Houston News & Search
As emergency crews rushed to pluck Houstonians from their roofs and a steady stream of victims stumbled into area shelters sopping wet, local leaders continued to defend their decision not to evacuate the city before the first rains fell.
Though parts of Brazoria and Fort Bend counties were placed under mandatory evacuations, Houston and Harris County did not follow suit.
For good reason, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Faced with a strengthening storm aimed at Texas’ Gulf Coast 12 years ago, officials decided to empty the city. The resulting 20-hour traffic jams caused dozens of deaths from heat-related illnesses and accidents, roughly as many as were attributed to Hurricane Rita itself.
“In the city of Houston there are 2.3 million people. When you combine that with Harris County, you’re talking about 6.5 million people. Where are they going?” the mayor said. “And then once they are away from the city of Houston, they’re away from our assets and our ability to help them. The decision that we made was a smart one. It was in the best interest of Houstonians.”
Noting Harvey’s rapid growth, Turner said to vacate the city within days “would have been crazy.” Rita triggered “a great deal of confusion, a great deal of chaos,” he said.
Payshunz Nagashima, a Beaumont resident who spent seven years working in the disaster recovery field in Texas, said Houston would need to order an exodus at least 72 hours from landfall to avoid a Rita repeat.
That would have meant issuing an order Tuesday night, when Harvey still had not fully reformed into a tropical storm. Though the storm had been expected to produce ample rainfall, it was not until Friday that meteorologists knew a serious hurricane was coming.
“Obviously, you don’t want anybody sitting on top of roofs trying to get rescued, but if you’re looking at, ‘OK, we need to evacuate 6.5 million people,’ or do people need to slowly watch the flood waters rise and make their best decisions, at the end of the day it’s a disaster,” Nagashima said. “You can’t prevent every horrible scenario for every individual within an area.”
There is precedent for mayors waiting too long to order their cities to clear out.
A Congressional report on the response to Hurricane Katrina criticized former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for waiting until 24 hours before the storm made landfall to order an evacuation, despite 100,000 residents lacking cars.
Waiting too long also could create gridlock at exactly the wrong moment. The majority of flood deaths from 2010 through 2014 – 53 percent – occurred when people tried to drive through a storm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Still, Houston roofing contractor Jaime Calderon said officials should have emptied the city when the forecasts grew darker. Calderon fled Houston late Thursday for Austin, fearing his home would flood for a third time in four years.
“The Houston people should have issued a mandatory evacuation order, especially after they saw it was going to be much worse than everyone first thought,” he said.
Jim Hoffler, a systems engineer from Clear Lake, agreed.
“I’ve lived in various places where evacuations have been part of life – Florida, South Carolina, New York – and Houston, in my opinion, didn’t do its job on Harvey,” said Hoffler, who left the city Thursday with his wife and three children to stay with relatives in Austin. “It doesn’t take an idiot to see that everything was going to flood, big-time.”
Gov. Greg Abbott had said before the storm hit that Texans from Corpus Christi – which issued a voluntary but not mandatory evacuation edict – to Houston should “strongly consider evacuating,” but later declined to second-guess local officials’ decisions.
“We are at the stage where we just need to respond to the emergencies and necessities that the people around Houston have,” he said.
County Judge Ed Emmett noted that throughout Harvey’s buildup to a Category 4 storm shortly before it struck the coast Friday night, experts had struggled to predict its path or which areas would bear the brunt of the rainfall it would produce.
“To evacuate (an area), you have to know where to tell your people to go,” he said. “Every storm is different.”
Before Harvey made landfall, Emmett had said evacuations typically are required due to the threat of high winds and storm surge, not rainfall.
“In this case we’ll have a lot of water,” he said Friday night, “but it’s not the kind of water that we would ask people to evacuate from.”
Dennis Storemski, the city’s director of public safety and homeland security, echoed that.
“Rising water is something somebody can evaluate at the time,” he said. “You don’t know where the water’s going to go, so why would you require everybody to leave when people would probably argue, ‘well I don’t want to leave.’ The best we can do is provide information about what can be expected and people make their own decision.”
That argument rang true for Al Roth, 54, who decamped from Houston to Cedar Creek to stay with relatives before the storm hit.
“The mayor and the other officials handled it just right. They gave people the option to evacuate – and that’s all anyone who knows Houston needs,” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about Houston knows this much rain will cause severe flooding.”
Miguel Moreno, whose unit at the Colonial Oaks apartments in Oak Forest took on several inches of water, agreed. Moreno said he and his mother would have preferred to stay and would have done so even under a voluntarily evacuation order.
“There’s a lot of people that they don’t want to move,” he said. “In our apartment complex, the highest it ever gets is just what happened today. It’s really not a disaster where we’re at.”
Amy Fairchild was one of three Columbia University public health professors who contributed to a 2006 paper on mandatory evacuations. She and her colleagues argued such orders require government to both offset the inconvenient edict with ample assistance and to vigorously enforce the order.
It would be a mistake to empty out a dense urban area, Fairchild said Monday, but targeted orders could be a useful tool.
“The roadways can’t handle millions, but city and state officials can and should enforce highly targeted areas to get those at greatest risk out of harm’s way,” she said. “A targeted order may not have quite the emotional punch of a broad mandate, but it may also be more feasible to enforce in a muscular way.”
Turner said Monday that ordering targeted evacuations, such as including those living in floodplains, was not discussed.
“Now, what we also attempted to do was, as the situation changed and as the water was coming up in certain areas we knew would probably flood, like the Greenspoint area, we immediately moved to set up the M.O. Campbell (shelter), and that has been much, smoother this time around then before,” Turner said, referencing last year’s Tax Day flood, which hammered Greenspoint.
Houston police began evacuating residents from apartment complexes next to the swelling Greens Bayou Saturday night. By early Sunday, the bayou again was rushing into nearly 2,000 apartments that took on water during the Tax Day flood the year before.
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