Because of the work I did on hurricane response after Hurricane Rita, I have gotten a number of calls from the media about Harvey.
The initial calls were asking about whether Mayor Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett had made the right call by not ordering a mandatory evacuation ahead of Harvey reaching Houston. I think some in the media assumed that since Turner and I had been opponents in the last election, I would criticize his decision to not call an evacuation
But, in fact, Turner and Emmett followed the protocol that was established in the aftermath of the disastrous Rita evacuation to, with some very limited exceptions, only evacuate those areas threatened by storm surge. As a general proposition, it is not prudent to evacuate areas that are only threatened by rising water from rainfall
The reason for this is that about 90% of fatalities from a hurricane are caused by storm surge. Only about 10% come from wind or upland flooding. In contrast, evacuations are very dangerous. In Rita, about 130 people died in the evacuation. That is more people than have ever died in a hurricane in Texas, with the exception of the 1900 Galveston Storm. While it is miserable to be sitting in your house and watch it gradually fill with water (I know because I have experienced that twice), very few people die from their house being flooded
I made these points in an interview with the New York Times. Some of my comments were included in this article. [click here]. I also wrote an op/ed in the Times making these points in some greater detail which was republished in the Houston Chronicle today [click here or here]. I reiterated these points in an interview on CNN’s AC360 on his August 30 broadcast. If you have Xfinity you can watch the interview in the their “On Demand” section. Just before my interview there is a chilling interview with a man about evacuating his family from a Ft. Bend neighborhood, which highlights the dangers associated with attempting to evacuate.
There are certainly ways that we can improve our response to this type of upland flooding and we will learn from this experience. But ordering a mandatory evacuation was not the answer.
Other calls I have gotten relate to what to do to prevent this from happening again. I discussed this is in some detail in a Houston Chronicle op/ed yesterday [click here ] and in a podcast with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd [click here]. The bottom line is that we have been skimping on our flood control investments for years. Most of the money City taxpayers approved for flooding has been diverted to other uses. The current City bond proposal has zero dollars for flooding.
If we really want to do something about flooding in our region, we are going to have to get serious. Spend the money. Stop diverting money earmarked for flooding. Eliminate the jurisdictional overlap and finger-pointing. Adopt a regional approach. It is not rocket science.
Harvey will be a tipping point for the Houston region. In which direction is up to us.