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  • Writer's pictureTerry Virts


Updated: Jul 22, 2021

The smell is different. It’s certainly not any better, both smells are bad. But the smell after Hurricane Harvey was just different than after Hurricane Andrew. It feels silly to try to describe the smell of the aftermath of a hurricane, like a wine critic using terms like “aromatic bouquet” and “silky complexity.” The sopping wet household goods destroyed in Harvey’s floods have an “old” musty smell, and the houses ripped apart by Andrew, filled with fast growing mould, had a much sharper “new destruction” smell to me. It’s a funny and unexpected way for two of the most destructive events in our nation’s history to stick with me, but it’s how I remember them- or rather, experienced them.

2 men standing in front of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey – the aftermath

Hurricane Andrew – 25 years before

The eye of Hurricane Andrew had passed over my house at Homestead AFB in Florida exactly 25 years before the day Harvey had been upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane status. That week in 1992 I had been in Las Vegas with my squadron, the 307th, flying F-16s in a joint exercise with the Army called “Air Warrior.” Every 600 mph low pass over those army guys, looking sweaty and dirty down there in the desert, made me glad I joined the Air Force. Especially when my fighter pilot buddies and I returned to our hotel after a hard day of flying, thinking of the poor GIs sleeping in their foxholes. And on August 23rd, even though Andrew had made a turn toward Homestead, we still thought that it would hit a little to the north in Ft Lauderdale, maybe as a major hurricane. Because we really didn’t understand just how serious this storm was, we celebrated the arrival of Andrew with a “hurricane party” at the motel pool, complete with a life-sized cardboard Elvis. Fighter pilots are nothing if not able to deal with potentially disastrous situations with calm and humour. And flat-Elvis’s.

Aftermath of hurricane by the side of the road
Domestic fall-out after Hurricane Harvey

I will never forget the morning after landfall. I awoke and immediately turned on CNN, and the first image I saw was of a young man running across a parking lot with a TV in his arms, clearly looting. Upon closer inspection, I realized that this was the Cutler Ridge mall, just a few miles from my house at Homestead AFB, and it was clear that life had changed in South Florida. I next got in touch with my wife, who had evacuated to Ft Lauderdale (50 miles to the north), and she told me how stressed out our golden retriever “Einstein” had been. He was only 3 years old, but actually turned grey overnight, with big circles formed around his eyes – it was that loud and scary.

Never stick around for a hurricane!

The squadron had to wait a week before we were finally allowed to return to Florida, and during that time the Air Force actually flew RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft over the base. They sent us the photos (this was the days of wet film) and I was able to find my house- it really didn’t look too bad from the air, the roof was intact, and no major debris was around it. When I returned to Florida, I was driving down the Turnpike towards the base and drove right past the highway exit. So massive was the destruction of vegetation and trees that I didn’t even recognize the way home, that I had driven countless times. And when I finally got to the house it became clear that the reconnaissance photos hadn’t told the whole story. The windows had broken and it looked like a blender inside. There were actually large pieces of broken glass wedged into walls at 90 deg angles, and nearly everything inside was destroyed. It was that moment I swore I would never stick around for a major hurricane, I would always evacuate. It just wasn’t worth it. As I write this blog Hurricane Irma is churning as the most powerful Atlantic storm ever. I hope and pray that the records that Andrew set are not surpassed by Irma.

25 years on…

Which brings me to 2017. Ironically, my Harvey story is similar to my Andrew story because I was again out of town for the main action. This time I was filming a project while at sea, without internet (which will be the subject of a future blog). Before I left I was sure that Harvey would just be a “rain event,” that it wouldn’t be anything too major, and that we had survived Allison back in 2001 (at the time the “500 year” flood for Houston). Boy was I wrong. Fighter pilots rarely lack for confidence- but brains, well, that’s another story.

As I came back to the world of the internet I began to get the full story, piece by piece, and it was immediately clear that this had been a very bad storm. The impact from Harvey was very different than Andrew (or Ike or Rita, which I had also gone through). Typical hurricanes do the brunt of their damage via the storm surge, which is a big wall of ocean water pushed in front that causes rapid and uncontrollable flooding, often many feet deep, in coastal areas. Next comes the intense winds, especially in the area near the “eye,” which can often destroy houses. Cat 1 hurricanes don’t cause too much wind damage to modern countries like the US, but they can really devastate less developed island nations. And when it becomes a monster cat 4 or cat 5 storm, the wind damage can destroy nearly anything in its path.

The worst rain event in US history

In the case of Harvey, it did some significant damage in Rockport, in South Texas, after making landfall as a category 4 storm. But it was quickly degraded to cat 1 status and eventually down to tropical storm status. The intense winds of Harvey were quickly a distant memory, as the “worst case” scenario began to unfold. A series of high pressure systems had formed to the north and west. These steering currents were a nightmare- they formed a blocking wall like the Alabama offensive line, and Harvey was the poor defensive tackle trying to get past. It just wasn’t going to happen. So, Harvey continued to churn on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Houston for several days. Sucking up very hot Gulf waters, rotating them counter-clockwise, and dumping them on Houston.

Inside of a building site repairing after the hurricane
Clean-up after Hurricane Harvey

You could not have drawn up a worse flooding scenario. If you look at the rain accumulation maps, it’s unbelievable, like a silly Hollywood movie (…”Day After Tomorrow?”….) that would need to change the script in order to make it credible- except this really happened. They say Harvey dumped the equivalent of more than a foot of water over an area the size of West Virginia. More than 50” (1m 30cm) of rain in several towns, making it the worst rain event (and hence flood) in American history. If Allison was the hundred-year flood, they’re calling Harvey the 1,000 year flood. One local TV channel did some math with statistics (always a dangerous thing) and claimed that this was the 40,000 year flood. Incredibly, centred on the nation’s 4th largest city, a metropolitan area of over 10 Million people.

When I finally made it back to Houston, the drive home from Bush Intercontinental Airport was surprising. I wasn’t back until a few days after Harvey because of cancelled flights. And everything looked, well, pretty much fine. Some dirt on the edges of streets. But the highways were open, stores and neighbourhoods looked normal; what was the problem?

Tearing their own houses apart

Then I got to the first neighbourhood I saw that had flooded. And wow. Just WOW. Talk about devastation. It was a scene that every Houstonian is now familiar with- street after street full of houses with mountains of junk on the front yard. Sheet rock. 2x4s. Couches. Clothes. Baseball cards. Toilets. Dishwashers and golf clubs and carpet padding. Everything and anything that you would find inside or attached to a house, you could find on thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Houston yards. The most bizarre thing was that if people had not gone through the necessary process of tearing their houses apart (in order to prevent mould and try to salvage the frame and roof of the house), you may not even notice that there had been a flood. Until you smelled that smell….

If Hurricane Andrew looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off in South Florida, with flattening and destruction everywhere, Harvey reminded me more of a neutron bomb. The terrible nuclear weapon designed to use neutrons to kill people but minimize its destruction. Harvey did not leave blatant “blast effect” from the hurricane, but boy was the destruction complete, in whatever neighbourhood had the misfortune of being flooded.

Mops and buckets cleaning up after the hurricane
Clean-up after Hurricane Harvey

Soon after getting back to Houston I was itching to get to work. I had a serious case of survivor’s guilt for not being involved from the get-go. For those of you who haven’t been involved with a flood, here’s how the drill goes. You wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, you get a good pair of gloves, a crow bar, hammer, and boots. You find a group to join- mostly at local churches here in Houston (where, BTW, thousands of volunteers are pouring in from all over the country- this has been the Church’s finest hour, from my point of view). And then you go to houses. In the past few days I’ve been to no less than five total strangers’ houses, all of which I’ve contributed to destroying.

It’s not every day you can just walk into a house that you’ve never been before, and start swinging a crowbar, tearing out drywall, wood floors, cabinets, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. And the homeowners have actually been happy! Surreal is the only word that comes to mind.

United by the storm

In the midst of this terrible disaster it has been very encouraging to see people helping each other, from all walks of life. Harvey was an equal opportunity storm, affecting rich and poor without regard to social status. It is certainly true that the wealthier victims will be able to recover quicker- as they are able to better afford contractors and temporary living quarters, and likely had better insurance. But in the midst of this tragedy I saw both rich and poor sweating and working in each other’s houses. I saw people who absolutely didn’t vote for the President welcome his visit. I saw many many church groups and other volunteers come to Houston from far away, ready to help the poorest neighborhoods as well as wealthy. Much more needs to be done, and significant recovery will take many months and even years. But in a time of unprecedented division in our nation maybe this terrible storm will help unite us, in some small way.

Volunteers stand in front of the clean up
Just a few of the hundreds of volunteers cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey

There is another consequence that I hope Harvey brings in the long run, and it is one that I saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. The area that was most affected, South Florida, was frankly in pretty bad shape in 1992. There were many neighborhoods around our base that were off-limits to military personnel, because they were crime ridden. But now, years later, the Homestead area is thriving, it is very modern and safe, and its economy is doing great. As terrible as the storm was, and as much pain as it caused, the process of rebuilding made that region better in the long run. I hope that in 10 years’ time we will say the same of Hurricane Harvey and the greater Houston area. There is something about going through a very rough patch, whether in nature or in your life, that can lead to a better future- if properly handled.

I will close this blog by saying that as of tonight, Irma has practically destroyed some small Caribbean Islands, has missed significant parts of the larger Caribbean nations, and will likely be a disaster for a significant part of Florida. My prayer is that the damage be limited to things. Things that can be rebuilt, better than before. The same cannot be said of the people in the path of this storm.

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