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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Faculty & Staff

Professor’s homes in Houston, Napa threatened by natural disasters

Political science professor Richard Murray was affected by two natural disasters in the last two months. In August, his Houston home flooded during Hurricane Harvey. His second home in Napa, California, was nearly burned during this month’s wildfires. | Courtesy of Richard Murray

Political science professor Richard Murray shuffled through Scantrons and refreshed his browser for updates on the California wildfires in Napa Valley on Oct. 8. For the second time in two months, Murray, his family and his property were threatened by a natural disaster.

A record-setting amount of rain flooded his Houston home during Hurricane Harvey in August. Last week, 2,000 miles away from the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, a wildfire engulfed the area near his second home in Napa Valley, California. 

“You figure 25,000 people had to be evacuated in a country of 300 million, so you think your odds are pretty good that your family is not going to be that one, and it turns out we get flooded here and then a terrible fire in the other end,” Murray said.

After spending the summer in the California wine country, Murray returned to Texas to start UH’s fall semester.

His wife, Debbie Murray, stayed in Napa with her mother. Their return flight to Houston was booked at the same time as Harvey’s predicted arrival. 

Richard Murray thought it was too risky, so he told them not to board. 

Harvey hits

On the Sunday morning after Harvey made landfall, Murray found himself wading through 6 inches of water in his living room. He took his dog Marco, a few belongings and went to a neighbor’s house across the street. 

“I had to walk through water, which was up to my chest, and the dog had to swim,” he said. “It turns out he swims.”

Eleven hours after Murray left his house, he was rescued by a boat with KTRK ABC-13 News onboard and dropped off at a nearby Randall’s. Soon after, he made it to the safety of his son’s home.

Residing in the Braeswood Place neighborhood, Murray is no stranger to flooding and rebuilding, as his home took in water during 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison. Luckily, he was in Napa when that storm hit.

Harvey was different — he experienced it firsthand. 

“I told my wife and her mother, ‘You can’t come back because the house is uninhabitable,'” he said.

He figured they were safe in Napa, far from the effects of Texas’ natural disaster.

Evacuating the refuge

Murray began to visit wineries in the Napa area in 1978. He enjoyed his time there, so he purchased a house in the early 1990s. He has called Napa his second home for 24 years.

Harvey forced him from his Houston home, and 42 days later, his wife and mother-in law had to evacuate their Napa home. 

“About 1 a.m. on Monday morning, our neighbors came to make sure we knew it was a mandatory evacuation,” Debbie Murray said. “My mother has muscular dystrophy and is on a tube feeder, so I grabbed what I thought we needed, and we all caravan-ed out.”

Their Napa home was spared from flames by an astonishing 300 yards.

“We were largely saved because there was a fierce wind blowing the fire away from us,” Richard Murray said. “Otherwise, I think my wife and mother-in-law would have been killed from the severity of the fire.”

Since the fire started on Oct. 8, 220,000 acres caught flames, according to the Los Angeles Times. The fire has affected an estimated 5,700 structures and caused up to 40 deaths.

The once peaceful subdivision of Circle Oaks in rural Napa County — where the couple finds refuge each summer — is now filled with emergency sirens from fire engines racing throughout the neighborhood. Helicopters rumble overhead.

According to local emergency updates, the blaze is now 77 percent contained. But Debbie Murray said that she and many other residents continue to use respiratory masks to ensure breathable air.

“This is the longest period of time Dick and I have been apart,” she said. “It’s just so strange. I miss them. I want to get back home — at least one home.”

Lessons learned

Murray teaches an introduction to political science course with 216 students at UH. He says the delay at the beginning of the semester changed his teaching agenda.

Now, the class’s writing assignments focus on recounting experiences during Harvey and the lessons learned.

“In my own case, these two different, pretty cataclysmic events 2,000 miles apart, I think the connection I see is global warming,” he said. “Maybe that’s how you set all-time records.”

As the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico has significantly increased, storms traveling across the water suck up more water and dump it, he said.

After five years of dry California summers followed by a wet winter, the weather led to a growth in vegetation, which led to a severe fire, Richard Murray said.

“When hurricanes happen, climate change is contributing to intensify them, and we saw that with Harvey,” said Rachel Cleetus, climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The human cause in California is that we’ve got drier conditions and increased development.”

Richard Murray said he thinks human activity caused both the hurricane and wildfires.

Debbie Murray and her mother are still staying with friends in Yountville, California. She said that every day, the date when they can return to Houston is pushed back further and further.

“I know it was life changing,” she said, referring to the disasters. “I think it brings families closer together. In some way, things will be different.”

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