Why Houston Didn’t Evacuate

I’ve watched a lot of coverage of Hurricane Harvey on both the local and the national level.  I am struck by the incredulity of the national newscasters that the people of Houston didn’t just leave. They almost sound like we are deserving of criminal punishment for endangering our lives.

First and foremost, each individual has the right and a responsibility to himself if he wishes to survive to make the best decision he can regarding evacuation.

Three days before landfall, Harvey was a depression over the Yucatan expected to go into Mexico. No one in Houston evacuates for that.

Two days before landfall, Harvey was a category one Hurricane in the Gulf predicted to go into northern Mexico.  No one evacuates for that.  But we do start preparing when a hurricane is in the gulf.  Many did.

One day before landfall, Harvey was a category 2 Hurricane in the Gulf predicted to go into southern Texas as a category 3.  One day is way too late to evacuate Houston.  Those out of town stayed out of town. Those on the direct path near Corpus Christi evacuated.  Those in Houston and surrounding areas made preparations such as getting  food, water and supplies for a few days blow and lack of power.

The official recommendation for Houston was to shelter in place but evacuate storm surge areas.   That is best for a hurricane if you can’t get out.  This recommendation was based in part on the tragic loss of scores of lives in the Rita evacuation, as well as the cost, inconvenience and danger of sitting trapped in a car in traffic for a couple of days.  Texans learn from mistakes.

Landfall was north of Corpus. Harvey was a category 4 hurricane predicted to stall between Houston and San Antonio, which it did, bringing rain in unprecedented levels for several more days.

Evacuate now, at landfall?  NO!  More people die when they go onto the roads, especially at night, and drive into deep water which they either think is shallow or never see.  Flowing water pushes them from the road or rises until they drown.   In the first day a number of roads became impassable.  Very few people drowned, however, because most did stay off the roads. Still hundreds were trapped in cars, trucks and busses on overpasses just driving through Houston on the highways.

Evacuate to local shelters?  Some of them flooded too, and they couldn’t begin to handle the population.

Most previous hurricanes move through quickly.  In twelve hours it’s gone.  When the storm is over you come out and clean up. This one lingered for 4 days dumping something like 10 to 20 inches of rain each day over an area 100 mil north-south and 200 miles wide, covering a population of something like five million.

If the storm had stalled almost any other spot than it did the effects on the highly populated areas of Houston would have been much less.  We had no idea it would be anywhere near, or that it would stall, or that it would be such a powerful storm in enough time to evacuate.  The best choice most of us had was to shelter in place.

Further ignored is the huge cost of evacuation.  Many cannot afford transportation and lodging.  Gas becomes impossible to find once an evacuation begins. Many would have had to leave and possibly lose jobs.  This cost would be borne in any unwarranted evacuation. Even if successfully evacuated, getting back to begin repairs would be difficult.  Many cannot get to their homes yet nine days after landfall. Cleanup is well underway for most areas.  Those people are cleaning up their homes to prevent toxic mold and rot that could further damage their homes.

It is also difficult to tell where to go.  South was out. That’s where the storm is coming from.  Due east is out.  That is the Gulf.  West is out.  That’s where the eye of the storm was headed.  North is just about the only choice.  But half the population has to travel though the other half to get out.  That is a traffic nightmare.  Again, by the time we could tell what this storm could do many roads were being inundated with water.

What about the people who stayed in their homes till the second, third and fourth days?   The roads were impassable.  People living in homes that had never flooded in 100 years went to bed on the 3rd or 4th night and woke up with water lapping the mattress.  With that kind of rain over that kind of area every stream, river and bayou had record flood stages sometimes several feet higher.

My home, Mother-in-law’s home, several friend’s homes, neighbors’ homes and the homes of four tenants were not flooded.  My sister-in-law has one of the homes that was flooded five days after landfall when some streams were receding. They’re now living in a friend’s house.  I parked a mile from her home and waded through thigh high water to get to her house to assist today.

So although this was an unprecedented tragedy flooding about 10 percent of homes it still means 90 percent of the homes sustained minor damage or less.  I think 90 percent of Houston thinks they individually made the right decision not to evacuate.  Some of those flooded also think they made the right decision in not evacuating.  They are getting a head start on the clean-up.

Yes, someone who lives in an area that frequently floods is wise to seek shelter away from home before the rains come, but all have the right to make that decision for themselves.  We are not criminals, and many of us have been helping our neighbors and friends recover from their losses long before we could successfully  return from an evacuation.  So national media, please do not sneer at us.

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