Avoid the Blame Game
As I’m writing this, Texas is still in an active emergency response mode so many answers are months away from discovery but I think one thing needs to be stated. I don’t think the Emergency Management personnel in Houston were wrong in not ordering an evacuation early in Hurricane Harvey’s appearance. The reason I wanted to write this now is that once the politically posturing, finger-pointing and vote pandering starts, most conversations will be tainted.
Everyone knows I am a big believer in planning. Interestingly enough I have some first hand experience in helping doing emergency planning in Houston a number of years ago. I know the area has great plans, fantastic people and they are well resourced. Jurisdictions along the gulf have hurricane annexes which details actions to take up to 120 hours ahead of any projected landfall. Most jurisdictions along the gulf and elsewhere have flash flood plans. I have been reviewing this event and asked myself if the plans I helped developed would have averted disaster by pushing the evacuation button sooner. My answer was no, I would not have done anything different than the decision makers in the greater Houston area did based upon the plans we had. As a result I would have wet feet and be asking myself, what went wrong?
Implementation of hurricane plans are based on the projected paths and strengths of the storm system. In this case Hurricane Harvey rapidly grew in intensity but came ashore over 200 miles away from Houston. Still not a big issue for Houston and I would not have pushed for implementing the phased evacuation efforts.
Then came the rainfall projections the next day. The National Hurricane Center warned on the morning of Saturday the 26th that…”Hurricane Harvey is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 15 to 30 inches and isolated amounts of 40 inches over the middle and upper Texas coast through next Wednesday. Rainfall of this magnitude will cause catastrophic and life threatening flooding.” Currently I think the rainfall totals are set to outpace this projection. So here’s the issue with evacuate or not evacuate based on that projection.
- Evacuation comes with a guaranteed risk. You can’t evacuate people until you have somewhere for them to go and a means to get them there safely.
- Because of topography, Houston has flooded before. Houston is a large city with over 2 million people. Not easy to move them in a day or two.
- The question of where and how fast the rain will fall can’t accurately be answered so giving specific flood warning as to who is impacted is not possible. Exactly who would you tell to leave, when, go where and by what route?
What do I think we can learn so far.
- Harvey is presenting us with a whole new benchmark in planning. Could this be the storm of the future or a one-time deal? Only time will tell, but I think we’d be foolish to say it can’t happen again.
- Coastal jurisdictions need to review their existing severe weather plans and look for opportunities to mesh hurricane and flooding annexes that take into account greater impact to collar areas of hurricane landfall. I’m no weather-person but common sense says that Harvey could have gone any number of directions before dumping all this rain so we may need to expand the areas needing hurricane/tropical storm impact action plans.
- Collaborate like never before with all stakeholders including the public to ensure that triggers for an evacuation due to this type of event are coordinated and reasonable. It doesn’t make sense to have people evacuating from a potential collar-community flood event to be blocking evacuation routes or reception areas for those in immediate risk from hurricane landfall.
I know finger-pointing and politics will enter the discussion as the days, weeks and months progress. We’re in the middle of hurricane season right now so make good use of what Harvey is trying to teach us and review and update your existing plans as appropriate.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what kind of proactive actions we can take based upon this event.