Relatively low Harvey death toll is ‘astounding’ to experts

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Harvey has so far killed at least 70 people who drowned in floods, got crushed by trees and died during power outages — a surprisingly low toll that experts say reflects heeded warnings, swift action by first responders and volunteers, and no small amount of luck.

“It was astounding that we didn’t have a much larger loss of life,” said Phil Bedient, co-director of a Rice University effort to research severe storms and evacuations. “It is a relatively low number for as big a storm as this was.”

The system intensified from an ordinary storm to a Category 4 hurricane in just over two days before striking Texas on Aug. 25 and dropping 52 inches of rain while parked over the Houston area.

Authorities and experts say lessons learned from previous disasters made a major difference. Floodgates installed around hospitals kept the power on. Search-and-rescue crews raced toward the coast ahead of time. Houston leaders did not call for a mass evacuation in an area with 6.5 million people, keeping them off highways that were later underwater.

Nor did authorities mince words on social media: Houston’s police chief told people not to retreat into attics unless they could break out with an ax.

There was also luck. It helped that Harvey crashed ashore along one of the more rural stretches of the Texas coast. The storm surge reached 12.5 feet (3.8 meters) in a wildlife refuge in Aransas County, where so far the only death reported was a person killed in a fire.

“As far as we know, there were few or no storm surge fatalities,” said National Hurricane Center Acting Director Ed Rappaport. “That’s kind of remarkable given that it’s a Category 4 landfall.”

Harvey’s full toll won’t be realized for weeks. At least 18 people are still missing in Houston alone, and bodies are still emerging. The most recent discoveries include the body of a 3-month-old baby who was swept away from her parents when their truck was shoved off the road by raging floodwaters.

Around the cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont, authorities say they will not release details of storm-related deaths until all bodies are recovered.

Most of Harvey’s victims died in floodwaters, including six family members who were riding in a van. Electricity outages have also been blamed for some indirect deaths, such as when oxygen tanks lost power. One man died of a heart attack when rescuers could not get to him in time.