Coastal Conundrum

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Hurricane Harvey has brought back terrible memories to many in its path.  Twelve years ago, nearly to the day, the Gulf Coast faced the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.  Thousands of residents relocated to Texas as a result of Katrina.   Some never to return to the hardest hit areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.  Just days later, Texas was hit by Hurricane Rita.  Those of us living on the Gulf Coast know all too well how quickly these weather systems develop into serious threats.

While the past three days of devastation resulting from Harvey stand to rival that of Katrina, in many ways it seems important to reflect on some of the lessons that were learned from both Katrina and Rita.  Katrina is listed as the most deadly hurricane of the 21st century.  Katrina is also classified as the third most deadly hurricane on record.  More importantly, the impact of Katrina and Rita on poor people was astounding.  On the other hand, these hurricanes provided a road map for Texas to use today.

As we watch coverage of the devastation of Harvey we should make note of some of the lessons learned from Katrina and Rita.  I was on the ground as a member of the U. S. Homeland Security Investigations team helping to secure New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.  I understand some of the pitfalls that emergencies present.  The most impressive lesson we should note is Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s refusal to take the bait when questioned about evacuation decisions made by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

In the early days following landfall of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans the world saw a deep rift between Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco centered around what seemed to be the inability of the two to get on the same page.  In contrast, the leadership in Texas is exemplary.  Refusing to point a finger at Mayor Turner did much to foster a climate of cooperation and continued progress in the midst of a crisis.

Gulf Coast residents love where we live.  We are keenly aware if we live in areas that are prone to flooding.  More importantly, residents of flood prone areas know what to do in preparation for hurricanes and other storms that bring flooding.  We know what evacuation means – even if evacuation is not ordered by government officials.  Certainly there are many that do not need an evacuation order from local officials.

A real problem is that we often forget about the massive divide in America.  We forget that all citizens are not necessarily equal.  We forget that there is a sizeable divide in physical ability and socio-economic status for starters.  We forget that many residents in these areas are unable to evacuate for a number of different reasons.

An increasingly aging population and those suffering physical disabilities may be huge factors.  Money is another reason some don’t have the freedom to make decisions on their own to get out of harm’s way, even under evacuation orders.  The lack of access to transportation to escape a flood prone area can be another reason people remain despite weather reports and evacuation orders.  What I am certain of is that, even a call for mandatory, or even voluntary evacuation, is not necessarily the end game.  And blame regarding issuance of one or the other is never a solution.

Flood prone areas present another problem – the actual logistics of evacuation.  Do you remember the evacuation in Texas when Rita was headed that way 12 years ago?  Because we had all seen the division between the Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco just days before landfall of Hurricane Rita, evacuation seemed to be the obvious answer for Texas.  The task proved much more complex than the decision.  A city the size of Houston under a mandatory evacuation order could prove as much of a disaster as the threatening storm.  First, you have the massive number of people in the country’s fourth largest city to take into account.

Then you have the type of situation at hand in Texas.  A slow moving weather system like Harvey proved overwhelming in a short period of time.  In that case, you don’t want roads, bridges and highways that are already prone to flooding overrun with residents attempting to flee the potential for disaster.

There is strong leadership on both the local and state level in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  Mayor Turner received the best advice from his emergency management team and made the best decision for the situation at hand.  Governor Abbott’s statement to CNN’s Alisyn Camerota today says there is leadership on the state level as well.  He avoided pointing a finger at the mayor when he said, “There were obviously concerns, as you pointed out, about the complications of evacuation that we saw when Hurricane Rita came to the state of Texas.  So it’s so difficult to look in hindsight to see, would it have been better to evacuate or not evacuate, which is why we simply aren’t focused on it right now.  Instead, all of our attention is focused on saving lives.”