It’s the early afternoon of August 25, and the streets of Corpus Christi are deserted. The city had issued a voluntary evacuation order the day before, when the projected tracks of Hurricane Harvey were starting to take aim at Corpus. Now the first heavy gusts from the outer bands have begun to rake the barrier islands. The residents who left are long gone; the six lanes of State Highway 358 leading though town are utterly barren. The ones who stayed have hunkered down for the possibility of a long night ahead. Sheets of plywood cover nearly every window.
I’m riding with Ben McMillan, a friend and WeatherNation correspondent whose invitation earlier that morning had convinced me to make the trip here from Dallas. Ben’s a seasoned storm chaser whose judgements I trust when it comes to hostile environments. He’s also an EMT who mans an ambulance in Maricopa County, Arizona, when he isn’t trailing tornadoes and tropical cyclones. I’ve chased storms the last several years as a journalist.
As we cruise Mustang Island, along the rain-scoured streets parallel to the coast, we look out over the Gulf of Mexico, toward the storm we can’t see coming through the gray curtain that has pulled shut across the eastern horizon. Harvey is no more than 70 miles offshore. Our best guess is that the eye will make landfall near midnight, somewhere northeast of here, toward Rockport. But every time we consult the radar feed on our smartphones, the hurricane has wobbled in its track. The storm could just as easily veer west, toward the city.
Around 5 p.m., we return to our hotel on Shoreline Boulevard. We can scarcely keep up with the pace of Harvey’s intensification. In the time it took us to drive back from the barrier islands, Harvey has become what’s known as a “major hurricane,” an official designation based on sustained wind velocities. Ben and I are stunned by the radar presentation: a circular saw blade that spans much of the Gulf of Mexico and the entire Texas coast. Harvey is closing in, now some 50 miles to our east-southeast. At the downtown marina, the surge is already breaking against the sea wall, producing low concussions like faraway thunder. Debris from the palms lining the grassy median shower the streets and sidewalks. Wind through the rigging of moored sailboats whistles like a boiling kettle.
At 6 p.m., the National Hurricane Center reports that Harvey is producing sustained winds of at least 130 miles per hour, consistent with Category 4. Texas hasn’t experienced a hurricane that powerful in more than half a century — not since Carla in 1961. We want to go where the storm is going, but it’s not until 7:53 p.m. that we get a clear sense of its path. Harvey’s eye is definitely tracking to our northeast, a fortuitous development for Corpus, and a dire one for Rockport. We have a decision to make: If we stay where we are, we should be relatively safe, but miss what we came for. If we drive northeast, we’ll put ourselves in an unpredictable danger that we hadn’t imagined hours earlier. After some back and forth, we try to split the difference: we’ll press as close as we can to Harvey’s outer edge as it makes landfall, without being engulfed.
As we steer northeast out of town, conditions quickly degrade. Bad storms have a way of shrinking even a view as vast as the Gulf of Mexico. Visibility is measured in yards, not miles. We take the U.S. Highway 181 bridge across the port’s main turning basin, a narrow harbor opening onto Corpus Christi Bay. At the top of the bridge, the USS Lexington looms in the distance, an indistinct shape in the whiteout of aerosolizing rain. Gusts from the west drive broadside into the truck with the force and brevity of sharp body blows. Our vehicle, a Chevy 4X4 with a truck camper in the rear and a heavy steel grill guard in the front, leans with the wind to the east, toward Harvey, as though we’re being drawn into the storm.
Ben is leaning forward over the steering wheel, straining to track the traffic lines and the curve of the road hidden beneath jetting rip currents of rain. We cross the bridge and pass through the town of Gregory and hook a right on Highway 361, tacking southeast toward the coast. The wind, which had been pounding the truck’s flank, has begun to swing with Harvey’s cyclonic motion. It’s now pushing us from behind. Ben takes his foot off the gas, yet we maintain our speed.
Off to the south, toward the bay, I catch a faint glow through the early nightfall brought on by the hurricane. Refinery flares still cast an ambient, red-amber haze.
We arrive in Ingleside, six miles east of Gregory and only a few miles from the gulf, at around 8:30. We pull into a combination Pizza Hut and Snappy gas station whose windows have been boarded up. The eastern sky strobes with arc light — not lightning, but exploding power transformers. Winds are intensifying again. As radar soon makes clear, Harvey’s track has wobbled once more. It’s now bearing almost due west. This means, at least for the time being, we crossed over into the projected path of the eye, much closer to the hurricane’s most extreme winds than we had planned. We’re no more than thirteen miles from the eye wall’s leading edge, inside of Harvey’s core flow.
Ben angles the truck with the headlights pointed toward the restaurant. Even with the emergency brake engaged, I can feel the Chevy bucking forward with each gust battering its rear. In moments, Ben is scheduled to do a live spot on CNN, and with no one else to hold the camera while he makes his report, I’ve been conscripted.
The truck sways with each successive gust that washes over us with the instantaneity of a shock wave. Things that shouldn’t move are beginning to. An outdoor ice box scrapes across the concrete storefront and collides with a cage full of propane tanks. The wind has begun to pry the aluminum siding from the store’s awning. A panel breaks free and skips over the asphalt, kicking up swarms of sparks like a flint. The eastern sky again pulses with the pale light of bursting transformers.
The instant I crack my door open, the wind nearly wrenches it from my grasp. I step out into the hurricane and squat low, bracing myself. I pull the rain jacket hood over my head and lower a shoulder against the door to drive it shut. I scuttle around to the front of the truck and crouch as low as I can, leaning against the grill guard. Ben hands me an iPad and I center him within the frame onscreen. I feel each gust slamming into the rear of the Chevy as it shoves at my back. I hear the sound of metal colliding with metal. I see the shapes of debris in my peripheral vision blurring past. Ben is speaking into the microphone. Though he’s no more than four feet away and I’m watching his mouth move, I hear no sound. He’s hunched over, occasionally staggering, clutching his ball cap to his head. I keep sinking lower against the grill guard, certain a piece of gas station awning will come scything over the camper and into one of us. Ben can’t hear me, so I shake my head vigorously to indicate that my comfort level has been thoroughly exceeded, and that we need to immediately return to the shelter of the truck. A live spot spanning exactly 57 seconds might as well have been an eternity.
Ben and I are no strangers to violent wind. A few years ago, we stood inside the inflow of two simultaneously occurring EF-4 tornadoes in Nebraska. We’ve been present for some of the fastest winds on earth. Yet even with the hair standing on the back of my neck less than three quarters of a mile from twisters containing velocities in excess of 200 miles per hour, I never felt mortal peril as I watched them drift over the wide-open corn fields. I knew where they were headed, and I knew intuitively that it wasn’t toward us. But this feels different. There is no distance, no buffer, no separation between us and the storm. I’m huddled against the truck in the strongest wind I’ve ever felt. For the first time in a long time, I am deeply afraid.
At last, Ben lowers the microphone and we duck through the wind and rain toward the relative safety of the truck. Ben lunges into the driver’s seat and easily slams his door shut. At this angle, however, my side is taking the brunt of the gale. The door acts like a sail the moment I crack it open. Even as I plant both feet and pull with all my strength, I can scarcely get the door to budge. My back is to the wind, now sustained at more than 80 miles per hour and gusting much faster. The collisions of steel against steel I hear all around us must activate an adrenal dump, because I give a final, frenzied pull, climb into the seat, and slam the door home.
Ben throws the truck into gear and steers around to the leeward side of the restaurant. The only thing limiting our exposure to the hurricane and the projectiles it carries will be the Pizza Hut’s concrete masonry walls. Ben jumps the curb, plants two tires on the sidewalk, and edges as close as he can to the building. With the wind impinging on the restaurant at a near-90-degree angle, we’re almost entirely sheltered now.
By 9:45 p.m., the eye is not only expanding, but it’s begun to shape-shift. Gone is the tightly wound circle. As Harvey stalls offshore, the radar shows the eye’s clean boundaries bulging outward, like petals of a flower, as though forces ever more violent boil within. I’ll later learn that the Center for Severe Weather Research’s mobile radar was detecting enormous tornado-like structures known as mesovortices orbiting within the mammoth eye wall itself, the clearest indication yet of the storm’s lethal power. What’s more, once the hurricane starts moving again, our GPS location on radar seems to indicate that the eye wall might graze us. If it does, it will happen in 15 minutes or so, and the wind will get much, much stronger. After that, at least briefly, we may pass into the calm of the eye itself. Every rational inclination tells me to avoid the hellish wind we know is coming. But with the outer edge of the eye wall a matter of a few miles offshore, we can’t leave. Our only option is to sit, to observe the gas pumps rocking against their loosening anchor bolts, and to wait for imminent landfall.
Hurricane Harvey, a storm that will transform the Texas coast for years and even decades to come, arrives on the mainland at 10 p.m. The difference has already become apparent. The inconsistent gusts from thirty minutes ago have now become the insistent mean. The wind that earlier was a turbulent wash through our headlights now looks more like a wind tunnel’s laminar jet. Within half an hour, we’ve penetrated the southwestern edge of the eye wall. Mere feet beyond our shelter are the kinds of natural velocities I’ve witnessed only in high-end tornadoes. I don’t see rain drops so much as a brushstroke, a smearing of shapes by the brain’s primary visual cortex once it becomes unable to process such a rate of motion.
Pieces of metal siding from the convenience store’s roof skip and spark across the parking lot before vanishing into the night. Winds are now sustaining at around 90 miles per hour, with gusts peaking at 100 miles per hour and possibly more. Within a different region of the eye wall, nearer to Rockport, mobile Doppler radar is detecting winds approaching 145 miles per hour, consistent with the upper end of Category 4 and flirting with Category 5.
I fear we’ll encounter the kind of power against which a Pizza Hut’s wall is no guarantee. Yet even as I fret about the near future, Ben reminds me to attend to the present. “Roll your window down,” he says. “You’ve gotta listen to it. You may never hear anything like this ever again.”
He’s right. I let the roar of the hurricane’s eye wall fill the truck cab. I hear several layers of sound. There’s the singing hiss of rain coursing parallel with the earth. There’s a wailing, like a woman’s cries, omnidirectional and deafening. It’s all overlaid with the low-frequency roar I’ve heard only in tornadoes — a sound like forest fire, like the shearing slippage of fault lines. I step outside of the truck and keep to our wall. There’s a smell of leaking natural gas. The air itself seems to vibrate.
I try to imagine what our location would look like when viewed from orbit, through the lens of a geostationary satellite. Beneath all those rotating miles of cloud, wind, and water, Ben and I would be right there at the edge of the eye, at the heart of a storm spanning the Texas coast that each second is expending the energy equivalent to at least ten Hiroshima-class bombs.
In the days to come, Harvey will transform into a prodigious rainmaker. Vast swaths of the coast will sink beneath one of the worst flooding disasters in United States history. The waters will continue to rise for days, and they’ll take even longer still to recede. Houston’s recovery may take years. But for Ben and I, this is the night where it all begins, at a Pizza Hut in Ingleside.
Shortly after 11 p.m., the hurricane path shifts again. The westerly winds we’ve largely been shielded from are swinging northwesterly, which means we’re no longer completely protected by the Pizza Hut. Violent eddies whirl toward our vehicle and break against the hood like waves. Harvey’s eye is again tracking away from us, to our north. In short order, we’re mostly clear of the eye wall. Part of me desperately wanted to pass through that wall and enter the eye’s uncanny tranquility, to look up from within the windless, miles-wide center of a coliseum of near-tornadic wind, and to see the stars. We missed that by a few miles at most. But another part of me is relieved. I can finally breathe. For the next hour, we still catch the occasional band of hurricane-force wind and rain shed by the spinning eye wall, but by 12:15 — after some three hours spent sheltering in the truck — we judge it safe enough to emerge from the shelter of the Pizza Hut and to return to Corpus.
The twenty miles to our hotel pass slowly. We weave across Highway 361, now littered with debris: large highway signage, entire steel roof systems, power poles and electrical lines lacing the lanes. We head southwest out of Portland toward the bay. Along the narrow spit of land that leads to the bay bridge, the wind is pushing the surge up the banks. Again I see the flickering amber glow of refinery flares along the coastline, the first light I’ve seen in hours aside from our own headlights. I look out over the bay. We drive slowly, no more than 25 or 30 miles per hour, shuddering through the outer bands of what is now a Category 3.
As we reach the highest point of the bridge at a little after one in the morning, Ben and I fall momentarily silent. Four miles out, the lights of Corpus Christi spread before us. Their brilliance is almost blinding in the way they glimmer through the rain — a city of light surrounded on all sides by a land plunged into darkness.