Houston is slowly being submerged by a natural disaster some are saying could now rival Hurricane Katrina. Even after two feet of rain in 24 hours, Tropical Storm Harvey shows no sign of letting up until Wednesday at the earliest.
When the storm previously known as Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday, it was the strongest storm to batter the U.S. coast in 13 years. The National Weather Service said on Sunday afternoon that the flooding is “unprecedented,” adding “all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.” FEMA administrator Brock Long said Sunday, “FEMA is going to be there for years. This disaster is going to be a landmark event.”
Two days ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told Houston residents that even in the absence of an official evacuation order “you need to strongly consider evacuating.”
But there was immediate pushback from Houston officials who said they knew better.
Harris County’s emergency management spokesperson, Francisco Sanchez, responded to Abbott’s suggestion on Twitter this way:
“Local officials know best. Houston has no evacuation order. In Harris County: very limited to select communities. LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST.”
One person tweeted back to the self-proclaimed “master of disaster,” “You’re going to feel stupid if this storm proves you wrong.” Sanchez replied: “Actually we feel quite blessed. And, thankful for the first responders & public safety officials that are working to keep us safe.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Friday evacuation was not necessary.
“There are a number of people who are in Hurricane Harvey’s direct path, and evacuation orders have been given to them. But for the Houston area… this is a rainmaker for us. There’s no need for people to be thinking about putting themselves in greater danger.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the safest thing for Houston residents was for them to “stay where you are and ride out the storm… We don’t anticipate any kind of massive evacuation.”
Now it’s too late to leave the city, with almost every roadway in and out closed. Even Sanchez admitted as much on Twitter: “I can keep telling you to stay put, but the reality is YOU CAN’T GET ANYWHERE RIGHT NOW.”
By Sunday morning, thousands of Houston homes were taking on water and thousands of people were trapped in their homes. The city received 56,000 calls to 911 by 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Turner defended the decision not to evacuate on Sunday, saying, “You can’t put 6.5 million people on the roads,” referring to the population of the metro Houston area.
Kathleen Blanco, who was Louisiana’s governor during Katrina, told The Daily Beast on Sunday that an advanced plan on how to evacuate the most susceptible to flooding is what was needed.
“It’s not apparent to us watching that they have developed a sensible evacuation formula,” she said. “You have to allow people in the southernmost regions to get out the quickest. You can’t tell everyone to leave at the same time or you end up with gridlock, especially in a big urban center.”
Blanco said 1.3 million people were evacuated from the New Orleans area before Katrina hit. That same year Houston ordered evacuations for Hurricane Rita and was criticized for the gridlock it incurred.
“I was just talking today with relatives there in Houston because I was concerned about them,” Blanco said. “They said they were not going to evacuate again because during Rita they got a few blocks from their home and couldn’t get up on the interstate. Just traveling those few blocks took 12 hours because of the gridlock.”
Regardless of the wisdom of evacuation for Harvey, it should’ve been clear Houston would flood.
Meteorologist Eric Holthaus told The Daily Beast that by midday last Wednesday there had been “pretty compelling model agreement on major flooding” and that the “upgrade in forecast to major hurricane on Thursday morning, I think, made most meteorologists absolutely convinced.
“Keep in mind, though,” he added, “there’s never been a mandatory evacuation based on a rainfall forecast, so I’m not sure that people even knew what to do with a forecast as dire as this one.”