I gather that people who don’t live in Houston (such as “Instapundit” Glenn Reynolds) are bashing Houston authorities for not calling for evacuation ahead of Harvey, and are drawing analogies with Mayor Nagin’s gross negligence ahead of Katrina. Now this is silliness, but I don’t really blame the critics that much because it’s mostly ignorance on their part.
Most of us here in Houston understand that a mass evacuation of the Gulf Coast would have been a horrific nightmare, because most of us here know about, and very in many cases personally experienced, Ike and Rita. But that makes us highly unusual. Generally speaking very few people, unless they have had military training, have any comprehension of logistics; it clearly hasn’t occurred to Reynolds to ask, for example, “And where will these six million people all buy gasoline at the same time?” Military people obsess over logistics because wars are pretty much by definition extreme situations and they are won and lost by logistics as much as anything (the Normandy invasion, for example, was at least 95% a logistical problem); so military people completely understand that huge movements of people and goods take immense organization and a big head start — but hurricanes are so unpredictable that big head starts simply are not available. By the time Harvey gave any sign that it could jump even to a Level 3 hurricane it was too late to start evacuating all of Houston. If you have gone through an extreme logistics challenge — that is, you have been in the military or lived through something like Ike or Rita — then you completely get it. Otherwise you probably simply cannot imagine the chaos that would ensue from, “Everybody on the Texas Gulf Coast, go to Dallas right now.”
A very funny example of the uncertainty problem comes from Ike. I was working at BP at the time, and the projected path showed Ike slamming straight into Houston. So the entire BP trading operation packed up and moved to the Disaster Recovery facility in Longview in order to escape Ike. (I was systems support and didn’t have to go, which turned out well for me.) As soon as they got there, Ike changed paths, bypassed Houston, and slammed straight into Longview, flooding the just-relocated trading operation into near-oblivion. Now imagine if instead of moving the five or so hundred people on the BP trading desk, you had moved six million Houstonians…
People don’t realize that Katrina was a very special case. The reason Nagin should have issued a New Orleans evacuation order is that Katrina went big several days in advance, and New Orleans was uniquely vulnerable, in ways that the surrounding area simply was not: it was much more densely populated and already known to be utterly incapable of sustaining a direct hit from a Category Five. Furthermore the population of New Orleans lives in a quite small (relatively speaking) geographical area and therefore large numbers of people could effectively be shipped out en masse (by bus fleet, for example) in an efficiently short period of time. That New Orleans had all these advantages, and through stupidity and bull-headedness refused to take advantage of them, was frustrating, certainly.
But on the Texas coast there is too wide an area that could require evacuation, too many people to get in each others’ way, too much dispersion of population to facilitate mass evacuation by bus or other public conveyance rather than by private car, and too much uncertainty about the path and intensity of the storm, to be able to issue an evacuation order with confidence until it is too late to execute the evacuation. WeTexans have learned (through bitter experience) to evacuate only highly targeted areas, to evacuate them only at the last minute when we know for sure exactly who it is that has to get out, and to keep everybody else in place so that when we actually know exactly who has to evacuate, the roads will be clear and the gasoline will not have run out.
The Texas authorities handled it precisely correctly. The armchair critics are merely exposing their ignorance and lack of experience. Not that these are, of course, serious faults.