Why wasn’t Houston evacuated? Why wasn’t there a mandatory evacuation order for the city?
Who’s to blame?
Those are questions people are asking as horrific images circulated of the dire flooding in the city. People begged for help from rooftops, a man was rescued from a partially submerged semi truck, and families pleaded for rescue on social media. One woman reportedly went into labor waiting for help but eventually made it to a hospital. A man’s living room was so flooded he caught a large fish in it, and in nearby Dickinson, seniors were photographed sitting up to their waists in water in a nursing home.
City and county officials are facing questions about why the evacuation order was not given, but based on history and expert opinions, some argue, the evacuation might not have helped, and could have made things worse, as occurred during Hurricane Rita. City officials, though, urged residents to ignore social media posts predicting a more dire situation before the hurricane hit. Some think more provisions should have at least been made for the city’s most vulnerable residents before the flooding.
Furthermore, Houston residents were given mixed messages before the storm struck. The Republican governor suggested evacuation, but the Democratic mayor and a Republican judge overseeing the city’s emergency operations suggested otherwise and didn’t order it, urging people to stay put instead. The decision was complicated, others say, by past evacuations that caused problems of their own and by the sheer population size of the city. However, it was no surprise that Houston might flood. CNN noted that Houston “is known for its susceptibility for flooding because of its flatness.”
Hurricane Harvey was an unparalleled challenge for Texas. The National Weather Service said the storm was unprecedented and catastrophic. At least five people have died (two in Houston flooding), more than 1,000 were rescued, and some 911 calls went unanswered. The rain was still coming. Dr. Greg Postel, hurricane specialist for The Weather Channel, said the Houston floods “could be the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history.”
On Friday, before the hurricane made landfall in Rockport and well before it flooded Houston, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, “encouraged residents to evacuate low lying and coastal areas of the state, even if a mandatory evacuation order had not been issued,” reported The Washington Post, quoting Abbott as saying, “Even if an evacuation order hasn’t been issued by your local official, if you’re in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating. What you don’t know, and what nobody else knows right now, is the magnitude of flooding that will be coming.”
Abbott also said, according to The Houston Chronicle, “A lot of people are going to go a long time without basic necessities. If you have the ability to evacuate and go someplace else for a little while, that would be good.”
Abbott also “offered residents options, like to relocate to inland shelters and seek out one of 200 buses being deployed to evacuate residents at the areas expected to be hardest hit,” The Chronicle reported.
Abbott, though, deferred to local officials when it came to a mandatory evacuation order. “Although Houston has a deep history of devastating floods, Abbott said he would stop short of demanding evacuations, saying those decisions should be made by local officials there,” The Houston Chronicle reported on August 25.
According to The Post, local officials had the opposite advice. “The governor’s warning was in sharp contrast to the advice local and county officials had been dispensing for days: to shelter and stay in place,” the newspaper reported. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, advised people not to evacuate on Twitter before the flooding struck.
“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted shortly after the press conference advising people not rush to evacuate,” The Chronicle reported.
“Please think twice before trying to leave Houston en masse. No evacuation orders have been issued for the city,” he wrote.
On August 24, Turner fired back at what he called unfounded rumors that had, in his words, “needlessly frightened” Houstonians, releasing a statement that read, “No evacuation orders have been issued for the city and none is being considered. Please continue to monitor mainstream news sources for updates on the weather and act accordingly as an informed resident. Rumors are nothing new, but the widespread use of social media has needlessly frightened many people today.”
The mayor even went to the trouble of talking directly to the author of one “false rumor email,” he wrote on Twitter at the time, to get a retraction.
Harris County’s emergency management office also tried to debunk what it called “false emails & FB posts” on August 24. The post it shared predicted 50 inches of rain (which experts are now also predicting) and 100,000 homes destroyed (it’s not clear how many homes are currently flooded in Houston).
Turner, a former Democratic legislator, defended the decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation order on August 27, even after the horrific scenes of flooding. “You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road,” Turner said in a press conference. “If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare.”
As for Abbott, he said Sunday that “now is not the time to second guess the decisions that were made,” and added that “he left several messages on Mr. Turner’s cellphone offering assistance, but hadn’t heard back,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
People who stayed put are also facing a nightmare. Horrific scenes have circulated of families with children trapped on rooftops. This family eventually was rescued:
You can see the list of mandatory and voluntary evacuations on the state’s website.
Judge Ed Emmett and other top officials also told people to stay put. Emmett is“responsible for overseeing emergency operations” in Houston, and he said on Friday: “At this time I can reemphasize there will be no mass evacuations called.”
“It’s not the kind of water we would ask people to evacuate from,” he said in the above video on August 25. A Statesman newspaper story on August 26 reported, before the flooding started in earnest, “Harris County Judge Ed Emmett wants his 4 million constituents to know that Harvey isn’t a hurricane for Houston. It’s a rain storm and potentially one of the worst this county has ever faced, he said,” and quoted Emmett as saying, “We’ve been saying for days, this is a rain event, this is not a hurricane. People think hurricane and they think evacuation, and that doesn’t apply to us.”
He said before the flooding hit of the governor’s urging for evacuation, according to The Statesman, “It was a mistake, there’s no way around it. What he said was ‘listen to your local officials’, but then he said if he lived here, he’d leave. Well, those are contradictory messages.” Emmett is the GOP’s top elected official in Harris County.
Emmett is also defending the decision not to evacuate. “To suggest we should have evacuated two million people is an outrageous statement,” he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “What we’re facing now is an effort to respond to a tragedy.…We’ve never seen water like this before.”
Francisco Sanchez, the spokesman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, tweeted that residents should follow local officials’ advice. “LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST,” he tweeted.
“I live here. I work here. I know here. My job is to protect people here,” he wrote in a second tweet.
Sanchez and local officials have seen what has happened during major storms in Houston in the past, when evacuations were ordered.
Aman Batheja, political editor for the Texas Tribune, wrote on Twitter that the decision to evacuate was more complicated than many realized. For one, he noted, “In 2005, the evacuation of Hurricane Rita was a bigger calamity than the hurricane itself. For days, major highways looked like parking lots. Dozens died before Rita even reached Texas. It was clear in hindsight that many evacuees would have been better off riding out the storm at home.”
He added, “Texas has grown like gangbusters since Rita. Growth in highway capacity hasn’t come close to matching that. Houston is the 4th largest city in the country with 2.3 million people. So as Houston Mayor debated evacuation, he had to weigh whether he was directing millions to sit in traffic as Harvey reached landfall.”
Some people noted that poverty levels can make it very hard for people to evacuate a city.
A Catastrophe for Houston's Most Vulnerable People
Within cities, poor communities of color often live in segregated neighborhoods with higher flood risks. This is especially true in Houston.
However, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honorè, who, according to The Wall Street Journal, “led the Department of Defense response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” told the newspaper “that experience has made officials wary of ordering an evacuation. But, he said, officials should have evacuated residents of flood-prone neighborhoods as well as other vulnerable populations like the elderly and homeless.”
“I’m not trying to be critical of the mayor and history will prove whether they guessed right or they guessed wrong,” he said to The Wall Street Journal. “But I do not believe we should leave people in [a] place we know is going to flood. It’s counterintuitive.”
The newspaper also quoted a former George W. Bush administration FEMA official who pointed out that the New Orleans mayor was also criticized for not evacuating that city before Katrina despite the urging of FEMA, but who noted that Harvey is on a less predictable path than Katrina.
At the federal level, according to The New York Times, the storm response was shaping up to be “one of the most important tests” of President Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Times noted that Trump took to Twitter as his Homeland Security Adviser Thomas P. Bossert told reporters Trump “has been in close touch with governors of Texas and Louisana,” and also signed a “federal disaster declaration to support the local response in Texas.”
FEMA administrator, Brock Long, former Alabama Emergency Management Agency director, is “leading the federal response effort,” according to The Times.
Federal efforts, according to The Times, include stockpiling water and food and establishing an incident support base.
Critics noted the administration has empty leadership positions at FEMA and proposed budget cuts to FEMA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs “and grants that help cities and states prepare for natural disasters to the tune of $667 million,” including a program that “provides funding (to) states and cities to better withstand the impact of hurricanes and coastal storms,” The Times reported.
According to the Houston Chronicle, an estimated 2.5 million people fled the city during Hurricane Rita. More than 100 people died while leaving. The newspaper wrote that the evacuation created “some of the most insane gridlock in U.S. history. More than 100 evacuees died in the exodus. Drivers waited in traffic for 20-plus hours, and heat stroke impaired or killed dozens. Fights broke out on the highway. A bus carrying nursing home evacuees caught fire, and 24 died.”
Madhu Beriwal, the president and CEO of IEM, a disaster planning and prevention company with experience in Harris County, told the Washington Post that officials are attempting to find the “course of least regret,” and that mandatory evacuations come with the understanding some will die while leaving.
“We know that there’s going to result in a certain number of deaths just by having so many people on the road,” Beriwal told the newspaper. “When you have evacuation traffic, it’s even more difficult, because you have people that are very vulnerable traveling. … The people that tend to die in bigger numbers (during evacuations) are generally the elderly — people that wouldn’t normally be on the road anyway.”
CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said it was the right call to not issue an evacuation order.
“He was right when he said, ‘I don’t want 6.5 million people on flooded roadways and dying in their cars,'” Myers said.
“You can’t move a city like Houston with six hours’ notice,” he added. “But people shouldn’t need an evacuation order if they live in a flood plain and they see 25 inches of rain coming. The fact that they didn’t even get a voluntary evacuation order … may have led people to stay because there was not even a nudge from local officials.”
Dave Hennen, a meteorologist and Myers’ colleague at CNN, said it was a “one-in-1,000-years type of event” that hit Houston.
“I think people were used to flooding in Houston when they get two to three inches of rain, but nobody comprehended what two to three feet of rain could do,” he said. “This is truly historic, so people were caught off guard.”
Some people on social media blistered the mayor with criticism, but others said evacuation would have been dangerous because of flooded roads and defended him.
One Texas resident, Barry Kuykendall, wrote Heavy, “I have lived in Houston nearly my whole life… I didn’t leave, and wouldn’t have if they told me to. I haven’t flooded yet, and I’ve weathered Ike, Allison, Alicia, and Katrina. I have watched the areas that flooded, wouldn’t buy a house in one of them.” He added that he believed “people in Houston HAD to know they were in a lowland that was subject to flooding…You can’t live in Houston and not be aware of whether you live in a flood zone. Texans are taught to make their own decisions…”
What’s the role of the feds when it comes to evacuations? According to a mass evacuation document from FEMA:
Federal evacuation measures will be taken: When State, tribal, or local governments indicate that their resources may or have become overwhelmed and the Governor(s) or tribal official(s) request Federal assistance; or in catastrophic incidents when State and local governments are incapacitated, and the President directs that Federal mass evacuation support is required. State authorities in affected areas, in conjunction with authorities in other States, will decide on the destinations for evacuees, and will regulate the flow of transportation assets accordingly. Federal agencies, working with State, tribal, and local governments, will ensure the Governor(s) of State(s) receiving evacuees from an impacted area agree to accept these individuals prior to evacuation.
Some of the scenes were eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina on some levels (not, yet, thankfully in magnitude of deaths and tragedy). However, evacuating Houston – the fourth largest city in the U.S. with a population of more than 2.2 million people – would have been a task of enormous magnitude. New Orleans has fewer than 400,000 people.
“Several hundred people arrived at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston,” Fox News reported. The Coast Guard and others were staging urban search-and-rescues. Worse, the rain is still coming and could reach 50 inches in some areas of Texas, the “highest ever recorded in the state,” according to Fox. The governor activated 3,000 National Guard troops as thousands of 911 calls flooded in and people begged for rescues on Twitter.