As reports roll in that as many as eight persons may have died over the August 26-27 weekend while even more rain is expected as part of Hurricane Harvey’s storm system, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) activated the Texas National Guard in response. Total deployment has risen to 12,000 personnel. Questions have arisen as to why Houston's Democratic mayor did not issue an evacuation order in a timely fashion.
On Thursday, as comments swirled on social media about the incoming storm, city officials sought to allay fears and tell residents to get their news from "proven information sources." Houston officials, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Francisco Sanchez of Harris County emergency services, and Major Chad Norvell with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office, denounced social media posts warning of disaster. "All residents of Houston and surrounding areas should rely solely on proven information sources, including the National Weather Service and the city Office of Emergency Management, to decide how to prepare for the heavy rainfall expected here," Turner said.
At a Friday news conference, Abbott (R) encouraged Texans to evacuate low lying areas and the coast of the Lone Star state, even though a mandatory evacuation order had not been issued. After Abbott's news conference, Turner appeared to rebuke the Republican governor. Turner not only refrained from issuing an evacuation order, he “asked” (because he cannot order it) citizens to shelter in place. “For Houston, Harris County, the county judge and I both agreed that for us this was a major rainfall event and so there was no need to evacuate. We are asking people to stay off the streets,” Turner said at the Friday news conference. “Quite frankly, leaving your homes, getting on the streets, you’ll be putting yourself in more danger and not making yourself safer. And so, we’re just asking people to hunker down."
Abbott said at a Sunday news conference that he had not gotten a response from Turner despite "several" calls in which he “let him know that, whatever he needs, the state of Texas will provide.”
In a statement released on Monday, Gov. Abbott declared: “It is imperative that we do everything possible to protect the lives and safety of people across the state of Texas as we continue to face the aftermath of this storm.” Abbott said "The Texas National Guard is working closely with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and federal troops to respond urgently to the growing needs of Texans who have fallen victim to Hurricane Harvey, and the activation of the entire Guard will assist in the efforts already underway.”
The Pentagon has announced that National Guard units from other states will provide aircraft and other resources to assist with rescue and recovery efforts.
Feds and states pitching in
Federal aid has been streaming into Louisiana and Texas since the Category 4 storm made landfall on Friday. Harvey has since been downgraded to the status of a tropical storm, even while it is still dumping a record amount of rain on Houston and environs. President Trump said that he would visit the region on Tuesday, while he has also issued a disaster proclamation that made federal assistance available for emergency aid to both states.
The Defense Department has sent a search and rescue team to Fort Worth, including two fixed-wing aircraft and pararescue teams, and nine helicopters. The Pentagon stated that its personnel and 16 aircraft are “conducting day and night wide area search and rescue missions along the Texas coast from Corpus Christi to Houston.”
The New York Air National Guard gave six aircraft; the Utah, Nebraska and North Carolina Army National Guards provided six helicopters; and the U.S. Coast Guard and Air National Guard gave seven helicopters, according to a Pentagon statement. Civilian federal agencies are providing 5,000 employees to help Texas. “U.S. Northern Command is poised to provide Department of Defense support to FEMA, state and local response efforts,” the Pentagon statement said.
No evacuation order
Houston, despite its notable susceptibility for flooding, was not under an evacuation order, voluntary or mandatory, even while Harvey was bearing down on southeast Texas. In a press conference while the wind was ginning up, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said at a press conference: "You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road." He added, "If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare."
Even so, many Houston residents were already coping with a nightmare. Residents were trapped in their homes and vehicles as 911 call-centers were flooded with calls.
Turner, however, was confident that sheltering-in-place was the best option. A massive evacuation, he said, would have to be coordinated "all the way from Houston to the destination." Insisting that his fellow citizens were better off at home, Turner said, “You issue an evacuation order and put everyone on the highway." Turner said, "you are really asking for a major calamity."
Journalist Kristin Tate, who resides in Houston and writes for The Hill, acknowledged that Turner had “failed the city” by not ordering an evacuation sooner. She said in an interview with Fox Business, “I really think the Mayor Sylvester Turner completely failed the city.” Tate said, “He didn’t even call for a voluntary evacuation and it seems like no real provisions were made to help residents before the flooding, and I want to know why not. Because we knew this was coming, this was in the reports. We certainly didn’t know the hurricane was going to be this bad but a city should always be prepared for the worst.”
Tate added, “As my family and I left the city on Friday, we could barely see out our windshield because it was raining so hard. And what has happened since, just widespread devastation. Most of my friends decided to kind of stay put in Houston and ride it out, but now they’re wishing they had left.” She cited Turner’s tweet of Friday, which she said sent mixed messages. “I think what made it most difficult for the residents was that we were getting mixed messages. Greg Abbott the Governor was suggesting evacuation but the mayor actually told people to just stay put. He tweeted this on Friday,” Tate said. Calling Turner “irresponsible,” Tate said, “I think it’s incredibly irresponsible for him not to have done that. And I think we can blame him for at least some of the suffering we are seeing because a lot of this could have been avoided.”
Officials report that approximately 450,000 persons have been affected by the rain and flooding. Meteorologists expect 50 inches of rain by the week’s end.
On Monday came the first mandatory evacuations for the Houston area, four days after it was obvious Harvey would create a deluge in the fourth-largest city in the country. After dumping more than 24 inches of rain on Houston in 24 hours before a brief respite on Sunday, Harvey is expected to drift back into the Gulf of Mexico and pick up more moisture that will be dropped on the stricken city by Wednesday. Thousands of people are homeless in the federally-designated disaster zone, which encompasses 7 million people.
In Harris and Fort Bend counties, officials told residents on Monday to leave before flooding. Southwest of Houston is the Brazos River, which is feared will swell to 60 feet and surmount levees. Harvey is the strongest storm to hit American shores in 13 years and the worst to hit Texas since 1961. Even in the absence of an official evacuation order, Gov. Abbott told Houston residents “you need to strongly consider evacuating.”
I can keep telling you to stay put, but the reality is YOU CAN'T GET ANYWHERE RIGHT NOW. pic.twitter.com/jcif3OnnIa— Francisco Sanchez (@DisasterPIO) August 27, 2017
Democrats push back the tide
Democrats in Houston were pushing back on the Republican governor’s pleas. On Friday, Harris County’s emergency management spokesperson, Francisco Sanchez, tweeted: “Local officials know best. Houston has no evacuation order. In Harris County: very limited to select communities. LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST.” When a commenter tweeted, “You’re going to feel stupid if this storm proves you wrong,” Sanchez issued the riposte: “Actually we feel quite blessed. And, thankful for the first responders & public safety officials that are working to keep us safe.” On Friday, Mayor Turn said, “There are a number of people who are in Hurricane Harvey’s direct path, and evacuation orders have been given to them. But for the Houston area… this is a rainmaker for us. There’s no need for people to be thinking about putting themselves in greater danger.”
The judiciary got involved. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told residents to “stay where you are and ride out the storm… We don’t anticipate any kind of massive evacuation.”
Sanchez admitted that thousands of his fellow citizens were stranded. On Twitter, Sanchez wrote: “I can keep telling you to stay put, but the reality is YOU CAN’T GET ANYWHERE RIGHT NOW.”
Democrats' mistakes during Katrina
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, officials in neighboring Louisiana were criticized for not doing enough to safeguard citizens. Sanchez himself was in charge of communications at New Orleans’ Superdome, where hundreds of New Orleanians were stranded without security, water, food, or sanitation. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was criticized for not allowing local school buses to be used to ferry evacuees. The buses were drowned by flood waters, instead.
As Hurricane Katrina approached, Louisiana Kathleen Blanco (D) said in Jefferson Parish -- less than 48 hours before the storm hit -- "I believe we are prepared. That's the one thing that I've always been able to brag about." But even though experts had warned that evacuating New Orleans would take 48 hours, Blanco did not order a mandatory evacuation that day. "We're going to pray that the impact will soften," she said. She waited until Sunday, August 28 — only 20 hours before Katrina came ashore — to order a mandatory evacuation. Another one of Blanco’s mistakes was her tardiness in calling out the National Guard, and her slowness in requesting federal troops. It was not until August 31 that she specifically asked for 40,000 troops.
On that day, Blanco was caught on camera appearing to second-guess. Blanco tells an aid: "I really need to call for the military." The reply was "Yes you do, yes you do."
One of the worst mistakes was the deploying of 250 guardsmen who were engineers, not police to the infamous SuperDome. They were not ordered to help restore order or even to share their food and water. Bodies lay unburied, crime was rife, and refugees were without water or food or sanitation.
But the lasting legacy of Katrina is that erstwhile president George Bush, a Republican, was to blame for the chaos, rather than the Democrats who were running Louisiana.
Ironically, many New Orleanians trekked to Houston and installed themselves there after Katrina. One of them is Houston emergency communications chief Francisco Sanchez.