Home Opinion Harvey's Destruction: Why Wasn't Houston Evacuated?

Harvey's Destruction: Why Wasn't Houston Evacuated?

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By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

Emergencies of all sorts happen every day across the country. Of course, most emergencies happen on a small scale, often just being the result of an accident or a medical emergency - and that's not counting the plethora of other emergencies that stem from a variety of other factors. It is important, however, that those responding to emergencies have a good amount of resources in place to handle any type of event.

For example, those who work on an ambulance should know where everything is, have enough supplies to handle any sort of emergency, and have everything organized in such a way that they can grab whatever supplies they need quickly. Emergency management on a large scale should be handled similarly with easy to access resources and proactive planning to lessen the burden on personnel.

While emergency managers can prepare for disasters managing their personnel and resources ahead of a major catastrophe, sometimes preparation ahead of time just simply isn't enough - and resources will be overwhelmed, regardless of the situation. Additionally, it becomes far more difficult to manage large amounts of personnel, numerous governmental agencies, policies, and the civilians caught in the mix.

Hurricane Harvey developed suddenly, creating a life-threatening situation for the City of Houston as a Category 4 hurricane headed towards the Texas coast. The decision to not evacuate Houston strikes a chord with many Americans as they're reminded of the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

Hurricane Harvey, Memories of Hurricane Katrina and Evacuations

Many Americans watched from afar when Hurricane Katrina happened wondering just how it was possible for all three levels of American government to be completely overwhelmed?  In many respects, Americans are currently watching the situation with Hurricane Harvey unfold with numerous comparisons being made - one of which includes the flood waters rising and citizens possibly being trapped in the attics of their homes. The question looms: why not evacuate Houston when they had the chance? Wouldn't it lessen the burden on emergency personnel while managing the resources they have? Didn't we learn from Hurricane Katrina?

The answer to this question lies in understanding that no two emergencies are the same. The conditions of two hurricanes may have similarities, but they will not be identical in how the storm develops, impacts a given area, and in how government agencies pull together to manage the disaster. We may have memories of how bad Hurricane Katrina was, but - Hurricane Harvey simply is not the same storm.

CNN Reported that the mayor of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner, chose not to evacuate the City of Houston because it would put "6.5 million people on the road" and would "create a nightmare." The thought of 6.5 million people on any road is a mind-boggling thought, especially when traffic would be jammed and it would take hours upon hours to evacuate a given area. From an emergency management standpoint, and with the short notice of this storm, ordering an evacuation might not have saved lives. Images of highways in Houston currently show an amazing amount of flooding and surely, people could have been trapped in their vehicles creating a very serious, overwhelming situation of rescue missions had they been forced to evacuate. The decision to not evacuate was likely a difficult one, (especially as it is will face scrutiny as the management of the disaster continues to develop), but - it simply may have been the "lesser of two evils."  Evacuating 6.5 million people in a short amount of time could have made the situation much, much worse.

The saying "hindsight is always 20/20" is one of the best ways to describe a situation like this from an emergency management perspective. As the disaster continues to develop in Houston, we will understand more about the decisions that could have been made to save lives and property. We will also understand more about how the three levels of government responded to the disaster and what they could have done better if faced with the same situation again. But, lessons learned only allow for us to contemplate how we may handle similar disasters in the future and are difficult since no two emergencies are ever the same.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.