As many of you know, I live in Houston. I am aware that people outside our local TV viewing area are not getting the whole picture about the situation here. Also, probably with the best of intentions, some people are saying and doing things they think helpful, but making a difficult situation even harder.
As someone who has lived in Galveston or Houston all my life, I’d like to share some information and suggestions.
First: If you are unfamiliar with the Gulf Coast and/or are not reading the websites of our local TV stations and/or are unfamiliar with the anatomy and physiology of hurricanes, you aren’t getting the whole picture from national news.
National, international, and foreign news usually shows only the worst of the storm effects and damage. They don’t consider streets or houses that are high and dry as news. Consequently, people, like some of my friends in Europe, and no doubt many here in the United States, think the entire city of Houston went under.
Yes, this is the most extensive flooding we’ve ever had. Areas that never flooded before flooded this time. But by no means did the entire city flood. Most flooding occurred in areas within a mile or so of a creek or bayou or areas where a particularly heavy rain cell parked itself for several hours.
But most areas in this large, spread out city are several miles from the nearest watercourse. They may have wind damage, and water may have come in through broken roofs or windows, but not deep, life-threatening flooding.
If you have friends or relatives in the area and can’t reach them, the most likely explanation is that they lost electrical service and can’t charge phones or use computers. The current death toll is 36. But the population of Houston is 6.5 million. Your loved ones are probably safe, either at home or in a shelter.
Second: During a severe weather event, local TV stations suspend normal network programming and go to round the clock local news and weather coverage. Yes, like national news programs, they have reporters in the field covering the hardest hit areas. But they also broadcast more detailed weather maps showing the storm overlaid on the viewing area (several counties), city, and even small portions of cities. These maps show where it’s currently raining, and by color-coding, how hard it’s raining in different spots.
Other than in near the eye, most hurricane and tropical storm rain occurs in bands that spiral out from the storm center, somewhat like a pinwheel. So these local weather maps also show gaps between the rain bands. We can see which neighborhoods are currently getting a break, or at least a slowdown, in the rain. These breaks allow flooded streets to drain, at least some, before the next rain band moves in.
Local TV stations also continually update us on which streets are and are not passable. They broadcast press conferences with local officials and info on how to handle various situations.
National and international coverage of only the worst locations left people with the impression that local authorities weren’t doing anything. But local news coverage of press conferences, etc showed us what was being done. Here’s an edited excerpt from something I posted on Facebook Monday in an effort to dispel false impressions about local authorities:
I just watched a press conference with the Mayor of Houston, Police Chief, Fire Chief, representatives of Metro, Coast Guard, Centerpoint energy (which maintains our power grid), and the Army Corps of Engineers…
This press conference showed me how much is being done.
For example, there are 100,000 buildings without power, but Centerpoint has restored power to 450,000 locations, even though it’s still raining and many thoroughfares are flooded.
Metro says it isn’t safe to drive regular bus routes now, but they put their entire staff and fleet of buses into rescue operations. The high water trucks, boats and helicopters get the people out of flooded areas and take them to designated points where Metro buses pick them up and take them to shelters.
George R. Brown Convention Center has been turned into a shelter, currently housing about 4500 people, and other shelters are opening.
Texas National Guard is now also on the scene with high water trucks to augment those of the city. Private individuals are pitching in… Those in areas flooded too deep for even high water trucks were using small rafts and boats to get people to shallower water where the trucks could pick them up.
If you’d like to get a more complete picture of the current situation in and around Houston, go to the websites of our local news stations: KHOU, KPRC, KTRK, or our local PBS TV Channel 8 –first public TV station in the US! You can also listen to live broadcasts from our NPR affiliate FM 88.7 on your computer, from here, choose News 88.7 at the top.
Third: Second guessing local officials isn’t helpful. Rather, it makes a bad situation worse. It’s not only unjust, it adds more stress for those of us who have been struggling for days to hold ourselves together. Rumors circulating on social media can even cause panic or lead people to take inadvisable actions.
I am lucky. My neighborhood didn’t flood. I had power, water, landline, mobile phone service, TV and internet. There was some roof damage, but I’m not on the top floor. Today, I was able to go to the supermarket and get almost everything I needed.
Yet, I know that even I am still stressed and worried. I can feel it in my gut and see it in the stupid, absent-minded mistakes I make. Even this neighborhood is not out of the woods yet. Buffalo Bayou might continue to rise as water is released from Addicks Reservoir to prevent the dam from breaking. The part of the bayou that may experience further flooding lies parallel to where I live. I don’t think water would come this far south, but we won’t know till the bayou can be stabilized.
We are advised that additional power outages are possible because trees that had been rooted in solid ground now stand in mud. They could topple and fall on power lines.
And there’s another Cat 3 hurricane heading west from Africa now. Sept. is the peak of the hurricane season.
A few days ago, a relation told me that some friend-of-a-friend on Facebook had posted something like, “What’s wrong with you people down there? Why aren’t you using the trains to evacuate people?”
I confess that, after the fifteen minutes it took to drag my lower jaw up off the floor, I lost it. I who coined, teach and normally practice my “Silver Rule of Consensus: avoid, or minimize, making others wrong; I who was sitting in a dry, 2nd story apartment; lost it and mouthed off in a sarcastic manner that is usually out of character for me.
Fortunately, I didn’t know who the “What’s wrong…” person was.If I had, my response to them would have been similar to “The Desolation of Smaug” (the fire-breathing dragon in The Hobbit).
But I did vent to a friend (more or less, expletives deleted):
What ____ing trains!?!? How could anyone think that, if we had lots of trains running in and out of Houston in all directions to places that are high and dry, not one person at city hall would think of using them? Could anyone think that interstate highways can flood but railroad tracks can’t flood? Oh wait, I answered my own questions: they aren’t thinking.
Houston has one Amtrak train that only runs to San Antonio, already damaged by Harvey, and to New Orleans, where Harvey seemed to be headed next at the time.
Excuse me for venting. I’ve been holding the stress in all these days, and I think my pressure relief valve just popped open.
I admit this to make a point. If I was that edgy, imagine how much more edgy are those whose homes have been flooded, who are sleeping on cots in shelters.
My reaction would have been different if the person had simply asked a question, without opening with, “What’s wrong with you people down there?”
Fourth: Evacuating the entire city of Houston would have changed the worst flood in US history into one of the worst non-war-related disasters of any kind.
In 2005, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a smaller hurricane, Rita, headed for the upper Texas coast.
Officials directed evacuations of coastal areas south of Houston to avoid any possible storm surge. For Houston, they only advised evacuating places like nursing homes, where power outages could put people at risk.
They explained, over and over, the differences between the two situations. New Orleans lies at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River Delta. Part of New Orleans is below sea level. Katrina was pushing a huge storm surge.
By contrast, Rita was a smaller storm with a smaller predicted surge. Also by contrast, the city of Houston is fifty miles from the coast. It would not be flooded by even a big storm surge (as in Hurricane Ike, which flooded coastal areas, but not Houston).
Over and over, officials explained this. They begged Houstonians to shelter in place, stay off the highways so coastal areas could evacuate in a timely manner. Nevertheless, some fraction of the population of Houston hit the roads, reacting emotionally to the Katrina images they remembered, rather than heeding officials.
The evacuation routes were overwhelmed and jammed up. As I remember it, people reported taking as much as six or eight hours just to reach the northern outskirts of Houston. Vehicles ran out of gas on the road. Service stations along the roads ran out of gas. Now, stalled cars blocked the roads in places. People ran out of food and water. People died trying to evacuate, including twenty-four from a nursing home on a bus that caught fire.
Then mayor, Bill White, helped minimize the casualties by working with the state to get the inbound sides of the roads changed to to temporarily flow outbound.
That happened with only a fraction of Houstonians trying to evacuate. Mayor Sylvester Turner (who was up to his eyebrows and shouldn’t have had to take time out to defend his decision not to evacuate Houston for Harvey) was absolutely right. You can’t just put 6.5 million people on the road. That would have been much more dangerous than Harvey itself.
If a city this size could be safely evacuated, it would have to begin about a week before a storm could make landfall here. That means beginning almost as soon as a storm enters the Gulf or forms in the Gulf itself, long before meteorologists can predict where the storm will land. In a typical hurricane season, such week-ahead evacuations could happen several times. Most of those evacuations would prove to be unnecessary, either because storms landed far from here, or because storms didn’t strengthen enough to pose a serious threat to life.
Moreover, as mentioned above, most severe hurricane flooding comes from the storm surge, and Houston is too far from the coast for a surge to reach us. A safe evacuation would have to start a week before landfall. But nobody could have predicted, a week before Harvey reached us, that it would cause, not a big storm surge, but rather unprecedented rain flooding because it sat here motionless, dumping rain for many days.
The fact is that no human could have managed Harvey in any way that would eliminate all flooding and all casualties. Some natural phenomena are beyond our control. The best we can do is try to minimize risk. A hurricane is a dynamic situation. No two are alike. Some decisions have to be made by educated guesses.
For decades, Houston has had Democratic mayors, and Republican Ed Emmett has been Harris County judge. The city and county have a long history of cooperation, making the best anyone can of situations no human can predict or control, and learning a little more from each new storm experience.
A time will come to learn from Harvey, but that time is not now. Local officials and residents alike have all we can handle coping with what has happened, and continues to happen, and controlling our emotions. It might be years before Houston fully recovers.
And no useful learning from Harvey will come from people who don’t have all the necessary information second guessing local leaders on social media.
Fifth: If you would like to help:
Here are some links to donate to help evacuees and other local residents whose homes have been damaged:
Houston Food Bank. Their own building was flooded. So now they not only need funds for extra food, but also funds to repair the building.
Theater/Museum District entities that have flood damage and would welcome donations:
Alley Theater, just recently renovated, has severe damage.
Jones Hall, home of the Houston Symphony.
I’m still working on links for the Wortham Center, home of the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera, and Hobby Center for Performing Arts.
Please remember other places in Texas that also need help, including, but not limited to: Rockport, a lovely little coastal town and a center for birding, was near landfall and had whole buildings leveled; Corpus Christi; San Antonio; Victoria.
Sixth: I plan to post updates on the situation “on the ground” in Houston as comments to this post. If you’d like to get notices of the updates, please click “Notify me of follow-up comments by e-mail,” below.
If you have questions about Harvey, Houston, etc., please ask them by way of comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer them, also by comments to this post.
If you found this information useful, please share this post with others, by social media, email, word of mouth, any way you can, and thanks in advance.
 The number of outages later increased, but Centerpoint has been working on them as fast as possible.