Tuesday, August 29, 2017

that storm

Woe unto Texas, eh?

It's very tempting to make cheap "Houston, we have a problem" jokes, but Harvey, which began life as a hurricane and was immediately downgraded to a tropical storm upon landfall, is no laughing matter. The storm has already done untold billions of dollars in property damage, and as of this writing, nine people are dead. Floating colonies of fire ants have also made the news; I wonder how many such colonies there are: that's a lot of angry biomass.

That said—and I don't mean to sound coldly Machiavellian—such a low death toll, when compared to that of Katrina (numbers vary, but a common figure is over 1800 dead) or to that of any number of storm/flood events in places like Bangladesh or Indonesia, is encouraging: over 99.9999% of the population in the region affected by the storm has survived. Houston itself has a population of around 2.3 million; the population of greater Houston is around 5 million. A handful of deaths out of five million, while tragic, is an acceptable loss when compared to how things have gone elsewhere and elsewhen. And this has happened despite the double clown act that is the Texas government and the city of Houston's mayoralty. Apparently, the Republican governor and Democrat mayor were at odds on how to handle evacuation: the governor was for evacuation of Houston and the surrounding area, but Houston's mayor advocated a shelter-in-place policy because he felt that a mass evacuation would only clog roads and create chaos. Here in Korea, we've seen the result of shelter-in-place orders thanks to the Sewol ferry disaster, which led to the deaths of around 300 people.*

At some point, the waters will recede, and Houston will have to plan on how to deal with future potential disasters. Texas's economy has taken a blow, but given how robust that economy has been (especially when compared to blue states'), I don't expect the state to be down for long. The South as a whole might not rise again, but Texas certainly will.

*Some might be tempted to cry, "Disanalogy!", but I think not. Houston isn't rife with bottlenecks like Washington, DC: it's a big, flat, sprawling area with many exit points. DC during 9/11 was a clogged madhouse, but Houston could have evacuated its people with relative ease (emphasis on relative).


Anonymous said...

I don't know what would have been the best policy, but my understanding is that they sent out an evacuation order in Houston for the hurricane after Katrina, and it ended up with massive traffic jams caught on the freeways. Fortunately, (if I remember correctly and may not), that one didn't hit Houston directly. So the mayor wasn't just pulling it out of the air.

Kevin Kim said...

You'd think that Houston would have updated its evacuation procedures after the lessons of Katrina. Then again, in DC, when 9/11 happened, the evac plan in place hadn't been updated since the 1970s.

Anonymous said...

It was Hurricane Rita. You can look it up.

Kevin Kim said...


Kevin Kim said...

From the Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Rita (here):

"Prudently, a mandatory evacuation of Southeast Texas had been issued before Rita's landfall by both local and state governments. As a result of Governor Perry's disaster declaration, many residents displaced by, and/or returning home to the aftermath of Rita were able to take advantage of up to 60 days of hotel rooms, generators, chainsaws, and monetary assistance by FEMA."

This seems to support my intuition that evacuation, not sheltering in place, is the way to go, and is also feasible. Note, too, that state and local governments acted in concert, as opposed to the discordant silliness we just saw with Harvey. That said, the current death toll is remarkably low despite the state/local discord.

John from Daejeon said...

I'm all for mandatory evacuation when 50+ inches of rain are forecast in a city brought to its knees by 40 inches of rain in 2001 by Tropical Storm Allison (see pictures online), but where are 7 million people to be evacuated to, especially when even hotel chains like Best Western are price gouging beyond all that is decent?

And as someone very familiar with Houston, and its usually gridlocked interstate system during the best of times, where is one to go when told to evacuate and the freeways are only two lanes in each direction between Houston and every other city of smaller size (Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, New Orleans, and Dallas) with limited hotel rooms? During Hurricanes Rita and Ike, many of these interstates became parking lots as old cars broke down due to severe overheating in stop, stop, and rarely move traffic and countless others ran out of gas with nowhere to turn to for gas as even gas stations ran dry. I recall that those interstates resembled human versions of those masses of fire ants currently floating around Houston and other Texas and Louisiana areas under water.

And it's hard to believe in deeply religious Texas, but it seems that even the god of the biggest megachurch in Houston has abandoned his flock of Houstonians well until Joel was doxxed into opening Lakewood's doors to those less fortunate than millionaires like himself.

Anonymous said...

Did you miss the death toll from people being stranded on the freeways? Around 100, if I remember correctly.

Kevin Kim said...

Addofio and John,

It seems you're both saying that an order to evacuate was a bad idea: there can be immense traffic congestion that can lead to fatalities on the road. This discussion is rapidly becoming hypothetical, but a counter-question would then be: is a shelter-at-home order likely to save more lives? The stats for Katrina don't seem to bear this out: many of those who died were elderly/sick and at home.

Addofio, if you're saying that Houston's mayor's decision to issue a shelter-in-place order wasn't irrational, I grudgingly agree. I think his decision was a bad call, but my opinion is moot given the still-low death toll. I doubt the mayor gave his order based on a random impulse; he undoubtedly had to think quickly about the many factors in play, and as a result, he came to a conclusion opposite that of the governor's. If there's anything disappointing about that state of affairs, it's that the state and local administrations weren't acting in concert.

I imagine Harvey's death toll will rise in the coming weeks and months, but I'm reassured that, at least for now, it seems that citizens at the local level were somehow mostly able to figure things out for themselves, which is why almost 100% of the affected are still alive.


Interestingly, the article you linked to re: Joel Osteen's uncharitable church mentions that other roadways were clear—apparently in spite of the clogging on the freeways. I think my point re: many possible exits still stands. Again, this is all hypothetical, but it's reasonable to assume that the freeways aren't the only way out of Houston. And once again: despite the current clogging of the freeways, the death toll is impressively low.

So, to both of you: what would have been your call had you been the mayor of Houston? I would have agreed with the governor and ordered an evacuation, although I'd have been at pains to note the multiplicity of routes out of the big city.

As for price gouging: I agree that that's unfortunate and predatory. In terms of collective karma, though, I guess that sin is compensated, in part, by those companies and services and interested groups of people who are offering space and equipment for free or at reduced cost.

Anonymous said...

Yes, i was saying the mayor's decision was not irrational.

First, I don't think a one-size-fits-all solution (always evacuate) makes sense, which seems to be the tenor of your post and comments. And unless there is some kind of evacuation plan in place, evacuating millions of people in a matter of one or two days is likely to be its own kind of disaster. Do they have such a plan? I don't know, and not having key pieces of information, I'm not going to put my judgement up against that of any of the officials there. From what I've read, they have some kind of evacuation plan, but how detailed or comprehensive it is, i have no clue, and as a detail-oriented person, I wouldn't make the call without it.

Second, the question isn't what we'll know in a week or two when the water recedes, it's what they knew at the time the decisions were being made. Hindsight and all that. Although even then it won't necessarily be slam-dunk obvious even if the death toll rises significantly, because there's no way to compare it to what would have happened with an evacuation.

With my dislike of sweeping generalities, I'd want more nuance than just "everyone get out now" in any case. Even in Houston, some areas are lower than others, and it may have made sense to evacuate them regardless. And evacuation orders did go out for some locations, though in some cases apparently only after roads were flooded, so that could have been done better. Go or stay, we know the elderly, the disabled, people in hospitals, and the poor are the most vulnerable, so more planning needs to go into dealing with those populations. Are those plans in place? It would make a difference to what I would recommend, so i'll pass on saying what I think should have been done.

I suppose it's a shame the mayor and governor didn't agree, thereby forcing people back on their own judgement. But it's not clear to me that any harm resulted from that, and it's given people on the internet days of entertainment debating the issue, so there's that.

Kevin Kim said...


"First, I don't think a one-size-fits-all solution (always evacuate) makes sense, which seems to be the tenor of your post and comments."

I mentioned DC earlier, with its outdated disaster plans. Had I elaborated, I'd have noted that the ways out of DC are all choke points, so a simple command to evacuate would instantly result—as it did on 9/11—in traffic jams everywhere, which wouldn't be helpful to anyone. I'm more flexible than you give me credit for.

"I suppose it's a shame the mayor and governor didn't agree, thereby forcing people back on their own judgement. But it's not clear to me that any harm resulted from that..."

—which was my point. Of course, we can't really rely on the hindsight thing until we know more about what damage has actually occurred, and that'll take time to assess. Even then, I agree it's not likely we'll have a clear picture of what would have been the best course of action. That said, the topic is—as you noted—ripe for discussion, which is what we do here, not retreat by saying, "I don't have enough info, so I won't presume." If that's our policy, then why say anything? There's never enough information to know all the facts, yet people have opinions all the same.

John from Daejeon said...

Yeah, several roadways were clear to the west and northwest, at times, but where do you go that will have adequate resources to house and care for so many fleeing evacuees in varying states of need (babies, elderly, pets, etc.) and many without adequate funds to pay for expensive lodging, fuel, and food for any lengthy evacuation?

And I remember the hell that were the interstates before, and during, Hurricane Rita as cars running out of fuel on the roads and accidents created gridlock and chaos that lead to a deadly traffic jam, 2.5 million strong with over a hundred deaths due to traffic alone. The worst were the choke points on the outskirts of town when lanes went from 8 down to 2 while inbound lanes were yet to be opened in an outbound direction.

My advice is to weather the storm if you have a solid structure to stay in, and you are safe from any potential flooding. If not, get the hell out of town before it becomes too late.