The sparring between state and local officials over Hurricane Harvey evacuation plans has confused residents in the storm’s path and shown that there’s no foolproof option for weather disasters of this magnitude.
Harvey has claimed at least five lives in the Houston metro area since making landfall in Texas on Friday, according to the National Weather Service, and the situation is expected to worsen. The storm is “unprecedented” and “beyond anything experienced,” the agency said in a grim update Sunday morning, and dozens more inches of rain expected in the coming days could afflict the region for weeks.
It became clear on Sunday that Harvey’s impact would be even worse than anticipated. As flooding records shattered throughout Harris County, the National Weather Service said it expected “catastrophic and life-threatening” rainfall in some areas to total 50 inches, the highest level ever recorded in Texas.
Unbelievable photos emerged of people trapped in their homes ― including senior citizens sitting waist-deep in their flooded nursing home ― after abiding by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s plea on Friday for residents to shelter at their residences. But at a Sunday morning press conference, Turner stood by his decision not to issue an evacuation order.
“You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road. If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare,” Turner said.
“If you do it or attempt to do it and it’s not coordinated, not done right, you are literally putting people in harm’s way, and you’re creating a far worse situation,” he continued, also emphasizing that the path of the storm is still not clear, so determining a safe destination for evacuees is impossible.
It’s true that mass evacuations can quickly turn disastrous. In 2005, the Houston city government was chastised for issuing an evacuation order hours before Hurricane Rita struck. Some 2.5 million people attempted to leave Houston at roughly the same time, resulting in more than 100 deaths linked to heat stroke and other road-related incidents.
Adding insult to injury, the storm drastically weakened before making landfall and was far from the disaster local authorities had anticipated.
While Turner hoped to avoid a repeat of that calamity, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued his own statement on Friday advising Houston residents to evacuate north even if no local order to do so was in place.
That mixed messaging prompted other Houston authorities to back up Turner’s decision and discourage residents from fleeing. They included Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
Abbott sidestepped questions about the apparent breakdown in communication during a Sunday afternoon press conference.
“We’ve moved beyond whether or not there should have been an evacuation or not,” he said. “We’re at a stage where we just need to respond to the emergencies.”
While Abbott is shifting the focus to the emergency at hand, Houston will likely face this evacuation conundrum again. The metro area is exceptionally flat and sits about 50 feet above sea level, making it prone to flooding events that have only increased in frequency and severity. Since the 1950s, the region has seen a 167 percent increase in heavy downpours, Climate Central found in 2015.
Some of the worst rainfall and flooding catastrophes have occurred in recent years. In April 2016, the Houston area was soaked by a one-in-10,000 year rainfall event. In May the year before, a similar rain and flooding disaster unfolded.
Climate scientists warn that the frequency and intensity of these wet weather events is likely to increase as global temperatures rise, turning otherwise regular storms into disasters like Hurricane Harvey.