Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

For Houston residents facing flooded highways in Hurricane Harvey, there was nowhere to go.

Wesley Highfield hasn’t left his home since Friday night. Saturday in Friendswood, Texas saw 26 inches of rain, with 15 inches falling in just three hours. Sunday dumped another seven inches; today’s forecast is another six to eight.

But Highfield, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston who specializes in flood resilience, never considered evacuating with his wife and two young children in the face of the Hurricane Harvey. Many other residents in the Houston metro didn’t either, following the implicit advice from local leaders, who issued no evacuation orders by Friday, to ride out the storm—even after Texas Governor Greg Abbott encouraged residents in low lying and coastal areas to evacuate on their own accord.

Francisco Sanchez, the spokesman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, tweeted a strongly worded response to Abbott’s warning. “Houston has no evacuation order,” he affirmed on Friday. “In Harris County: very limited to select communities. LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST.”

Highfield’s decision to shelter in place is working out, so far: While the southeastern suburbs of Houston have experienced massive flooding, the storm drains in his newer subdivision are handling the historic inundation remarkably well. “We’re the only ones around who are dry,” he says.

A great many of his fellow Houstonians are not so lucky. Harvey has dumped an average of 25 inches of rain in the metro area, with record-breaking precipitation in some areas as high as 50 inches. As of Sunday afternoon, first responders had received 6,000 pleas for rescue, and more than 1,000 people had been saved from rooftops, attics, and makeshift flotillas. Parents are wading through streets with children on their shoulders; one widely shared image showed elderly residents trapped in an assisted-living center as flood water rises to their waists. The official death toll stands at eight, but that is likely to increase as the waters recede.

Only now—days after the first, dire predictions of extreme rainfall—are a few Houston suburbs calling for mandatory evacuations. But the debate over whether the city should have ordered residents to leave as soon as possible has been raging since Saturday. Highfield, who co-authored the book Rising Waters: The Causes and Consequences of Flooding in the United States, did some armchair quarterbacking over the phone as he watched the rain pour down.

As you prepared to hunker down on Friday, what did you make of the messaging from public officials? State and county messages were in conflict. Who was more correct?  

I feel for the people who made the call to keep everyone in place, because I think it was actually the right decision. I’m still a little taken aback at the governor’s statement about Houston, that if he was there he’d be leaving. The fact that local officials had to clean that up was no good.

An outsider looking at some of these now-iconic photographs might easily say the opposite—that clearly the governor was correct here, and that local officials, playing into the public’s distrust in higher institutions, were deeply wrongheaded.

The city of Houston has two million people alone. The larger region is just huge—more than six million. You’re not moving all of those people out. Not quickly. You will never be able to effectively evacuate the entire city. Transportation is an issue here even on a sunny day. The traffic here is just awful.

So better to have families standing on their rooftops waiting for rescue than stuck in traffic?

It’s not just about traffic. You put a lot of people in danger by putting them on roads when all of them are under water. The roads are how the city conveys stormwater, you know. You’re asking people to go into a much riskier position than to stay put. Look at all the emergency calls coming in. [They’ve mostly been from people who tried to drive through the storm, and wound up caught on flooded roads.] The trade-off here is easy.

But does the choice need to be, “Evacuate the whole city, or not at all?” Could Harris County have issued more targeted orders ahead of time?

Let’s give a few hypotheticals. Let’s say officials tell us, if you live in a flood zone, you need to evacuate. Well, the last survey we did suggested that most people don’t know if they live in a flood zone. People don’t understand their risk.

Rescuers enter a flooded subdivision in Spring, Texas. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Another hypothetical: If you think you’re at risk of flooding, then you should probably leave. Well, that’s not very targeted messaging. Lots of people have experience with flooding here. But those are the kinds of confusing messages officials tend to give.

Here in Friendswood, it wasn’t great. We had some officials saying get in your attics, and others saying, only do that if you have the implements to break through the roof. Then we had meteorologists saying get on the roof so we can rescue you—don’t stay in your attic. I can’t imagine that kind of messaging is working very well in the context of an evacuation order. No doubt, this is an opportunity for leaders to clean that up.

One thing I’ve read repeatedly is that Houston didn’t evacuate this time because it “learned a lesson” from Hurricane Rita, when people died on gridlocked roads after a mass evacuation order was issued. That was 12 years ago. Why are county judges and mayors apparently crafting these response messages in the moment? Shouldn’t they have a coordinated plan by now?

[Laughs.] You’d think there would be. Yes, there has been ample time to coordinate the messaging. There needs to be something more consistent here. You’d think there would be a cohesive evacuation plan in place.

What was missing here?

More attention needs to be paid to regional decisions and planning. This is a big region. Harris County runs the show, but Galveston, Fort Bend, Harris, and Brazoria counties are just to the south. You’d think regionally they’d have a better plan in place.

Also, if you look at the flood zone evacuation map, it is clearly more related to storm surge than precipitation. It’s all hurricane-based. It wouldn’t have made sense to follow that plan in this case because this threat was different—this is about the rain, not the surge.

Hurricane evacuation zones for Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris and Matagorda counties. (Weather.gov)

What about for those poor senior citizens, knitting out the storm as it literally rose to their waists? Is that just a question of messaging, as you say?

Partially, at least some of that is awareness. But you can only message so much. Personal responsibility [on the part of a nursing home, for example] is at play, too.

Corpus Christi seems to have had a pretty well-coordinated response. The mayor issued a voluntary evacuation order issued on Thursday, and emergency services successfully shuttled car-less residents to higher ground. The flooding wasn’t nearly as bad there, as it turns out, but what about their response was different, compared to the Houston metro?

They knew the threat was coming from the water. We knew our threat was coming from the sky, but we didn’t know where exactly it would land. When you can anticipate a 10-foot wall of water coming from the ocean, you know who to evacuate. It’s a lot harder to target communities that live in floodplains. Most people don’t understand the spatial aspects.

What about now? Several communities in some of the counties south of Houston are under evacuation order as of Sunday and Monday.

Some of those orders are in leveed areas. In Fort Bend, almost all of those areas are where levees were built and development occurred. The assumption all along was that they’d always be safe. That’s why you should have never built levees in the first place—you get a false sense of security.

As far as people trying to evacuate now, the roads are flooded. Transportation-wise, when you build roads to convey water, as Houston has done, that is what you get, for better or worse. What does it mean when you have an evacuation order when you have nowhere to go? It’s pretty empty.  

So the greater Houston region will never be able to evacuate its way out of a storm like this—and in your view, maybe it shouldn’t try. Besides local leaders improving their communication skills, what else can the metro do?

It seems like there would be a way to create an elevated road that helps people get out all the time [rather than rely solely on low-lying, water-conveying roads]. But I’m not sure that the capacity of those elevated evacuation areas would be suitable.

I think the answers are less about transportation and more about development and planning. There should be some serious discussion about elevating homes. And some serious discussion about the government buying out communities on a consistent basis. I mean moving entire neighborhoods. That is a really hard thing to do and clearly fraught with its own issues. But Meyerland has been underwater three times in the past three years. That’s just crazy. If we’re going to be more resilient, this those are the decisions that need to be made.

What will you be looking for in the coming days and weeks?

I’ll be looking at reactions on a local and regional state levels. There needs to be a clear messaging and response to help people recover. And it’s an opportunity to start to building back better, higher, and move some things around. I’m hopeful that will happen, but we will see.

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