Today’s Campaign Update
(Because The Campaign Never Ends)
- My wife and I moved to Houston in June, 2004, at the insistence of the company I worked for at the time. For 18 years prior to that, we had lived and raised our children in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers and, more recently, the Dallas Cowboys. We moved back to North Texas a year ago in order to be closer to our kids and grand kids, but during our dozen years in Houston, we developed a great and abiding love for that great city, which is now undergoing its worst flood event in modern times thanks to Hurricane Harvey.
- Our move to Houston came just a few years after Tropical Storm Allison, the city’s previous record flood event, which made us mindful to select a home that lay outside the 100-year flood plain. A year after we relocated, Katrina devastated New Orleans, and Houston opened its generous arms to tens of thousands of that city’s displaced residents, many of whom became permanent Houston residents. Louisiana, San Antonio, Dallas and many other cities are returning that favor this week.
- A few weeks later, we rode out Hurricane Rita as much of the city’s population needlessly evacuated, creating havoc on highways all over Texas. Since then, we also hunkered down through Hurricane Ike and a series of severe flooding events. Over those years and through those events, I learned a lot about how Houston works and doesn’t work, and developed a great deal of admiration for the area’s consistently high quality of leadership during such disasters. All of which is why it irritates me to no end to see Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett getting criticized for their joint decision to not evacuate Houston and surrounding areas in advance of Hurricane’s Harvey’s landfall.
- Much of the criticism emanates from the fact that Texas Governor Greg Abbott made a statement last Thursday morning in which he advised citizens from Corpus Christi up to Houston to get to higher ground. But in that same statement, he said he was leaving the ultimate decision on whether or not to issue a mandatory evacuation order up to Mayor Turner and Judge Emmett, which was appropriate. Sadly, much of the criticism directed at those two local leaders in recent days appears to be politically motivated, coming mainly from outsiders who know little about the situation on the ground.
- Given Houston’s experience with Rita and Ike, along with other recent flooding events like the Memorial Day 2015 flood, both Turner – a Democrat – and Emmett – a Republican – agreed that the best course of action was not to evacuate, but to advise citizens to hunker down in place and keep the streets and freeways clear for search and rescue teams to operate if necessary. There are several reasons why this was a completely justifiable decision to make.
- The first reason is the unpredictability of storms like Harvey. Even though forecasters were warning on Thursday that the storm could create the flooding we have since seen take place, we must remember that hurricanes are notorious for taking last-minute jogs to the north or south that render the projections of computer models laughably wrong.
- That is what happened with Hurricane Rita in September of 2005. Coming just a few weeks after Katrina, most Houstonians panicked and evacuated the city, even those whose homes sat on high ground. The result was several hundred thousand cars on the roads trying to simultaneously leave the city that should have remained in their garages. The result was complete gridlock throughout the eastern half of the State of Texas. I knew one person who took 11 hours to make the drive from Alvin to Sugar Land, just 40 miles away, another couple who took 24 hours to make what is normally a 4 hour drive up to Dallas.
- Hundreds of thousands of cars remained on these gridlocked roads when Rita made landfall, and had the storm remained on the course the computer models were projecting, a massive loss of human life could have taken place. Luckily for travelers stuck on the highways, Rita made a last-minute jog to the north and ended up going into deep East Texas and Louisiana instead. An attempt to evacuate 4 million people out of Houston on Thursday of last week could well have created a similar gridlocked situation as Harvey made landfall – there was no way to know.
- When Hurricane Ike came through in 2008, again several hundred thousand Houstonians who would have been better off hunkering down decided to evacuate. Luckily, road improvements and contra-flow lane provisions enacted after Rita helped to make the gridlock related to Ike a shorter-timed event.
- People need to understand this about Houston: it is not New Orleans, and comparisons being made between Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and what Harvey is doing to Houston are asinine.
- The first difference is one of scale: In 2005, New Orleans was a city of about 500,000 residents. There are 6 million people living today in the Houston metropolitan area. Estimates at the time were that it would have taken about 36 hours to fully evacuate New Orleans, had Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco just acted in time. Unfortunately, they failed to do so, and disaster resulted.
- The best estimates available today is that it would take four days to fully evacuate Houston and its surrounding suburbs. Obviously, Harvey developed so rapidly that Mayor Turner and Judge Emmett could never have made the call in time.
- Then there is the landscape: Most of New Orleans lies below sea level, and the city has a long history of being inundated by significant hurricanes. Katrina was terrible, but far from unprecedented. In contrast, Houston is above sea-level. Its flooding issues mainly take place in the low-lying areas that lie near the many creeks, rivers and bayous that run through and around the city, but the vast majority of homes are in reality safe from even this current unprecedented flooding event.
- Finally, Mayor Turner and Judge Emmett face a problem of communication – most people simply don’t listen. Local officials in 2005 were very clear in their pleas to Houstonians outside of the low-lying areas in danger from Rita to just stay home and ride out the storm. Hundreds of thousands of perfectly safe people either did not hear those pleas or ignored them. The same thing happened with Ike in 2008.
- Thus, when faced with an option to try to advise only those in low-lying areas to evacuate, while pleading with everyone else to shelter in place, can we doubt that the Mayor and Judge knew what the likely result would be?
- The reality here is that there was no “right” or “wrong” decision to be made last Thursday. Governor Abbott’s advice was perfectly sound, and so was the decision-making by Mayor Turner and Judge Emmett. It should be instructive to all the hindsight-judging critics out there that Governor Abbott and federal officials have all, to a person, steadfastly refused to criticize the decision not to order an evacuation despite having had multiple nationally-televised opportunities to do so.
- Houston and its people are undergoing a major crisis right now, and officials at every level are doing everything they can to help address the situation. Criticism coming mainly from people who really know little about the facts on the ground just make their jobs harder, and it needs to stop.
That is all.