Evacuate or Stay?

League City Mayor Pat Hallisey sits on the step of the his trailer outside of his flood-damaged house in League City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

STUART VILLANUEVA/The Daily News

In the weeks since Hurricane Harvey came and went, local leaders have had some time to reflect on decisions made before the storm.

Despite the hundreds of rescues made amid Harvey’s record rains, and eight deaths in the county attributed to the storm, leaders say they believe they made the right call in not ordering mandatory evacuations before Harvey’s arrival — based on the information they had at the time.

“It’s easy to look back and say I may have done it different,” said League City Mayor Pat Hallisey. “We had no idea that we were going to get 50 to 60 inches of rain. I might have called for an evacuation of certain areas of town that I know are traditional flooders. But the value of hindsight is that you know the things that you didn’t know at the time.”

Preparing for a storm evacuation begins as early as 120 hours before landfall, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said. During that pre-arrival period, emergency management officials consult with the National Weather Service about the forecast. Under the plan, officials in Galveston County are supposed to call for mandatory evacuations 24 hours before Harris County officials do.

That plan is meant to avoid the kind of evacuation traffic chaos that happened during Hurricane Rita in 2005. During that storm, which came soon after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, 107 people died because of causes related to the evacuation. Many of the deaths were heat-related, as people were stuck in hot cars during massive gridlock around the Houston area.

That kind of evacuation was never called or ever really considered for Harvey, Henry said.

“Monday morning quarterbacking, I would have called the same play if it were to happen again tomorrow,” Henry said.

Voluntary and mandatory evacuations are something of misnomers in Texas. Local governments cannot compel people to leave their properties. Instead, evacuation orders are strongly worded recommendations meant to persuade people to move to safety. In the case of a mandatory evacuation, the order also makes clear that emergency responders might not be available to rescue people who try to ride out a storm.

Galveston County was never officially under a hurricane warning. The highest level official warning the county was put under was a tropical storm warning, with an additional storm surge warning for coastal areas. The surge warning stated that water might rise 8 feet higher than normal, potentially cutting off roads near the coast.

Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston, on the night of Aug. 25. Weak steering currents allowed the storm to meander over the Texas coast for the next five days.

While initial forecasts warned of catastrophic flooding from 30 inches of rain over a five-day period, Harvey dropped more than that amount, surpassing 40 and even 50 inches of rain on some parts of Texas. Harvey was possibly the rainiest storm in U.S. history.

The rainfall and storm-surge prediction did prompt some calls for evacuations in areas around Galveston County.

Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough asked residents to leave the island’s West End over the threat of damaging storm surge, while Henry urged people with medical conditions and mobility issues to leave the Bolivar Peninsula and low-lying areas of the county, such as Freddiesville, a unincorporated community southeast of Hitchcock

The cities of Kemah, Dickinson, La Marque and Jamaica Beach all also issued voluntary evacuations. No city in the county ordered a mandatory evacuation before the heaviest rains.

“I think it was the right decision based on the information that we had,” Dickinson Mayor Julie Masters said. “If I had a 20/20 futuristic vision I would have absolutely called for a mandatory evacuation.”

By the afternoon of Aug. 25, officials were already warning people that did not leave before the rains began they would be putting themselves at risk. At a news conference that day, Yarbrough acknowledged that it was too late to call an evacuation.

Hallisey said the feelings were the same in League City.

“There was no place to go,” he said. “Creating panic at a time like that was the worst thing we could have done.”

On Aug. 26, the day after the storm had made landfall, Masters believed the worst of the storm was over, and was driving around town taking pictures of a city that had fared “pretty good” at that point, she said.

“I was thinking that was it,” Masters said. “It wasn’t.”

The rains would start around 10 p.m. that night, leaving Masters stranded in her own home.

Dickinson did issue a mandatory evacuation on Aug. 28, as Harvey threatened to drop a second round of extremely heavy rain on already flooded areas of the county. The worst of the rain in the subsequent days fell on the south parts of the county.

Other worst-case scenario threats also failed to happen.

The storm surge ended up being minimal. State highway 87, on Bolivar Peninsula, was never totally closed during the storm. That was perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the whole storm, Henry said. The road has been completely cut off during storms that were weaker than Harvey.

“I would have lost that bet,” Henry said.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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