NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Dick Gremillion has watched Houston officials come under fire for deciding not to order an evacuation ahead of the epic flooding that has left hundreds of people in the country’s fourth-largest city trapped in their homes.
But as the Louisiana parish where he serves as emergency preparedness director faces its own deluge from Tropical Storm Harvey, Gremillion also is advising local residents to stay home if they can. A parish in Louisiana is the equivalent of a county in other U.S. states.
“I’ve seen the criticism of officials in Houston, but in reality, you can’t evacuate for a rainfall because you just can’t predict where the flooding will occur,” he said by phone from Calcasieu Parish on Monday. “You really can’t narrow down an area that’s in danger.”
Gremillion and others including Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long are defending Houston’s call, which was at odds with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s warning that residents in low-lying areas should consider evacuating before Harvey made landfall.
Emergency management officials said the city had to weigh the scope of an evacuation for a metropolitan area with 6.8 million people, the forecast uncertainties of a sustained rain event and the possibility of creating more risk for residents ahead of Texas’ most powerful hurricane in more than 50 years.
Houston, they noted, had seen an evacuation go horribly wrong in the past.
“All I have to say is two words: Hurricane Rita,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.
A decision to evacuate Houston in 2005 before Rita, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, was blamed for 20-hour traffic jams and the deaths of more than 100 people.
With Harvey, Long said on Monday it was “dang near impossible” to pinpoint beforehand where exactly flooding would occur and that evacuation of the city would have taken days.
Shepherd said concerns about people being stranded on city highways now submerged by floodwaters were valid.
Of the 126 people who died in flash and river floods in the United States in 2016, 46 percent were killed in a car, likely as they tried to cross an inundated road, according to National Weather Service data.
An evacuation order is “not as black and white as people are making it out to be, and perhaps there could be hidden dangers with putting people out on the roads,” Shepherd said.
Some of the southwest Louisiana parishes experiencing emergency conditions from Harvey have issued voluntary evacuation orders in anticipation of the storm’s heavy rains.
The scale of such efforts pales in comparison to what Houston would have faced, with the population of the five parishes included in the federal emergency declaration approved on Monday totaling fewer than 340,000 people.
The metropolitan area of Lake Charles, which is located in Calcasieu Parish, has about 120,000 residents, Gremillion said.
“But we would need 36 hours to evacuate all those people, and you can’t predict that far out,” he said.
Reporting by Kathy Finn; Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Editing by Peter Cooney