So Why Didn't Houston Evacuate?

Memories of mass chaos in Hurricane Rita's exodus were a factor
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 28, 2017 12:24 PM CDT
So Why Didn't Houston Evacuate?
A woman reacts as she's told that she can't bring her dog into a shelter for flood evacuees along with her daughter, left, at the convention center in downtown Houston.   (AP Photo/LM Otero)

With flooding in the Houston area not expected to abate until at least Wednesday, municipalities in the area have begun issuing their first evacuation orders. Meanwhile, police continue nearly nonstop rescues of stranded residents, shelters are filling up, and many highways are impassable. All of which has some people asking: Why didn't Houston tell people to evacuate before the storm? Here's a look at the back-and-forth:

  • In defense: "You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Sunday in defending the no-evacuation decision, per CNN. "If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare." City officials feared people could become trapped in cars.
  • Lessons of Rita: In 2005, local authorities ordered an evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita, triggering mass gridlock. "In the Houston area, the muddled flight from the city killed almost as many people as Rita did," per the Houston Chronicle, which notes that more than 100 died in the exodus.
  • Conflicting messages: On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that "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." In response, a spokesman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management tweeted, "LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST," reports the Washington Post.

  • No nudge: CNN meteorologist Chad Myers agreed with the decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation, but he says the lack of even a voluntary evacuation order may have lulled people into a false sense of security. That "may have led people to stay because there was not even a nudge from local officials."
  • Smarter plan? Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, tells the Daily Beast that finger-pointing would be inevitable no matter what local officials decided. However, she suggests the Houston area lacked a plan. "It's not apparent to us watching that they have developed a sensible evacuation formula," she says. "You have to allow people in the southernmost regions to get out the quickest."
  • Harvey's different: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who had urged people to stay put, noted that Harvey's danger wasn't so much the hurricane factor as the rain factor. The latter, he said, made the decision more difficult. "With a rain event over a county of four-and-a-half million people, you don't know exactly where the rain is going to fall, you don't know which neighborhoods are going to flood, so if we had gone out three days before and said we want 4 million people to leave Harris County, that would have been a totally nonsensical thing to do," he says, per NBC News.
  • Another factor: Yes, memories of Rita played a role in the reluctance to vacate, writes Christopher Helman at Forbes, but the Houston resident sees something else at play. "Honestly, it was hard for Texans to believe that Harvey could really be 'catastrophic,'" he writes. Gulf storms aren't exactly rare. It's just that "no one believes in a 500-year storm until after it's hit."
  • 30,000: FEMA estimates that 30,000 people will need shelter before all is said and done, reports USA Today.
(More Hurricane Harvey stories.)

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