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So did we overreact?

There’s a debate going on at SciGuy over whether or not the dangers of Hurricane Rita were overhyped (by the media and/or local politicians), and if that contributed to the extreme freeway gridlock yesterday. At least one local official is complaining that people who shouldn’t have evacuated were preventing those who should from doing so:

Brazoria County Judge John Willy complained that Houston and Harris County jumped the gun, encouraging evacuation before people on the coast could get past the big city.

“Everybody did a fabulous job down here until Houston-Harris County forgot that there was a plan, and they clogged up the freeways and byways where there’s still traffic sitting and waiting,” Mr. Willy said.

But both [Houston Mayor Bill] White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said late Thursday that they never called for a complete evacuation of Houston or Harris County.

“We’re asking folks to use common sense,” Mr. Eckels said. “If you’re not in a storm surge area, watch events. There’s no point if you’re not in a flood zone to jump up and get out in traffic.”

Our house is not in a flood zone. We came through Allison high and dry. You could say we shouldn’t have left. But – and forgive me if I sound a little defensive – we had our reasons.

First, hype or no, Rita’s statistics spoke for themselves. It was the third most intense storm ever at one point. It’s 500 miles in diameter, with hurricane-force winds reaching for 100 miles, so even a non-direct hit to Houston will bring lots of wind and fury. It still might stall over Houston and dump huge amounts of rain over a 3- to 5-day period, which is essentially what Allison did. And still nobody’s sure where it will go and what it will do. This is one badass storm no matter how you look at it.

Second, floods aren’t the only thing to worry about. Wind damage is likely to be heavy. There are four big trees within falling distance of my house, two of which are in questionable health. Even if they all stay standing, large branches may tear off and do who knows what. We did not have the wherewithal to cover up our windows, so breakage is possible. Were it just us, Tiffany and I may well have chosen to stick it out. With Olivia in the mix, we were not willing to risk it.

And then there’s the power outages that accompany big storms. CenterPoint was talking about outages lasting ten days. Alicia knocked out power for two weeks in 1983. Olivia has an ear infection right now, and it’s being treated by an antibiotic that needs refrigeration. It’s a small thing, but it’s there.

Bottom line, we were too risk-averse to ride this thing out along with Olivia. By ourselves, we might’ve done it. Maybe next time we will. I can’t see how anyone could look at this sucker and not contemplate getting the hell out of its way. To those who chose to stand their ground, including my in-laws, our next-door neighbor, and various friends, I salute you and I sincerely hope you’ll be able to laugh at our wussiness when we return. I’ll be happy to take it.

One last thing: It’s clear that Thursday was the worst possible day to leave. I’ve seen reports from people who left on Wednesday and today that make it clear those days were better options, though they still took a long time. That’s a lesson learned for the future: be prepared to bug out as soon as possible after you decide it’s necessary. We could’ve left on Wednesday night if we’d pushed it. In retrospect, we should have. However long it took us to get here and whatever eventually happens in Houston, though, I’ve no regrets that we did.

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18 Comments

  1. TP says:

    Charles,

    In no way do I question your decision to leave. But a few points.

    This storm is 350 miles wide, not 500 miles in diameter. ‘Cane force winds extend 85 miles right now, as compared to Katrina’s 120 mile-spread.

    Second, wind damage is not likely to be heavy from cat-1 force winds. Roofs and windows should hold up, the latter depending partially on what direction they face. Trees may indeed get uprooted, but the wind damage itself in metro Houston is, knock on wood, not likely to be as bad as it looked 36 hrs ago.

    Third, if there aren’t floods, I doubt power will be out for 10 days. So long as Reliant can get around, best guess seems to be 4-5 days.

    None of this is to question your decision. I wish we had made it to S.A., in part. But I couldn’t sit in a car without A/C for 17 hours, wondering if and when we would run out of gas.

    Thankfully, it looks as if we’ll miss the absolute worst of it.

  2. TP – Most of this is from memory, and perhaps some of it is outdated by now. I distinctly recall the Channel 11 weather guy citing a 500-mile width and almost-500-mile height for Rita. I also recall an interview with a CenterPoint person who said that a 10-day power outage was possible – I believe it was on NPR. That was several days ago, however, so it was curely a worst-case hypothesis for that time.

    Basically, the storm’s current path is assuaging a lot of the things we had fretted about before making the decision to leave. A little hindsight, a little better-than-worst-case happening. Like you, I’m very glad that this appears to be turning out better than we once thought it would for Houston.

  3. TP says:

    Charles,

    Thing have changed in the last 18 hours. And, like you, some of this is defensive, no doubt, seeking to justify our decision to return to H-town as opposed to sitting on those freeways. Please understand, I do not mean in any way to question your decision whatsoever. Nor am I suggesting ours was superior. I am quite aware, that, as things look right now — and I hope they don’t change — those of us who stayed may end up being very lucky.

  4. TP – No problem, and please don’t take anything I’ve said as offense. We all arrive at our own decisions our own way, and who knows? Had we waited longer, we might have decided differently.

  5. Ray says:

    Ya know, for three weeks now we’ve listened to the hindsight brigade bitching about “why didn’t they leave?” Now it seems they’re saying “why DID they leave?”

    You just can’t please some people.

    If I had a small child and a cat 5 storm pointed at my house, I would have left too. Heck, on Wednesday, they were predicting this to still be a Cat 1 when it passed Austin.

    You don’t need to justify anything.

  6. Sue says:

    Hearing Tim Heller say that it was a 500-mile wide storm was a factor for us, too. I’m glad that the storm has weakened and that it now looks like we didn’t need to leave, either. Still, I’m glad we left, too. I’d have been a nervous wreck during the storm and I’d rather be someplace that has power and air conditioning.

    We took side roads and there was virtually no traffic on them, so I don’t feel bad about being in the way of any evacuees from the coast. We’re not in a hotel room, so that’s good, too. This is turning out to be more like a mini-vacation for us, which is kind of nice.

    Do I wish we’d stayed home? In hindsight, of course. We live on the west side of Houston and it doesn’t even appear to have started raining there yet. But I’d have spent all day Thursday being a giant jumble of nerves and there’s still a chance that things won’t be so rosy for Houston. It was the uncertainty of it all that was bugging me and, to a degree, just making the decision to leave eased my mind.

    The thing I worry about the most is that this will make people less likely to want to get out quickly in the future. I’d rather overreact and choose certain safety than take too long to decide and be stuck someplace dangerous.

  7. Jeff N. says:

    Charles, we would have done the same thing when our daughter was a year old (that was 1990 for us!). We’re hunkered down here in the Heights tonight, and hoping that the favorable trends continue. But you did the right thing, based on the information you had. Hope we all pull through safely, and I’m glad that all of you are off the highway tonight. –Jeff

  8. lavalamp says:

    folks, the storm, and the associated rain and inland flooding are far from over.
    this type of assessment is woefully premature.

  9. Linkmeister says:

    I lived through Iniki in 1992 out here in Hawai’i; there’s no place to leave to. My take? if you have the opportunity to get out, do it. You’re doing the smart thing, if only for the sake of your nerves. Just sitting and watching the storm aim right at you is a scary scary thing.

  10. Steve Bates says:

    First of all, we’re at home, safe, after the worst of the winds. Charles, I came here to see that you are OK, and am glad to find that you are.

    Next, I tend to hold with Bill White’s assertion that it’s a free country (at least in theory). Some friends of mine left; others stayed… people must make their own decisions. More discussion later when I’m not standing at a kitchen counter tapping on an ancient laptop.

    One last thing: I’m temporarily blogging at http://yddannex.blogspot.com/ until further notice; the host for The Yellow Doggerel Democrat is serving, but it’s serving an old version of the site, and rejecting FTP connections so I can’t change it.

    Stay safe, everyone.

  11. Eddie R. says:

    Had there been a direct hit of Houston there wouldn’t be this post. We got our family out of Corpus just in case. With a small child in tow, I would have done the exact same thing. Your job is to protect you and your own and you did your job. Glad you are safe.

  12. Right on, Charles!

    I have no regrets, either. There’s no “E” in my area of town (Humble/Kingwood) and, of course, there are lots of trees that are more than likely littering NorthPark and Kingwood Dr–as wll as neighborhoods. While I did not have a kid, I do have an elderly mother and other family members are on medication that requires refrigeration. That “hindsight brigade” will be whining, but the storm was just too scary for me.

    We still don’t know the extent of the damage, so we just need to keep abreast of the news and information. I’m not going back yet, that’s for sure!

  13. blurker gone bad says:

    You, and the others who left had every right to follow their instincts (as well as the current data at the time) and bug out. Even without a small child, we considered leaving Thursday morning when Rita was a Cat-5 and headed straight for us. If I had Olivia, I’m sure I would have gotten her to certain safety as my top priority.

    Don’t regret your decision. Consider it a learning experience for the next one. I certainly will.

  14. Beldar says:

    Kuff, as one of those in the debate who’s been critical of the media’s imprecision, overhyping, and in some cases simply wrong reporting, I have carefully avoided faulting any individual’s or any family’s decision to evac, whether from within or without a mandatory evac zone.

    I’m big on the notion of well-informed decisions. The media too often made it sound like public officials were urging everyone in Houston to leave; but (with the exception of an imprecise city councilcritter or two) they weren’t. I tend to doubt that the hype was much of a factor in your family’s decision to leave becaue you’re aggressively self-well-informed. But I do strongly suspect that the hype was indeed determinative with respect to a great many people who probably would have decided to hunker down if they’d been getting strictly accurate info, and that in turn made the gridlock worse, which in turn caused the gas shortage problems.

    Next time, I’d like to see more accurate reporting. I think the media needs to do some serious navel-gazing about this. But I’m not going to fault anyone whose subjective evaluation of their own risks prompts them to head out, regardless of whether they’ve made that decision on the basis of accurate and reasonably complete information.

    I’m genuinely glad y’all are safe.

  15. Ann says:

    By the time NOAA figures out exactly where these things are going and how intense they will be at landfall, it’s too late to leave if you need to. Better safe than sorry – especially with a little one in tow. Pardon my profanity, but f*ck anyone to the contrary.

    Glad you’re well!

    -A

  16. So did we overreact?

    So did we overreact?

  17. Mathwiz says:

    I distinctly recall the Channel 11 weather guy citing a 500-mile width and almost-500-mile height for Rita.

    Don’t know about the width, though the weather guy may have gotten miles confused with kilometers. But a 500-mile high storm is preposterous! The frickin’ space shuttle doesn’t even orbit that high!!

    The troposphere is only eight miles high, as fans of the old Byrds tune will recall.

    I certainly don’t question your decision to evac, and welcome your brief stay in Dallas. But as to the question of “whether or not the dangers of Hurricane Rita were overhyped by the media,” I think that quote pretty much answers it.

  18. Mathwiz – When I say “height”, I mean the distance in a north-south direction, which is up-down when you look at it on a map. That was what the weather guy meant, too, however he said it.