Tuesday, August 29, 2017

More on Hurricane Harvey

Things have been pretty mild in Austin; we did have some flooding, here and there fairly serious, and winds at about what was expected. There was temporary loss of electricity; brownouts kept giving a problem Saturday and Sunday. Other than that, Austin was barely affected; Harvey headed east more directly and quickly than expected; looking at the whorl of rains across Texas on weather maps all weekend, it was very obvious that the whorl was flattened to the northeast, which meant that Austin itself, while getting a lot of rain, was always only at the very outermost edge of everything.

Of course, the big event was that Harvey went fairly quickly to Houston and then sat above it. Houston, of course, is flooded on a scale that is difficult to grasp. The last number I saw was that Harvey had dumped an estimated three hundred billion gallons of water just on the city of Houston proper. If we expand outward, just the urban part of the Greater Houston area is the size of Rhode Island; much of that was under water, and we're not talking a shallow pool. People talk about unprecedented disasters, but in a lot of ways this really was one.

I've seen some people try to use the situation to raise blame in one way or another -- Houston infrastructure, or the slowness to evacuate. This is, in my view, completely ignorant. Houston's infrastructure for flooding is unusually good. To be sure, Houston is so huge that it is very difficult to keep it all up to date, and they are constantly falling behind. But Houston is prone to floods, because the ground doesn't absorb water well, and the bulk of Houston is built with floods in mind. Houston is primarily drained by bayous, which are fairly effective as far as they go; the street system is largely designed to serve as a back-up for this, and while it is still in development, quite a bit of work has been done on this. What people are not grasping is that it is literally impossible to build a city to handle this much rain. Everything worked well nigh perfectly -- but the rain kept coming in massive amounts, without stop, until everything began to be completely filled. There is no possible infrastructure you could have for a city the size of Houston that could handle that. You might as well propose that Houston should have been built on a city-size boat.

Likewise, people claiming that evacuation should have been done earlier or more extensively seem not to grasp that Houston is the one of the largest cities in the United States; its population is huge. This causes problems for evacuations, problems that were made very clear with Hurricane Rita. Something like 3 million people were evacuated, and something like a hundred people died just in the evacuations, before the storm even arrived. Travel from Houston to Austin, usually a three hour trip, took twelve hours; cars were running out of gas just from being in traffic. And what is worse, the sheer number of people coming from Houston clogged up the evacuation attempts of the entire area; places under much more immediate threat had difficulty implementing their evacuation plans. It was a disaster. This was handled immensely better. Instead of trying to evacuate on a large scale, the priority was evacuating the most serious cases first, while letting others assess according to their best evaluation, and also putting an immense amount of effort into rescue of those who were suddenly stranded. And it has worked, to the extent that anything can work in the face of something of this scale. There are probably things that could have been done differently; but most cases are due to the fact that nobody expected anything of this scope to develop at this speed, so it's difficult to argue that any decisions have been wrong given the information that was actually available at the time.

Of course, the great story has been the thousands of people pitching in to help -- first responders working until they literally drop from exhaustion, people in boats going around and rescuing stranded people, people checking cars, people cooperating in every way possible. Neighbors helping neighbors just because they are neighbors. If you want to see what a just society looks like, my friends, there it is.

I thought this tweet by Justice Willett was particularly notable:

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