On the advisability of hurricane evacuation

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.

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Houston’s Dunkirk

An analogy I like well enough to repeat in its own post: Houston this weekend was basically Dunkirk, except that the enemy was Harvey rather than Hitler. When the public officials simply didn’t have enough resources to meet the need, untold numbers of lives were saved by an ad-hoc navy of private boats all going out over and over to rescue as many people as they could.

Harvey Wednesday update

Long day, but I got to my daughters, and on the way back was able to stop in the Medical Center area to take two Chinese families to Chinatown to replenish their groceries (good practice in 普通话 for me since Helen wasn’t with me), and then once home sent the girls off with the spare car in confidence that they would arrive safely. Ken and Grace have been able to go home because a 56-foot Brazos won’t overtop their levees and the water has gone down on their street enough for them to be able to drive their van in and out very slowly. So it’s 4:30 and I think we are pretty much back to normal here…which means I get Kai to brew me up a big cup of coffee and I start desperately trying to make up for lost time on the project at work whose deadline hasn’t moved at all since Mexico has not been flooded and the delivery dates on the shipments are still the same as they were a week ago…

Of course for tens of thousands of Houstonians, including many of our friends whose houses had four or five or seven feet of water, it will be a long time until their lives are back to normal. We know at least one family whose house isn’t going to be liveable for a while and who may come spend some time with us because they might be rotating among friends so as not to feel too guilty about burdening any one set of friends too long. Other families all over Houston who don’t have friends with large houses will be in shelters for a long time, or will have to go to relatives in other cities. A lot of people who moved here from N’Arlins after Katrina because they had lost everything there, may find themselves headed back to relatives in Louisiana because they have now lost everything here — except that their relatives in Louisiana may not be able to take them in because Harvey hit Louisiana hard too. If you’re looking for things and people to pray for, Houston will be able to keep you well supplied for a long time to come.

I will specifically mention our daughter Merry Trinity Pierce’s friend Rachel, who is a sort of honorary Pierce daughter at this point. Her family bought a single-storey house up in the Spring area about a year ago. Two weeks after they bought it they got hit with flooding; two feet of water in the house. They got it cleaned up, got everything fixed up…two days ago, seven feet of water in the house, with water rising so fast the family was rescued by boat with little or no time to move belongings to the attic or even to high shelves. Practically all of Rachel’s belongings are stored there (she is off at college); she doesn’t yet know what, if anything, can be salvaged. If you need a specific name to pray for in Houston, pray for Rachel and her family.

(And if you want to know why so few people died in such catastrophic flooding, note that her family, who had no upper storey to flee to and who were prime candidates for drowning, were I believe rescued by people with private boats who rushed to flooded areas and went searching for people to save. Houston this weekend was a sort of Dunkirk, only with Mother Nature as the enemy rather than the Third Reich.)

Sure, what he did is contemptible, but I wish you wouldn’t fire him.

With reference to this article (Professor Fired for Blaming Harvey on Texas Voting GOP):

I am sorry to see this guy fired. (Well, I am sorry to see him fired for spouting hatred of people who disagree with his political views. The fact that he is capable of perpetrating the sentence, “I would not wish ill will on any group,” in his desperate but dubiously sincere apology, is arguably a firing offense.)

What the people who keep screaming about how “hate speech” ought to be illegal can’t seem to grasp (besides the fact that “I disagree with your opinion, disapprove of your behavior, and decline to be distressed by your disapproval of myself” and “I hate you” are, to sane people, two entirely different statements), is that no thoughtful person WANTS people who are genuinely motivated by hate to be afraid to say so — because it is very much in our interests to know exactly who the twisted sickos among us are, rather than to have them lurking in poisonous anonymity. And if you want them to self-reveal, you can’t go around punishing the self-revelation.

Members of the far Left make it clear every day that they hate me — and I’m not even a Republican; I’m just a straight white guy who doesn’t vote straight-ticket Democrat. The fact that they hate me is information that I am happy to have access to, as it allows me to take appropriate cautionary measures. I should be very sorry indeed to be under the dangerous illusion that they mean me well and wish me happiness. The fact that they feel completely free to publish their hatred to the rooftops for all to see is of great benefit to me — their free speech is to MY benefit. Similarly it is a good thing that white supremacists are allowed to march and wave flags, because that tells us who they are. (Though to be fair, one presumes that a sizable proportion of both the neo-Nazis and the antifas in any confrontation between the two are actually FBI agents.) Responding to people who have terrible ideas by persecuting and punishing them and driving them into fearful silence is the common practice of Inquisitors and Puritans and totalitarians of every stripe, whether Communist or National Socialist. Letting them march in peace while making merciless fun of them and pointing them out to our children as bad examples — that is the American way, or at least it used to be, and God help us if it ever ceases to be; for the alternatives all lead to hell in the end.

(Note that this applies to the particular case at hand because this worthy only said, in effect, “I hate Republicans so much it gives me pleasure to see them wretched, miserable, and in some cases dying,” not, “It’s okay to punch anybody whom we liberals disagree with (which is what the word “Nazi” means when we use it), and next Tuesday we’re all going to get together where a bunch of Republicans are meeting and beat the crap out those Nazi white supremacist fascists, or at the very least break a few windows and throw some bottles of urine at some cops.” In the latter case he would be advocating violence and rioting, not merely expressing hatred, which is a quite different matter indeed. And no, if somebody insults you and hurts your feelings, you are not a victim of violence; so don’t go there, especially not if you freely sling about lots of insults to groups of people whose feelings you enjoy hurting. The right to hate is actually a basic human right, and of all people on earth the far Left should be the last people who should want hatred to be a punishable offense.)

“Are you okay, man?”

Around 8:00 last night (“Harvey Monday”) my wife came to me, worried on behalf of our friends Ken and Grace, and their three daughters ages about thirteen, about five, and not quite three. They live in one of the “voluntary evacuation” areas and wanted to know how much water to expect. They were pretty concerned because – not unusually for a family from the People’s Republic – none of them can swim.

It is remarkably difficult to figure out how high the experts actually expect the water in Sugar Land to rise. By dint of half an hour’s switching back and forth between one website that could show in detail the boundaries between the voluntary evacuation zones and the areas not considered under threat, and a second app that could show elevation levels for extremely precise coordinates, we figured out that somewhere between 70 and 72 feet above sea level seemed to be the magic number. Unfortunately the Suo family’s house sits at 66 feet above sea level, and flooding to 72 feet would put six feet of water in their first storey – not a problem, except that none of them are six feet tall and none of them can swim; so if anybody fell down the stairs…well, Grace at least found the whole idea pretty frightening and you could hardly blame her.

They were welcome to stay with us, of course. We had calculated that we were going to get at most one foot of water in our house, and probably less. The problem? Our streets were under two feet of water; so while two blocks away the roads were clear, we couldn’t get our cars out. They had a similar problem: two blocks from their house the roads were clear, but the water in their street was already up to my waist. Further complicating matters was the 10:00 p.m. curfew in place in Sugar Land.

It’s not that far a walk from their house to ours, for a grown-up: just over two miles. But at night, with three kids and two dogs, and a suitcase…didn’t sound good. But then neither did waiting until the water was over their heads outside the house.

I offered to meet them halfway and, given the shortness of time, went ahead and set out just to keep our options open – I could be walking while they made up their minds, and if they decided against coming I could just come back. As soon as I stepped out of our front door I realized it was worse than I had thought: the water had risen two to three inches since I had last checked an hour previously, and four to five more would bring the water above our kitchen floor level. Wading out of the neighborhood meant wading through water up to my thighs even taking the optimal route. But out I went, and I had just reached the relatively “dry” ground when Helen called: Ken and Grace were (reasonably) concerned about trying to walk that two miles in the dark, and they had decided to wait for the following morning.

But now I was concerned about another point: with water this high, we must be in danger of water overtopping the main roads into our subdivision and turning them into rivers with currents; and if water was running rapidly across the only street leading into our neighborhood, we wouldn’t want to be walking through that current with small children. So I checked the two points at which water leaves our neighborhood. On the path we would be taking, the water was about six inches from overtopping the waterway. On the other outlet, it was about three to four inches away. So it should start overflowing at the second outlet before the first – and just at about the time the water reached our front door.

About that time Helen called me. Grace was really very worried about waiting until the next morning and they were trying to decide whether to come tonight after all. It was now just after 9:00; we had an hour and it is a forty-five minute walk under ordinary circumstances. I headed for their house, figuring at 9:30 I would decide whether to keep going and spend the night at the Suo’s house (so that at least one swimmer would be there) or come back home to beat the curfew.

And then, as I was walking under the freeway just past the entrance to our subdivision, a guy pulled up beside me in a Bronco.

“Are you okay, man?”

I explained the situation, and the next thing you know I am in the Bronco and we are off to see how close he can get to the house. En route, Helen calls: “They’ve decided it’s too far to walk.” I tell her, “Tell them I have a car and I’m coming to get them.”

There are two entrances to their subdivision. We stop halfway in between the two, and the guy in the Bronco agrees to wait while I go in and bring them out. There are people loading a flat-bottomed fishing boat back on a trailer; they have been rescuing people but the curfew is closing in and shutting them down. I head for the gate of the subdivision, wading down the middle of the street so that I will have firm concrete for footing. When the water reaches my chest, I turn back and return to the Bronco.

“They can’t come out that way without a boat, but there’s another entrance to the subdivision. Let’s try that one.”

Eddie (for that is the Bronco driver’s name) backs up slowly through the construction equipment and barrels, and we find the other entrance. There is no standing water at first, and we get into the neighborhood, but just before the intersection between the street we’re on and the street the Suos live on, the ground plunges into water, and the stalled car in the middle of the intersection shows us that it is at least waist deep to me.

So I get out again, and I head for their house using the maps app on my phone to figure out which house it is, and as I am standing knee-deep in water on the sidewalk trying to decide which of two houses’ doorbells to ring, Grace calls me, and I tell her to open her door, and she does.

And after that it’s pretty straightforward. I carry the suitcase; Ken carries the five-year-old; Grace carries the two-year-old. We find our way back to Eddie, who has whiled away the time by helping tow the stalled car out of the intersection. We load the car with suitcases and girls and me, because Ken is going to stay with the dogs and try to waterproof the house as best he can. Eddie drives us back to our neighborhood; Grace thanks him over and over and you can tell she is trying not to cry with relief. Helen calls to check on us; I give her the status and tell her to send Sally to help carry the suitcase. We get as far into the neighborhood as we can, a bit more than two blocks from the house. Eddie stops; we unload; Sally comes splashing up to us; we thank Eddie; and then he, our personal angel without whom we couldn’t have solved the problem, drives happily off and heads for home.

The five-year-old goes on my shoulders; the two-year-old goes into her mother’s arms; the two teenagers each take one end of the suitcase; and we wade the last two blocks. The best picture of the night, apparently, I couldn’t see. Grace gave the five-year-old an umbrella to keep her and me dry. But I am told that the five-year-old, not being entirely clear on the concept, held the umbrella as far aloft as she could the whole way. Grace and the teenagers seem to have found lots of amusement in the image of me striding through the water with the five-year-old sitting straight and tall on my shoulders holding the umbrella to the skies as if it were the battalion flag.

My wife called me a hero and Eddie an angel, and that’s fine, because exaggerating a husband’s virtues is what wives do. (The good ones, at least.) But really all it came down to was this: you do what you can do, because that’s all you can do. You put yourself in a position where it is as easy as possible for God to use you, and then you stand ready to help and trust that He will show you a way if you are doing His work. I wasn’t putting myself in any danger; so my wife exaggerates when she calls me a hero. And Eddie wasn’t either. He was trying to get to his sister’s house, further back in our neighborhood and deeper into the flood; and he had given up and was going home. I was just trying to do what I could do; and Eddie saw a guy out walking purposefully through the rain after 9:00 at night and stopped to see if there was anything he could do. And the end result is that Grace and the girls are safe, because God put two ordinary people who were willing to help in the same place at the right time.

And on a bigger scale – because this is Texas, and more generally this is America, and our fundamental American moral expectations were established by Christian ethics in general and the parable of the Good Samaritan in particular – in the whole Hurricane Harvey rampage I think fewer than ten twenty people have died. And it’s because most of us, in “red state” America at least (I wouldn’t stake anything on New Jerseyans, you understand), still take it for granted that if a stranger needs help, and you can help him, why then you stop and you roll down your window and you say, “Are you okay, man?” Thousands of people across the Houston area have been rescued. The overwhelming majority of them were rescued not by first responders or National Guardsmen or by the American military, but by people just like Eddie: ordinary people who help other people and are embarrassed even to be thanked, because in these parts that is just what any decent person would do. “And who was a neighbor to the man who needed help?” asked Jesus when he got to the end of his parable.

Last night, the Suo family were Eddie’s neighbors.

We win

Water level outside house has dropped about two inches. Harvey has moved further east and our projected future rainfall for the next three days is two to five inches. Water never made it into our house and now it isn’t going to. We still have power. We could have water quality issues by the end of day depending, I suppose, on what the Brazos does to Sugar Land; but otherwise we will escape Harvey pretty much scot-free.

Many, many friends are not so lucky. Today is the day of reckoning for friends all over Sugar Land. Please keep our friends in your prayers.

We know many of you did a lot of praying for us. Thank you so much. We cannot possibly say how grateful we are.

Going back to bed now to sleep peacefully for the first time in a while. After the sun comes up I will write up for the blog the story of how Grace and the girls made it to our house, thanks to an angel named Eddie. But for now…peaceful sleep for the first time in days.

God has been very merciful to us. This hurricane will wind up doing us no financial damage at all. We presume that is so that some of the money we manage for him will be available to help others who have not had such a happy ending to their Harvey story. You guys can pray that we will be both responsible and wise in choosing when, and where, and how much to give.