Monday, August 28, 2017

People Need To Stop Yelling at Houston

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.

Help them.


  1. fwiw, the same thing was asked over and over of the people of new orleans for katrina - and one of the clearest answers was: if we packed it all up and moved every time the Worst Hurricane Ever was coming our way, we'd spend half our lives on a dry, not flooded, highway. it's a gamble each and every storm season, and there's never a good way to know you Really Ought To Go until it is too late.

  2. I am not interested in yelling at anyone, especially not folks who are down, & the storm is not half done. But there's a difference between saying it's not possible to evacuate a city & it's not possible to evacuate anyone.
    & I think this is on the elected officials, not ordinary folks. One thing that officials could have tried was using trains for evacuations. They could have picked high risk folks like nursing home patients, people with young kids etc. What about residents of areas that frequently flood? Part of emergency planning is making those kind of triage decisions.

    What's clear is these intense storms are in your future. A lot of rebuilding will have to be done. What can you do to make it better (e.g. putting houses on stilts with garages underneath to minimize risk to homes & also cut down on built land use)? Sometimes bad things just happen & nobody can save everybody. But probably more could have been done.
    You seem to have given a lot of thought to the issue of documents & photos. Why not put that stuff online? For the future, I mean.

    1. Many in high risk areas and nursing homes did evacuate. Our homes, at least in the city, have flood designations. We pay insurance, and have building codes set against these designations. Unfortunately, this is beyond any planned flooding level. This really is a freak flooding event. Hurricane preparedness is planned and communicated at the beginning and throughout the hurricane season. Homes that have not flooded in 40+ years are flooding. In life more can always be done, but the reality is Mother Nature will win. I have three children under 5, live in town, within 1 mile of a large Bayou and have no standing water in my street. Evacuation based on my own experience during Rita, and knowledge of my personal risk, meant staying was our best option. I have stir crazy kids, but no other problems. We are blessed, but also not unique. As a local, I have no issue with our elected officials. The reality is ugly, but being on a freeway stuck watching water rise around you is worse.

    2. We live 0.5 miles from one bayou at 2 spots and are dry. I feel so terrible for all the people who aren't. Especially since we can't go anywhere.

    3. 1) Residents of coastal counties were told to evacuate and they did. 2) No trains. 3) 4) 6.2 Hurricanes are unpredictable, ex. Rita in 2005. 2.5 million tried to evacuate because we learned from Katrina; huge, deadly traffic jams and then Rita veered off at the last minute to hit cities that never expected to be in the path. 4) 6.2 million people -- or even 1 million, using your triage example -- where exactly would they go that's not in the hurricane's path and what city would be able to take that many people? Houston took 250,000 Katrina evacuees and that was a strain logistically even for a city our size. I'm not saying this in anger; it's just that the magnitude is unfathomable to many people who have not lived it.

    4. You clearly have never visited Houston but yet you feel like you can tell us how to solve our problems. Thanks because your advice is really what we need right now. Let me just reiterate what everyone else said:
      1) no trains here
      2) 6.2 million people
      3) people with "special needs" like medical problems were told to evacuate
      4) We have a great thing called an elevation map.
      people like me who live in low-lying areas DO live in houses with stilts. Many of the houses that flooded (including my childhood home) had never flooded before.

    5. So, some thoughts, Carol Jackson. As others have pointed out, there is no passenger rail option that would have worked, and people with severe medical concerns or knew their homes were likely to flood were advised to evacuate.

      As to why they couldn't evacuate those most vulnerable, the elderly and the infirm, they did evacuate a number of them BUT critical resources for public care in Texas and nationwide have been cut. Talk to our Republican governor and our Republican lege, which spent precious time this last session curtailing abortion rights and fighting over who could go to the bathroom where instead of addressing known issues in infrastructure and disaster preparedness.

      Also, even if you confine it to those with significant problems, you're still talking about tens of thousands of people, many of whom need specialised medical transport in order to leave the environments (home or nursing home) they have set up to have what they need. They need destinations that can provide sufficient care. Most of them are on fixed incomes and cannot afford to leave unless the city or the state pays to transport and house them.

      When I say "forty-eight hours to prepare", I don't mean "they had forty-eight hours of knowing a major storm was making landfall and going to flood Houston." Forty-eight hours before Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi, the news was "This might become a thing, and if it becomes a thing, it will likely head for the Texas coast." I have heard that at least three or four times a year in the last twelve years. If you transport a nursing home patient, you drastically increase their risk of infection, injury, and death. Officials in Houston, practically speaking, had about 24-36 hours in which they knew that the likelihood of a major flooding event (and they had no idea it would be this bad) exceeded the certainty that evacuated patients would die on the road. Are you genuinely suggesting that they should have arranged transport and housing for tens of thousands of medically unstable patients in 24 hours?

      The other problem is that they don't know where it will flood. Houston is larger than Rhode Island, and as escalating patterns of flooding have shown over the last several years, the flood map is constantly changing due to development and climate change effects. Even setting aside the areas you expect to flood because they always do, picking out the ten or twelve neighborhoods most likely to have unprecedented flooding in an area the size of Rhode Island is beyond my skill and, I believe, yours as well.

      You do not seem to have a correct grasp on scope or scale here.

      As to digital copies of documents, I believe everyone should have electronic copies of all insurance, mortgage, and account information, but that's going to require that everyone have access to the internet, and as hard as it is to imagine in 2017, most of Houston's poorest homes and most of Houston's elderly residents aren't online. They don't have the money or the time to go to a Kinko's and get their documents scanned for them, nor is that a priority for them.

    6. Yeah, because there are SO many trains in Texas. The better question is why doesn't the USA have a decent high-speed rail system? And since we don't have one, why not build a mag-lev system so that we could evacuate some people?

    7. If nothing goes awry, there may be a very fast rail line from Dallas/Houston/Dallas in the future. I have lived in Katy, Texas since 1985, and I am so sad for my friends, family, neighbors, and all others that I don't know "praying for all", especially the ones who are running the city/states to make good decisions. I am also sad that I am not present in Texas to help so I keep on praying and thanking all of the USA for their prayers. Help is always on the way from Our Father in Heaven, He will make us stronger! God Bless You All!

    8. Carol, you just don't get it and that's ok. Fyi... this system was better. It was better than hurricane Rita fiasco, the systems for shelter and emergency response were soooo much better than the more recent memorial day flood and tax day floods. The community of neighbors helping neighbors was unprecedented.
      The next time you foresee a possible tropical depression turning into a cat 3 hurricane, hitting one part of the coast line and getting stuck between 2 areas of high pressure resulting in dumping a year's worth of water on a major metropolitan area the size of Rhode island with a population of 3 times that of Manhattan.... Feel free to call our local elected officials with a considerable warning and a signed blank check to start the evacuation process for a storm of unforseen magnitude (most rainfall in recorded history from a storm in the continental United states) that might not happen.

  3. Just an fyi.
    The rail system in Houston is 3 lines totaling 23.8 miles of light surface rail that are only good for commuting into and out of downtown. They do not extend out of the inner city.

  4. of the best blog entries I've read in a long time. Even having visited the city of Houston only a few times, I know exactly what the author is speaking of. You don't even need to have lived in such a metropolis to grasp it -- you just need to think about it.

  5. It's always easy to Monday morning quarterback this. People who live along the Gulf Coast are not strangers to this phenomenon we call Hurricanes. They are extremely unpredictable. The best meteorologist get them wrong many times. We consider the what ifs and make decisions based on what we perceive is the lesser of the evils. When you consider Houston has never flooded to this magnitude, (so it wasn't fathomable), large scale evacuations are difficult logistically, and the storm hit 3 hours west of the city, many thought the lesser of the evils was to stay out, and ride out some rain. This is unprecedented rain. What I find is that those questioning it are those who are not from where we're from, don't live in our climate or understand all the things mentioned in this blog that comes with a Hurricane. We did what we thought was best. We don't expect people who don't live in this region to fully understand, but we ask that you refrain from the judgement and criticism of things you can't fully understand. We will be ok. We always are.

    1. "We don't expect people who don't live in this region to fully understand, but we ask that you refrain from the judgement and criticism of things you can't fully understand"
      THANK YOU.

    2. Best response ever! Thank you.

  6. This is the worst flooding event that this country has ever seen! The ENTIRE Houston area (and all
    surrounding cities) are under water, I live in a flood zone and did not flood. Many people who have never ever flooded, have lost it all. The amount of judgement coming from the people outside astounds me! Keep your ignorant opinions to yourselves and stay out of our business unless you want roll up your sleeves and lend a helping hand. We stand united, and we will come out stronger!

    1. Very well said. Those folks who have not experienced what we have experienced do not have a clue of what they speak. Nor are they legitimate fortune tellers. They should just keep their opinions to themselves. Idiots!

  7. Thank you for writing and sharing this. Explains so much, people from other places should be able to understand.

  8. Sending blessings of strength.
    Sending blessings of fortitude.
    With love, and tears, and hope from NY.

  9. If you're not from Texas and have never lived here during a storm you can't weight in with the "you should haves". It's bad enough that many here have lost everything. Advice from those who obviously have no concept nor experience wth our region or weather can't weight in with any reasonable plans.
    Would you extent your hand to lift a hurting one, and while holding it begin to list their faults to show your superiority?
    Learn our city & storm history, know the facts, add compassion and your ideas might be of benefit.

  10. Thank you for this!! I'm in NC, not from TX, but we've had our share of storm destruction, too (although nothing quite on this scale)...

    This arm-chair quarterbacking from the talking heads and self-appointed know-it-alls has been making me crazy. They are dead wrong, and heaping it on the government officials, and second guessing them, is just adding to the misery. Your mayor is so clearly heart-broken, but I agree was making the best choice from very few options, to minimize loss of life. An attempted complete evacuation is INSANE and would have been a colossal, unimaginable tragedy!

    1. Thank you. Not to mention, a complete evacuation was tried during Rita. We know how that turned out... Not so well.

  11. This is excellent, succinct and completely authentic (in my humble opinion as a native Texan). I updated my blog post (where I took a stab at this kind of rebuttal, among other things) to include a link to yours.

  12. I lived in Houston for 20 years, and was born in an island country in the Caribbean. Hurricanes are a normalcy for me.
    1. I wished I was there, because my people and my city are there.
    2. Evacuation is not an option. Houston seethes with commerce and motion until we are literally stopped by an act of God. Then we have margaritas, hang out with the kids, pets and neighbors until we can go get Lebanese food and coffee.
    3. This really, really isn't our first rodeo. I have every faith in Houston's robust community and ability to apply creative and kind solutions for those in need.
    4. Our minority and immigrant communities have faced worse. They're an integral part of who we are, and I know they'll bring all their determination and solutions-oriented approaches to the problem of cleaning up.
    5. Climate change played a pivotal role in this storm, and will continue to do so in area storms. Houston won't be denied, won't be ignored. They'll push for solutions, and this disaster may yet save many other lives.

  13. We lost 100 people trying to evacuate for Rita, which did some, but not catastrophic damage. So far we've lost maybe 15. It'll probably rise, I'd expect maybe 50 unless there's a large group that got caught that we don't yet know about. People were freaked out by Katrina and we learned that that was probably not the way to go. This storm was nothing you could easily duck. You will probably see more of these sit-and-spin storms in the future. You tell me who could have taken 6 million plus people. We were the one city that just happened to have a spare domed stadium lying around for Katrina. I wish that all the hand-wringing over what to do with the Astrodome would turn it into a full-fledged shelter with elevated access.

  14. Native Houstonian, live in Los Angeles, and work in the entertainment industry (with a lot of non Texans.) I have listened to countless people parrot repeatedly "Houston should have done..." over the last few days. Just wanted to tell you excellent article. Well done. Nicely said.

  15. Great post! For non-Houstonians, if the city had attempted an evacuation, and hundreds if not thousands had drowned in their cars, stuck in the massive traffic jam attempting to leave, would you still think it's a good idea to evacuate? Rita's evacuation taught everyone who lived through it that securing in place saves lives...and that's what Hurricane preparation is all about. Houston's elected officials made the right call!

  16. What an insightful, eye-opening article. Thank you, Rowan. Twenty-first century people seem to have lost their ability to "play out the entire story", and be realistic. Many people can't fathom the idea that "stuff happens" and sometimes you just can't prevent, stop, or reverse the effects of it. You can only think through the situation, all the "what ifs" and make the best decision that it available at the time, in that particular event. Some think that everything is preventable!!! That's why we have so many regulations, stupid laws, and lawsuits. People just can't grasp the fact that accidents, storms, illnesses, and failures don't always have someone to blame for their occurrences. Absolutely we need to be best prepared, prevent accidents, illness, etc., but this is unreasonable to think this could be handled perfectly. This life is not perfect. God bless those affected by this storm and all those in the rescue and recovery efforts. We are praying and sending funds to help the people that are displaced. Everyone here in California isn't ignorant of reality nor have we all lost our common sense like many in this sad state.

  17. I live in the Southern Outer Banks of Eastern North Carolina, where we regularly face both hurricanes and massive storm surge. In addition, I was a Destructive Weather Officer aboard a Marine Corps installation during hurricane Irene. The balance between safe, realistic evacuation orders and recommendations to shelter in place are ALWAYS difficult. That said, there are professionals whose sole job is to make those kinds of calls, and to follow through with appropriate support. Arm chair quarterbacking those calls after the fact is useless, but a careful and professional evaluation of the preparation and response is always done... AFTER the disaster has abated. There is a time and place for everything, and there are experienced professionals who are going to spend a lot of time reviewing and evaluating the choices that were made. But, all of that happens AFTER the crisis has passed. Finger pointing from the peanut gallery DURING a crisis is both counter-productive and more than a little bit disgusting. Texans are just like everyone else during a disaster: they put their heads down and do the best they can with what they've got. If you can help, do so... But do it without judgement and without unsolicited commentary.

  18. The other difference is Katrina amd Riata were both Cat 5 storms pointed right at major metro areas. Harvey was (until the last minute) a TS or Cat kne making landfall 200 miles down the coast.

  19. I'm just glad I live in Katy and this great state where people actually care about one another and want to help each other! I'd be afraid to live where some of these other people live if a storm like this hit, they would be too busy complaining about what is happening instead of trying to find a solution and helping each other. God Bless this state and the love we have for each other!

  20. How large this state is, and even more they have no concept of how large our cities are.gourmethouston