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Houston, Inundated

eye on the news

Houston, Inundated

Geographical luck matters in surviving big storms—but so does government competence. August 28, 2017
Public safety
Texas

Even three days after the storm, we know little about how well Houston will survive Hurricane Harvey. As we learned in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 12 years ago tomorrow, as well as in Superstorm Sandy in New York five years ago this October, the hardest part of a storm comes after the rain stops. One terrible fact is becoming increasingly clear: despite several major storms in the past two decades, we still don’t know how to get millions of people out of the way of a storm’s path. 

Why didn’t Houston evacuate? Twelve years ago, it’s worth recalling, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered city residents to leave the day before the Category 3 Katrina hit. Of the city’s roughly half-million residents, about 100,000 didn’t comply; of the people who stayed behind, 682 died, comprising the majority of the 917 victims in Louisiana. Yet late last week in Houston, as the Category 4 storm neared its Friday night landfall with windspeeds of up to 130 miles per hour, city and county officials told residents to hunker down.

This may sound like a failure, but New Orleans—where rescue operations were often botched—and Houston are very different cities. Much of New Orleans lies under sea level. The Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, which border the city, often sit above it, kept out by levees and flood walls. The big risk Katrina posed (which eventually became reality) was that these levees and walls would break, trapping tens of thousands of people in their homes in the city’s lowest-lying areas.

The risk that Harvey posed to Houston—and that Sandy posed to New York and New Jersey—was different. Water has risen more gradually—and continues to rise—from rain, not from a large body of water suddenly bursting its walls. The death toll from Harvey will surely rise from single digits, but it will almost certainly stay lower than the thousands who would have died in New Orleans had they not left town before Katrina.

Other differences are logistical. New Orleans is a small city within driving distance of a much bigger one (Houston). But as Judge Ed Emmett, an elected official who shares responsibility over Houston, said today, “if we had gone out three days before and said, we want four million people to leave Harris County, that would have been a totally nonsensical thing to do.” Houston already is the biggest metropolitan center within any realistic driving distance, so an evacuation would have merely overwhelmed the roads and resources of the surrounding area. Mass evacuation is dangerous in itself, as Houston learned just weeks after Katrina, when dozens of people died in car crashes fleeing Hurricane Rita, including 23 on a bus that caught fire, or from heatstroke, or, in the case of the elderly and sick, from the trauma of escaping.

Mandatory evacuations also invariably leave people behind. New Orleans residents’ failure to evacuate fully ahead of Katrina was no more an extreme case than what New York experienced before Sandy. Despite government calls for 375,000 people in Battery Park City and along coastal areas to leave before Sandy, at least half stayed, and 43 people died. If Houston had issued an evacuation order, hundreds of thousands of people would probably not have heeded it, leaving the city in basically the same situation it’s in today. Three days after the storm, as people flee the waters, Houston is providing safe public shelter for the tens of thousands of people who’ve had to leave, or need rescue from, their homes—something New Orleans couldn’t do.

State and local competence is just as important as geography when it comes to surviving big storms. After Katrina, New Orleans’s woes were exacerbated by the city’s longstanding failures—above all, its inability to police the city competently and keep residents safe from street crime. New Orleans’s post-Katrina dangers were exaggerated, in part by the mayor, but they were real. Women were raped in communal shelters. Looters distracted rescue workers.

People who had never trusted the police or their fellow pedestrians on a good day, and who had lived with “constant gunfire” before Katrina, were understandably even more terrified when the lights went out and the storm-struck city was mostly empty. In New York post-Sandy, by contrast, even the parts of the city that suffered from power outages stayed safe. A city that can protect its citizenry during the good times may face bigger challenges during the bad, but it will have the necessary foundation to maintain order.

Before Harvey hit, Houston had a murder rate of about 13 per 100,000 residents. That’s nowhere near as low as New York, with its own murder rate at fewer than four equivalent homicides, but it’s much better than New Orleans, with its homicide rate in 2004, the year before Katrina, of 59 murders per 100,000 people (and 45 today). Houston has also seen its population soar, from 1.6 million in 1980 to 2.3 million today. New Orleans, before Katrina, was shrinking, from 558,000 in 1980 to 455,000 in 2005: thriving municipalities have more civic unity and the necessary service infrastructure to respond to crisis than do cities in decline.

Rescue and recovery from a big storm is hard no matter where you live. New York stumbled after Sandy, coming too slowly to the aid of people trapped in housing projects with no power. But a city that’s doing well before a disaster is better equipped to deal with a disaster when it comes. Crises don’t change a city’s capabilities. Rather, as both Katrina and Sandy demonstrated, they reveal and magnify them.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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