William McWhirter has lived in the Greater Houston Area since 1963 when he was ten years old. He provides insight into personal experiences with flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes. McWhirter’s property in northwest Cypress flooded three times, in 1998, 2000, and 2001. He describes the experience as nightmarish, with fear of flooding any time the skies begin to cloud – but that his experiences also help prepare him for the worst. Fortunately for McWhirter, his home did not flood from Hurricane Harvey, but there were significant amounts of debris on the roads and fields in his rural community outside of Houston. When asked about flooding policy and the environment, McWhirter divulged his concerns about the current climate crisis. He believes that without reducing carbon dioxide and hydrogen emissions, the global warming effect will become more severe, and we will see an increase in devastation and occurrences of tropical storms.
Read on for the full transcript of the interview:
Interviewee: William McWhirter
Interview Date: October 16, 2019
Interview Location: UH Main Campus
Interviewer: Christian Small
INTERVIEWER: Today is October 16, 2019. This is Christian Small with the University of Houston’s Center for Public History Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project. We are at UH Main Campus talking with Mr. William McWhirter.
Q. We will begin by asking a few questions, and then we will discuss your experiences during Hurricane Harvey. Would you please tell me your full name and date of birth?
A. William McWhirter. April 10, 1953.
Q. And where were you born?
A. San Antonio, Texas.
Q. And when did you come to Houston?
A. We moved here when I was 10 years old. It would have been 1963.
Q. Can you tell me about your early life?
A. Yeah, I was born into a family of four children. I have three sisters and just a typical suburban middle-class upbringing. We — my dad worked for the railroad. And we moved several times when I was younger [0:01:00] and ended up here in Houston.
Q. What brought you to Houston?
A. Dad — my dad got transferred here.
Q. Okay, and what about your adult life?
A. Well, I have five children and ten grandchildren. And they’re the absolute love of my life. I worked a 40-year career as a railroad engineer. I ran freight trains for Union Pacific Railroad. And I retired six years ago. I’ve been retired for six years.
Q. So is your family in Houston?
A. Yeah, all of our family is still here in this area.
Q. What part of Houston do they live in?
A. Mostly to the — on the northwest side out in the Cypress area. I have one son on the north side of Houston.
Q. Have you ever experienced any sort of weather emergencies prior to Harvey?
A. I have been flooded three times. My home was flooded in 1998, 2000 — Tropical Storm Frances in 1998 [0:02:00], 2000 another tropical storm, and then in 2001 Tropical Storm Allison.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about those experiences?
A. Well, it was an absolute nightmare. You wake up in the middle of the night, and your house is full of water. And it just totally changes everything, especially when you flood repeated times. It’s — it gets to where it weighs on you. Because not only do you fear flooding, but every time the skies get cloudy, you start to wonder. It’s the fear of flooding. It’s really a nightmare.
Q. So what were you doing in the days leading up to Harvey?
A. I don’t remember to be honest with you. My memory is failing a little bit but just living life, you know. I was working at that time, I think. When was Harvey?
A. No, I was retired at that time. I get them confused, but [0:03:00] we were retired just living the easy life out in the country.
Q. Did you or your family feel it was necessary to prepare for the storm?
A. Oh, yeah, we — any time there’s a tropical storm coming in, we get the supplies and prepare just like everybody.
Q. So what did you do to prepare?
A. Well, you buy, you know, the flashlights and the batteries and stock up on the foods you think you may need. In my case, I have a generator. I know the lights are going out, so I get my generator — plenty of gasoline for the generator and just batten the hatches.
Q. What did you expect the storm to do based on the forecasts and your prior experiences?
A. Well, anytime there’s a tropical storm coming in, you expect the worst. You never know exactly when the flooding is going to hit, but — especially having flooded three times. You know, you just — you just get ready [0:04:00].
Q. So how did you feel on the first night of the storm?
A. Well, scared, you know. Any time there’s a hurricane or tropical storm coming in, you’re fearing the trees falling and the water rising. And you just — a lot of anxiety during those times.
Q. On the mornings during and after the storm, what did it look like outside?
A. It just looked, you know, like a hurricane or tropical storm was coming in — a lot of wind, a lot of rain.
Q. Were there trees falling?
A. Oh, yeah, we lost a lot of trees. On our place is a lot of old trees and a lot of old oak trees.
Q. Do you live far from your family?
A. About an hour and a half from most of my family.
Q. How did that distance make you feel in the wake of the hurricane?
A. Well, you’re always worried about your children, you know. My children are [0:05:00] all living pretty independent, successful lives now. They’re well-established. And so they’re — they can handle these things. We’re lucky in that respect.
Q. So how was your home impacted?
A. We did not flood during Harvey, but like I said, mostly down trees. The roads were blocked. You couldn’t get in or out of our little county roads out there. A lot of debris around. I have a small cattle operation, so I have to worry about my cows also to make sure they’re safe.
Q. So it was more so your property?
Q. So did you have property flooding?
A. We had some — I have a couple of stock ponds out there that overflowed, but it wasn’t severe enough to get into our home.
Q. So how was your neighborhood impacted?
A. Well, we live in a very rural community. And the houses are all very far apart out there, and there was a couple of people that did get some water in their homes [0:06:00]. But basically, it’s just the road flooding. You’re kind of stranded. You can’t get in or out.
Q. So were you stranded?
A. Yeah, we — when the roads flood like that, we can’t get out to the main highway, so.
Q. So how did you finally manage to get out?
A. Well, you just have to wait until the water goes down — usually within a day or two.
Q. How’d that make you feel?
A. Well, you’re always relieved, you know, when you can get in and out. You know, especially at our age, you worry about medical emergencies and things like that. And so it’s always a relief when the roads open back.
Q. Did any of your family try to get to you?
A. I don’t — no. No, they all stayed in Houston.
Q. Were you impacted by Tropical Storm Imelda?
A. Just the rain. We didn’t flood during Imelda.
Q. Did you see yourself preparing more for Imelda in the wake of Harvey?
A. We sort of stay prepared all the time now because of the [0:07:00] climate extremes we’re experiencing. And the storms are getting worse every year it seems like, especially in Houston. Every other year, we have a 500-year flood. And it’s a symptom of more violent climate — the climate crisis overall.
Q. How did Harvey change the way you prepare for a storm? Would you do anything differently?
A. Well, no, because we’ve been used to these for a number of years now. So it’s sort of a routine we go through. And just, like I said, getting the food and gas for the generators.
Q. So how do you feel about flooding policy and everything that’s going on in the environment right now?
A. Well, flooding is a symptom of the climate crisis. The climate extremes — as the planet warms, as global warming increases, the climate is going to become even more extreme. I’ve done a lot of reading on this, and [0:08:00] it’s interesting. You know, the Gulf of Mexico is one of the warmest bodies of water in the world. The temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico reach 90 degrees now during the summertime. In the future, when the temperatures — as they warm, the computer models that model hurricanes say that when the Gulf of Mexico temperatures reach a hundred degrees, they will spawn what’s called a hypercane — a hurricane with 500 mile an hour winds that will destroy every structure — flatten every structure within a hundred miles of the coastline, which happens to be the building we’re sitting in right now.
This building will be destroyed sometime — a hundred years, whenever it’s going to be in the future. But that’s why I’m concerned about my grandchildren’s future, their grandchildren’s future. If we don’t get serious about how much carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere, this is going to continue to worsen.
Q. What kind of policies do you think [0:09:00] should be put in place to help prevent hyper-hurricanes and flooding in general?
A. Well, we’re going to have to — we’re still increasing the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere. That’s got to stop. We’ve got to stop the increase first. And then we’ve got to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere, or this problem will eventually spin out of control. It will get to the point where it can’t be stopped.
Q. Earlier you mentioned that you had flooded in ’98, 2000, and 2001. How long had you lived in your houses before then?
A. Let’s see. I bought that house in 1976, so that would be 22 years. And it’s interesting to note that we never saw any high water in 1998. In 1997, to protect the downtown business interest, Harris County Flood Control installed water restrictors on White Oak Bayou. White Oak Bayou runs into downtown Houston [0:10:00]. It meets Buffalo Bayou right there in downtown Houston. And they were trying to protect the downtown business interests, so they built large water restrictors or like angel wings on the sides of the bayou to slow the waterflow down, so downtown wouldn’t flood. And that’s when northwest Houston began flooding. They built those in 1997. We started flooding in 1998, 2000, and 2001. It’s my understanding now that they’ve taken those structures down and that that area no longer floods nearly as bad as it did. So there’s some politics involved in all of this.
Q. Yes, there is. So you mentioned that a lot of the increase in flooding we’re having is based on climate change. Do you think that climate change is going to worsen?
A. Absolutely it is. We’re pumping record amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is causing the Earth to warm. And the reason that’s [0:11:00] important is because the ice starting to melt both in — on the Arctic and the Antarctic. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that underneath that ice, there is a permafrost soil that’s — very high content of hydrocarbon in it. And when that hydrocarbon unfreezes, it’s going to biodegrade into methane. And it’s estimated that the amount of methane in the atmosphere is going to triple when all the ice melts. So it’s going to reach a point where, regardless of what we do to try to stop it, that alone will propel climate change.
Q. So what will the added methane do to the atmosphere?
A. Methane is 34 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. So you if you triple the amount of methane in the atmosphere, it’s just going to continue to warm the planet even faster. Another thing a lot of people don’t know is that people that study geology and paleontology and things like that — they dig down through the fossil record. And what they know [0:12:00] is that there’s actually been a climate crisis on this planet five times before. Because when they dig down, and they’ll see that all of the fossils have — life has disappeared from the planet. And coincidentally, right there, they’ll test the soil and see how much carbon was in the soil at that time on this planet. And it’s — the carbon had spiked, causing the life to essentially become extinct. Five times before, the carbon — during those incidents was caused by volcanoes erupting — during the early, early years. But whenever carbon spikes on this planet, life dies.
Q. Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to discuss?
A. No, can’t think of a thing.
Q. Alrighty [0:12:57]