There are a lot of talking heads today yammering about how "Houston should have been evacuated," like that's a thing that could reasonably have happened on a useful scale in the available time frame. I heard one commentator on NPR describing the people who evacuated as "the ones who took the weather forecasts seriously." Sir, we ALL took them seriously, but we know some things I think you don't.
This highlights something I know about people who aren't from Texas, that has been evident in the number of Dallas friends being asked if they're flooding: outsiders really have no concept of how large this state is, and even more they have no concept of how large our cities are. The Houston metropolitan area would fill up most of the state of Connecticut, and at 6.5 million people, there are more than 30 states with smaller populations.
Think about that for a moment: getting the population of the entire state of Missouri out of an area the size of Connecticut in 48 hours. You can't travel south (Gulf), southeast (Gulf), or southwest (storm making landfall). You have, at most, five major roads capable of bearing heavy traffic to the cities with the capacity to take in refugees. The two nearest cities with significant evacuee capacity and experience are Austin, around 150 miles away down a lot of four-lane divided state highway, and San Antonio, about 200 miles from downtown on the Interstate. Initiating a mass evacuation on that scale in under two days is just not possible. The laws of math and traffic deny it, even with contraflow. We saw that with Rita, twelve years ago. People sat on the roads for days, out of gas and out of water and out of food. If that storm hadn't hooked at the last minute, tens of thousands of people would have been riding it out in their cars on unsheltered highways.
OK, say the talking heads, including some ignoramus in the Governor's office, then people "should have understood that if they live in a flood plain and they're getting 25 inches of rain maybe they need to evacuate without waiting for a governmental nudge." We're going to do a little exercise called "Plan your evacuation." It goes like this:
1. Do you have a place to go? Friends or family out of the path of the storm, who have room and the ability to take you in for an unknown amount of time? Can you stay there for a couple of weeks at least? Do they have room for your pets?
2. If you don't have friends and family who can take you in, can you find a shelter? Does that shelter have space? Will it be safe for your kids? Do they have room for your pets (most don't)? Are you willing to abandon your pets to the storm if no one has room for them?
3. Do you have a vehicle that will make it to your destination? If you don't own a car (many in large cities don't), who will give you a ride? Is their vehicle in good enough condition to make it? Local government will probably try to arrange buses or other mass transit options, but assume public transportation is full or may stop running at any time during a major storm situation. Bus drivers also have families they want to protect.
4. Do you know what to take? You have, at most, a couple of hours to locate documents, decide what to take, and pack it for travel if you want to get on the roads in time to beat the storm. Important documents, family keepsakes, photo albums, hard drives or portable electronics, jewelry, food and water for the trip, and anything you want to be certain you'll ever see again. What will you pack your belongings in? If you're not taking your own car, can you physically carry everything you're taking? Do you know where your copy of your lease agreement or your mortgage information is? Do you know where the copy of your home or renter's insurance policy is? If those items are electronic, do you have the means to print out copies for when you don't have power to your phone or access to your cloud?
5. Have you taken pictures of all the valuables you can't take, for insurance purposes? You need pictures of the front to show condition and the back for serial numbers, for electronics. You need detailed pictures of your possessions so that insurance will replace them if you lose them all. Anything you can't prove you owned, the insurance company has the right to refuse to replace. How fast can you get those pictures, and where will you store them? On a phone you might lose? In a cloud you might not be able to access?
6. If you're going to a shelter, or to visit a slightly dodgy friend with a roommate you don't trust entirely, do you have a way to hide and secure your personal valuables while you're there? Predators flock to shelters, because they know that people have the entirety of their personal wealth there with them, and usually the means to identity theft wrapped up neatly in folders labeled "Important Documents." Do you know that a shelter may simply give you a square of floor with a cot and a curtain, and you won't be allowed to carry all your possessions with you, if they don't fit in your space?
7. Are you prepared to spend a day or more on the road to your destination? Is your gas tank full right now? Assume gas stations will be of little help along your route; they run out early on, and getting them restocked is a major endeavour for the companies who own them. You'll need to turn off the AC and even the engine at times, to save fuel. It's southeast Texas in August. Imagine that it's over 100 degrees, and more than 90% humidity thanks to the approaching storm. Can your kids and your pets and the elderly neighbor you're taking to safety stand that?
8. How likely is your home itself to flood? This is a trick question. If your home is likely to flood, you probably know it, but the most recent FEMA flood potential designations may not account for the massive concrete-heavy subdivision that went in near you two years ago, or for the failure of a dam or bayou system nearby. Harvey is filling homes with water that have never flooded before. People who thought they were safe are bailing out their living rooms.
9. How prepared are you to wait out the storm if you don't flood? A lot of people can easily weather a few days with no power. They've got camping supplies, or a generator, or just a real can-do prepper spirit. As long as they stay dry, it's just a staycation as the city closes down around them.
10. Do you have a job that you will lose if you can't make it back from an evacuation in a timely manner? It's a horrible truth that a lot of employers will insist that their employees return to work immediately as soon as the roads are passable, and if you're in a shelter in Austin or San Antonio, you may find yourself out of a job when you can't leave your family there to go back to work.
Many people weigh the complications of an evacuation against the likelihood of a flood, think about who will be there to put out their house if it catches fire or to put towels under the doors to keep out small leaks, and decide it's safer to stay.
And many people in Houston remember 2005; a couple million people rattled down through this exercise and got to "safer to evacuate," packed up their lives and hit the road when Rita threatened the Houston metro. All of us who were here in Texas then remember the pictures, of miles upon miles of parked cars on the highways, stopped with engines off to save fuel, people giving up and walking along the side of the road. No food, no water, no bathrooms, no fuel. There were texts from friends and family in transit: "Still on the road. Not moving. No ETA." I remember the National Guard trucks heading out of Austin, on their way to dispense aid in the form of gas and water to stranded motorists. If not for a last-minute course change, Rita might have killed thousands of people trapped along the highways with nowhere safe to run.
Approximately a hundred people did die in that evacuation and there's no official count of how many pets were lost to stress and heat exhaustion. Everyone knows at least one person with an "I was trapped on I-10 for 16 hours and moved less than a mile," horror story.
Houstonians who didn't evacuate aren't stupid, or arrogant, or naive. They didn't have their heads in the sand and they didn't ignore the weather predictions. They're people with a better sense of what's involved in a major evacuation, and what could possibly go wrong, than most of the people in this country. Stop second-guessing their mayor, stop shaking your head at "those people" and mocking them for needing to be plucked off their rooftops by helicopters.