First things first… pray for Texas. They need it.
While it seems thus far that Texans are responding in their typical, resilient fashion to what is being described as a rainfall event never seen in the recorded history of the United States, the damage is bad and a lot of people are in trouble. Houston is being particularly hard hit. The immediate focus has to be on relief and rescue efforts, but sooner or later politics will have to creep into it. Why wasn’t Houston better prepared? Perhaps more to the point, why wasn’t there an evacuation order given? Even the Washington Post was compelled to ask that question yesterday.
As the much-anticipated storm pummeled the country’s fourth-largest city — overwhelming the 911 system and sending some residents, against the advice of officials, into their attics to flee floodwaters — many asked the question: Should Houston have been evacuated? If so, why wasn’t it?
At least one official thought it should have been.
At a Friday news conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) encouraged residents to evacuate low lying and coastal areas of the state, even if a mandatory evacuation order had not been issued.
So Governor Greg Abbott didn’t give an “order” to evacuate the area, but he went on the air to say, “Even if an evacuation order hasn’t been issued by your local official, if you’re in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating.”
The order, however, would have to come from the local level. That puts everyone a bit on edge because Abbott is a Republican, but the Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, is a Democrat. And both he and his team gave statements which were, at a minimum, contradictory to the governor’s advice. One might even say that they were thumbing their collective noses at him. Francisco Sanchez, of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, sent out a tweet saying, “LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST.”
The Mayor, for his part, seemed to rebuke the governor. And not only did he not order an evacuation, he also “asked” (since he can’t order it) people to shelter in place.
“For Houston, Harris County, the county judge and I both agreed that for us this was a major rainfall event and so there was no need to evacuate. We are asking people to stay off the streets,” Turner said. “Quite frankly, leaving your homes, getting on the streets, you’ll be putting yourself in more danger and not making yourself safer. And so, we’re just asking people to hunker down.”
Adding to the sense that there some political tit-for-tat going on, there’s this item from the regularly updated Associate Press ticker. According to the Governor, the Mayor wasn’t even returning his calls.
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says he hasn’t yet spoken to Democratic Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner — despite repeated attempts.
Abbott said Sunday at an Austin news conference he’d called Tuner’s cell phone “several times” to “let him know that, whatever he needs, the state of Texas will provide.” Abbott said he’d yet to hear back.
It’s obviously understandable that the Mayor would be busy at the moment, and there could even be communications issues. But of all the people trying to get through, one would imagine that a call from the Governor would be rather high priority if you’re trying to coordinate state and local emergency management resources. Yet only a few hours later, the Mayor was easily reachable by the press and he said he’d been taking all sorts of phone calls.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is responding to an overwhelming number of corporate and citizen inquiries by establishing the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund to accept tax-deductible flood relief donations.
The fund is administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation.
Turner says he’s getting phone calls from across the country and “the generosity of people who understand this disaster is truly amazing.”
If you read through that AP ticker you’ll see that Turner is repeatedly making statements on the defensive, saying this was a “smart decision” and that he has no regrets. On the one hand he’s making a couple of points which make sense. Ordering an evacuation is a big decision and the precise path of Harvey and the record shattering rainfall amounts weren’t precisely known until the storm was at their doorstep. And moving millions of people on short notice can turn into a disaster of its own, as was seen during Hurricane Rita in 2005.
But with that said, accepting the job of Mayor in a major city comes at a price. You’re expected to get these calls correct and if you don’t the burden falls on your shoulders. This, of course, begs yet another question: why doesn’t Houston already have a rapid evacuation plan in place? They’re only fifty miles from Galveston, site of the unnamed 1900 storm which is recorded as one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history. There are other potential disasters which could prompt the need to evacuate as well. It seems as if every large city in the United States should have a plan by now. Charleston learned their lesson from too many storms in the past and developed a new evacuation plan which shifts all road lanes to outgoing traffic only and dispatches people one zone at a time to avoid turning the highways into parking lots.
Would that have worked in Houston? Impossible to say. But once the waters recede and the rebuilding begins, the Mayor will have some tough questions to answer and the Governor is going to come off looking downright prescient.