before it made landfall.
Forecasters emphasized that it was not just the wind that made Harvey dangerous. Storm surge, the water that a hurricane pushes ahead of it, can be tremendously destructive. Katrina, one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history, inflicted much of its harm in 2005 in New Orleans through the surge, which overwhelmed the area's faulty levees.
In Port Aransas, on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico east of Corpus Christi, the authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders, fearing that life-threatening flooding and winds would batter the town.
Frank Eicholz, 55, and his wife were among those who evacuated their home there. Eicholz, a local fishing guide, grew up on the Gulf Coast, and remembers Hurricane Celia in 1970, which struck Corpus Christi when he was 8. Memories of Celia and subsequent storms left little doubt in his mind that his family should evacuate.
"I can remember there wasn't a single fence standing after Celia," he said. "It ripped part of our roof off our house. For an 8-year-old kid, that's kind of scary."
Eicholz and his wife were waiting out the storm with their son and his family in Corpus Christi, where officials have issued a voluntary evacuation. Eicholz said he and his wife were upset about the prospect of losing their home and belongings. But, in the end, "it's all just stuff, it's just stuff" he said. "Everything that we've left are just worldly possessions."
Beyond cities on the coast, much of the concern Friday focused on Houston, with a metropolitan population of 6.6 million. Tropical Storm Allison was not even at hurricane strength when it hit Houston in 2001, but it sat over the city in much the way that Harvey is expected to do. Southeast Texas suffered nearly $5 billion in damage from that storm, and 22 people died.
A major source of concern revolved around energy infrastructure. Nearly a third of the country's refinery capacity is along the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi in South Texas and Lake Charles in western Louisiana. Corpus Christi is also the main port for oil and gasoline exports.
Refineries across the Texas coast shut down in preparation for the storm, as workers laid sandbags to lessen the possibility of salt water flooding into their operations. Gasoline prices were expected to rise, at least for a few days, because Corpus Christi and Houston, major refinery hubs, are in the primary target zone of winds of over 100 mph, surging tides and heavy rains.
When a Spec's liquor store opened in Houston on Friday morning, it did not have to wait long for customers: About 125 of them had lined up outside in the rain. By early afternoon, the store's manager, Ryan Holder, estimated that about 3,000 people had passed through, filling the parking lot and then their cars with wine and not a few kegs of beer.
But, as double the usual number of customers came through the door, water was crucial.
"Water, ice, beer," Holder said. "We have a ton of water. We went through 31 pallets of them yesterday. We've gone through 20 so far today.
We've got 40 more on the way. We ain't running out."