Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

The Clash sang that song with a slightly different point than I am going to make, but I don’t care because thematically it still works.

Recently the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast area suffered from a landfall and protracted flooding experience associated with Hurricane Harvey. One thing that has been repeatedly asked is the question, “Why didn’t Houston evacuate?”

The answers given by those responsible for making life-or-death decisions is that evacuating 6 million people, only to have them “caught” on a highway, low on fuel was a recipe for disaster. I couldn’t agree more.

There are very few legitimate scenarios in which we would ever have to evacuate everyone in the region. But who said it had to be all or none? Nobody with a lot going on upstairs. Upstairs, by the way is where a bunch of people had to go as the waters rose.

Hurricane evacuation is generally about the energy or power of a storm (wind) and how much water it is pushing inland (storm surge.) It’s a horizontal evacuation plan, meaning it goes from the coast toward the inland areas to the north.

 Wouldn’t it also make sense to think about a vertical evacuation advisory based on elevation, watershed liberation and anticipated or forecasted rainfall? There are a lot of models established to help in situations like this. The Army Corps of Engineers has a handbook and an algorithm to help guide the thresholds and triggers for releasing flood water from the reservoirs. I’ve read it — it’s super well- crafted. I can’t fathom why there isn’t a similar trigger “protocol” developed for governmental guidance on suspected rainfall and watershed and historical flood areas and when to tell people they should think about evacuating.

Perhaps there is a triggering system as specific as what I am describing. If there is, then why, after the “Tax Day” flood and the prognosis of potentially getting twice that amount of rainfall with Harvey, did no one consider telling people to get out with a car and some important records, possessions, pets and kids, and that weird pillow grandma gave you twenty years ago? We need to reconsider how decision-makers are calling the shots officially.

1. We know where it is going to flood.

We do live in a bit of swamp. We have developed the daylights out of land that serves to absorb rainfall, and there are a bunch more people living here without commensurate infrastructure development. So how about we map out those areas and provide advanced evacuation recommendations based on anticipated rainfall?

2. We will evacuate eventually.

Some will. The fact is, we did evacuate. We just did it in the middle of an arduous, dangerous rainstorm and instead of people getting out with some treasured possessions, their vehicles and their dignity, we dragged them out half naked, absent their possessions and under less than ideal conditions.

3. Houstonians need their cars.

Houstonians love their cars and need them. This is especially true in the aftermath of a storm. Most people in this metropolitan statistical area don’t take public transit. It’s true. They drive. Everywhere. All the time. So, if they stay put, along with their everything they own, their car is now under water and guess what? They aren’t driving back to work, or to the store or to help their friends. So by evacuating, they might not have had their homes when they came back, but they would still have mobility, earning capacity and more.

4. Getting back to normal.

There were calls for “people and businesses to get back to business to help with recovery, when the rain had barely stopped. Got to love that spirit, right? Personally, I’m a bigger fan of spirit plus intellect. This call for business to resume came at the same time that it was announced that public schools would be closed for at least one to two weeks. I think there was an inherent dichotomy there. If you want people to get back to work, but keep their kids out of school, at home, in a flooded presents challenges.

5. We love our first responders.

It cannot be said enough. However, let me offer this thought: if you really want to show how much you love first responders, then do what you can to put them in less danger. Reducing the number of evacuations can limit the number of rescues in contaminated or swift water  and minimizing  the risk for the rescuers.

6. We could never have anticipated this kind of flooding.

We have had three 100- to 500-year flood events over the last four years in this area. I don’t think they can be considered 500-year events anymore. That said, maybe we should also take the potential health, economic and safety issues of floods more seriously and provide real pre-rainfall advisories to the public. This could include simple decontamination instructions for volunteers with boats and for self-evacuees to prevent follow-on health issues.

7. The Yogi Berra of disaster response.

We have done hurricane evacuation in the Houston Galveston region before. We have done it badly as in the case of Hurricane Rita. We have also done it well, as in the case of Ike where specified zones that were subject to increased risk could cause harm. I think there are lessons there. In any case, I hope someone in an official capacity gives this a thought, because if they don’t it will be like that great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, It’ll be “Déjà vu all over again.”