My family was luckier than most. Our house only got a few inches of water in it. Though my parents are busy ripping out sheetrock and putting belongings in storage, we didn’t lose everything like a lot of other families did. Like many other Houstonians, my parents didn’t evacuate. Here in Georgia, I’ve seen a lot of confusion and criticism about it. People who aren’t from Houston and don’t know anything about it seem to be under the impression that the city’s response was bungled and that the city should have been evacuated.
Photo: Out neighbor, in a kayak, paddling down the street
Aside from class issues and who has the resources to be able to evacuate, Houston is simply too big. The city of Houston sprawls over 620 square miles, and Harris County (in which Houston resides) holds over 4 million people. In addition to all the people who live in Houston, you’ve also got everyone from coastal communities such as Galveston passing through when they are evacuating.
The city of Houston tried evacuating before, and the result was a disaster. That was Hurricane Rita. In September 2005 when Rita hit, I was only in third grade, but I still remember the evacuation clearly. My father was out of town on a business trip, so it was left to my mom to load up the minivan with my sister and me, her mother-in-law, and our golden retriever, Taffy, who had cancer. Later my mother told me that her worst nightmare was Taffy dying during the evacuation.We were going to Dallas to stay with some cousins. Normally, Dallas is about a three-hour drive; that day, it took us over twenty-four hours.
The roads were completely gridlocked. Our car was just sitting on the asphalt road, surrounded by similarly trapped cars. We rarely moved. Sometimes my mother got out to walk Taffy along the side of the roads, passing car after car on foot.
Gas stations were out of all sorts of supplies, from gasoline to water to even toilet paper. I still remember that the firefighters of one small town brought out bottled water for everyone stuck on the road. But even with the kindness of strangers, it still felt like something out of an apocalypse narrative. Dozens of people died, more than the current death count for Harvey.
While Harvey is a terrible natural disaster, it would have been even worse if the people were trapped in their cars while the water rose.
Evacuation simply wasn’t possible for a city as big as Houston and the limited time available before Harvey made landfall. So before you start criticizing the city for not ordering an evacuation, maybe talk to a Houstonian.
Thumbnail Image Credit: FEMA/Ed Edahl