Could Destruction From Hurricane Harvey Have Been Prevented?

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Stockbyte/Getty Images

Does anyone think that the state of Texas deserves blame for the resulting, possibly, avoidable damage hurricane Harvey is going to inflict? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Robert Frost, lives in Texas, on Quora:

If you want to go back in time and blame people for not predicting future development and for their rather Laissez-faire attitude about zoning, that resulted in large areas with insufficient drainage, sure, but the current state of Texas couldn't have really done anything to prevent the damage.

The reality is that for everyone reading this to drive around in their cars and use their imported consumer goods and eat their seafood, there have to be refineries, ports, and fish markets on the Gulf Coast - in the threat zone of hurricanes. For those industries to operate, real live human beings have to live on the Gulf Coast. The people that blame other people for living in low areas are, excuse my French - jerks. You depend on those people for the convenient lives you lead.

Harvey is a freak storm. To quote the National Weather Service:

This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced. Follow orders from officials to ensure safety.

Harvey came on shore about 225 miles (360 km) from Houston. That's about the same distance as between London and Paris. Harvey is massive and Harvey is slow. Past experience has told people in cities like Houston that if the storm goes to somewhere like Matagorda, we are in the relative clear. This time was obviously different.

I've seen pundits already speculating about whether Houston should have been evacuated - again, prior experience says that wasn't merited - but 2005 changed the evacuation equation. In September of 2005, Hurricane Rita threatened the Gulf Coast. This happened one month after the horrific events of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. Scared of a similar crisis in Houston, the authorities called for an evacuation - it was disastrous. Evacuating over four million people via five highways isn't something easily done. 107 people died as a result of the evacuation. I spent 22.5 hours in my car, evacuating, just to reach a city three hours away. 19 of those hours were just to get out of the greater Houston area.

It was horrendous - thousands of cars ran out of fuel in the roads and the blistering heat caused rampant heat exhaustion. A coworker had four cats die in the back seat of their car. In the end, Rita changed course and completely bypassed Houston. I had friends evacuate Houston only to end up in the location where the storm actually hit.

So, in 2008, when Hurricane Ike became a threat - the people of Houston said a collective “screw that, I'd rather die.” and, to quote our local judge, “hunkered down.”

It is doubtful an evacuation order for Harvey would have been heeded, but if it had, I think thousands would have died. This is a picture of a major highway out of Houston, taken yesterday:

Friday night through Saturday morning brought an incredible amount of rain. At my house, we received 22 inches (56 cm) in 24 hours. If an evacuation had been ordered, and people had responded like they did in 2005, the highway in the above photo would have been filled with cars. People would have drowned in their cars, with nowhere to go. It was deemed that people were safer in their homes than on the roads - and I can't disagree with that.

There will be discussions that need to happen, because of this disaster, but as of now - my observation is that the local authorities have been doing the best they can.

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