Michael Brown: Evacuations are not a binary choice in a deadly storm
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Evacuating in the face of a natural or manmade disaster is not a binary choice. But local and state politicians have made it a political binary choice and that does not serve their constituencies well. 

In 2015 the Houston Chronicle noted, “In the Houston area, the muddled flight from the city killed almost as many people as [Hurricane] Rita did. An estimated 2.5 million people hit the road ahead of the storm’s arrival, creating some of the most insane gridlock in U.S. history. More than 100 evacuees died in the exodus. Drivers waited in traffic for 20-plus hours, and heat stroke impaired or killed dozens. Fights broke out on the highway. A bus carrying nursing home evacuees caught fire, and 24 died.”

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Today controversy swirls about whether Houston should have been evacuated prior to Hurricane Harvey making landfall. The problem with evacuations is that politicians seem to take an all-or-nothing approach to evacuations. Let’s dispense with the word “evacuations” for a moment and instead focus on the realities of what politicians can do.

 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, "You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road… If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare."

Technically the mayor is correct. But was the choice to put 6.5 million people on the road or put no one on the road to safety?

No. That is a false choice.

The correct choice would be to heed the warnings of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service about the catastrophic rainfall and flooding that the storm would produce in South Texas.

FEMA has worked closed the National Hurricane Center to study human behavior regarding evacuations and the conclusions are disheartening. Citizens are unaware or oblivious to the dangers of storm surge or rising flood waters. Elected officials tend to over emphasize dangers or under estimate the need to get their constituencies out of harm’s way. This leads to cynicism which leads to ignoring otherwise pertinent information. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prophetically stated prior to Hurricane Harvey making landfall that "If you wait until you realize how serious this condition is, you likely will find that it's too late for you to be able to evacuate.” 

There’s that politically explosive word again. “Evacuate.”

Now we have a conflict between the governor and the mayor. One says don’t evacuate, shelter in place. The other says if you don’t leave you’ll find yourself stranded.

Is there an appropriate response for elected officials that avoids the pitfalls of this artificial binary choice?

Absolutely.

State and local elected officials need to learn that in many instances, especially when an evacuation order is impractical, there is a third choice. That is to explain the potential dangers of sheltering in place, and to urge their citizens to look at their personal situation and if practical or feasible, to pack up and leave on their own — and at their own pace.

In a foreseeable catastrophe such as Hurricane Harvey, state and local officials should take advantage of the expertise of FEMA and the National Hurricane Center. When catastrophic rainfall and flooding are predicted, citizens should be given that information so they can make an informed, personal choice, about whether to shelter in place or leave.

As we look back on the pre-landfall predictions of Hurricane Harvey, Turner and Abbott should have presented a unified message. And that message could have been very simple and direct: “Hurricane Harvey is predicted to dump catastrophic amounts of rainfall in an area from Corpus Christie to Houston. We encourage individuals and businesses to evaluate the potential for flooding in their local area and make a decision to shelter in place, knowing that if the flooding is as bad as predicted, you will most likely be stuck in your home for hours if not days.

We would also encourage those who can, and do not want to run the risk of having to be rescued after this predicted catastrophic flooding occurs, to take this time between now and landfall to leave and go to a place of safety. Visit relatives or friends in cities outside the area of the predicted rainfall and flooding. Leave the city with enough clothing and necessities because you most likely will not be able to return to your home for days if not weeks.”

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. 

Giving citizens good information about the realities of the situation empowers them to make informed, individual decisions about their own lives and safety. What’s more American than government giving good information and letting citizens make their own choices? 

It’s time to recognize that evacuations are not the only choice in natural disasters. Elected officials would be wise to learn to stop making evacuations a binary choice.

Michael Brown is the former Under Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.” Follow him on Twitter at @michaelbrownusa.


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