Logistics for Houston residents – should evacuate, or stay, have been the strategy ?

An article in CNN.com (http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/27/us/houston-evacuation-hurricane-harvey/index.html) describes the decision made by the Mayor of Houston to request that the 6.5 million residents stay in their houses during Hurricane Harvey’s touchdown, rather than evacuate, and be potentially stuck on roads due to congestion. After touchdown, displaced residents are being directed to “lilypads” – centralized locations they can get help. But several are stuck in their homes due to the massive flooding of the city.  Is staying put during a hurricane the best strategy, or should people have been asked to come to distributed locations for help, or evacuate early ? Should coordination of the evacuation have been planned to reduce congestion, with approved destinations outside the city ?  Was the decision the result of inconsistent planning or calculated risk ?

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27 Responses to Logistics for Houston residents – should evacuate, or stay, have been the strategy ?

  1. Murilo Siqueira says:

    It is really hard to contain crisis, especially those related to entire cities. Since we can predict Hurricanes, but it is really hard to predict touchdowns, creating a early evacuation plan would just induce chaos and scare the population with uncertain data.
    The tragedy of having people stuck in traffic and being hit by a Hurricane would be much worse than to ask them to find shelter in their on home/surroundings.
    I don’t think any city is prepared to evacuate 6.5M people at once, using mainly its highways. One possible alternative would be to evacuate those people who would be definitely on the Hurricane route, which would be a much smaller number, or transfer them to close and safe locations.
    Media should also be contained not to scare the population, but instead, try to help keep the evacuation under control.

  2. subhash katragadda says:

    I agree with Murilo’s point that its hard to contain the crisis of such magnitude and considering the capacity of infrastructure an early evacuation effort would have been more chaotic, weighing all these factors Houston’s Mayor would have taken the calculated risk of asking people to stay back in their homes. In my opinion this is a poorly calculated risk, City could have used its database to identity low lying areas and federal flood hazard zone and should have moved the people in these areas to ‘lilypads’ prior to touchdown, this also would have reduced workload on rescue workers.

  3. Michael Minor says:

    I really understand the decision-making process during Hurricane Harvey, my daughter attends college at the University of Houston and lives next door to my father. Both had the money to uproot for the duration of the storm without any consequences but decided to stay because they didn’t want to travel because of congested roads and airports. To the question is what’s the best strategy, it just depends. You have people taking the bus to grocery shop and work on a typical day, so it’s a big ask for them to meet at a specific location for evacuation when city transportation isn’t working, this puts the burden on the city to evacuate its citizens going door to door if removal is mandated. A contingency planning for a mass evacuation incorporating moving and housing the population of a major city would be a project managers nightmare and only would work with a blank check from the government even if the operation was phased. The mayor and the citizens of Houston took a calculated risk by staying, some out of for economic reasons other pure faith they would survive the storm.

  4. Freddy Horn says:

    I agree with what has been said. Evacuating such a large city would lead to chaos. Similarly, bringing back the people after the hurricane will have the same results again. Another negative side effect: Abandoned neighborhoods and districts will also attract robbers and increase the burden for the already challenged emergency personnel.

  5. Julia Eldridge says:

    Ideally the city could think of the evacuation as a system and determine a flow that would keep people moving through the bottlenecks and figure out a way to prevent a huge stack of inventory accruing (e.g. displaced people being stuck). However to create such a plan would not only take a large deal of effort and money, it would need to be continually updated and reviewed as a preventative measure for disaster. It may be infeasible to always have a well managed plan in place and attempting to develop one as imminent threat approaches will likely not allow for thorough assessment of the flow.

    Furthermore, the element of human health and safety means the reaction to the disaster is critical. As such attempting to batch people and not release them (allow them to evacuate) can be a life or death matter and is not as simple as just holding some back to optimize throughput.

    The mayor’s response does show a lack of planning in the sense that a comprehensive flow plan was not available, however given the human free will and ability to make choices, no flow plan for evacuation could truly be executed as conceived. As such the decision to create “lily pads” and call for people to stay put is definitely calculated risk and potentially the most feasible response to the situation.

  6. Marcya Carter-Sheats says:

    This is a difficult question to answer. I understand the rationale for having citizens stay put as there is increased danger to lives if traffic is so congested that they cannot evacuate enough prior to the storms arrival. The goal is to always minimize risk and when they do the lessons learned, there will always be reasons to justify or question either decision. The goal is always to minimize risk and impact to life. Ideally, you look at the path of the storm and determine where the greatest risk lie. The models will never be perfect and there will always be emotions when determining what’s right or wrong. The lily pads were a strategic decision and one that people will question. There are still areas that will be slow to recover after the storm. With that, there is increased risk to health and safety. If you do not have a pre and post hurricane strategy, you run the risk for long-term catastrophic harm.

  7. Huili says:

    I agree with the others that mass evacuation of 6.5M people within 6 hours is impossible. That takes planning for which there wasn’t time.
    Evacuate early is only possible for people who are mobile and have the means to leave quickly. The elderly and the sick are difficult to move. It would require special equipment or transportation (bottlenecks). To find a distributed location that is near to the home, should be possible, provided there is such a distributed location. These designated locations should be part of a disaster plan of the city. The distributed locations would act as inventory from which the people can easily be evacuated.

    Considering the speed that hurricane Harvey was approaching and the lack of time to communicate any evacuation plan effectively the best decision the mayor could have taken is indeed for everybody to stay where they are. If 6.5M people are evacuating in this short notice there is a big probability that it would be chaotic. Then it would be impossible to keep track of where everybody is. The mayor strategy to keep the people put where they are at least makes it possible comparatively easy to check what the situation is once hurricane Harvey left. Then the authorities will know better where are all the people and what needs to be done.

  8. Kim Coldiron says:

    I concur with the majority of the comments on this topic. Julia did a great job of tying the evacuation plan into our reading on the operational model of throughout and bottlenecks. Utimately, as contraversial as it may be, this decision comes down to mitigating the loss of life. Either scenario will likely result in some level of injury, illness and even death. At that point, there was no evacuation plan or strategy that would “successfully” evacuate a city of that size in that amount of time. Evacuation would have put many more lives at risk and in danger, likely without the city’s ability to reach or manage the majority of them. Given the lack of time to prepare and the reality of the unknowns, I believe the safety of home was indeed the best option for Houston citizens. At a minimum, people were more likely to have access to shelter, food, water, first aid and many other comforts that could potentially sustain them for a period of time. Unless there was time to properly stock supplies and find resources to manage that number of citizens in centralized locations, people would be much better off at home or with family and friends to help one another. This allowed the city to prepare the lilypad locations to support those who actually needed it rather than prevent those that needed support from access, due being overrun by those who could have been safely in their homes. As for the sick and elderly, I believe they would have been more likely to find help from those nearby as people prepared to be stuck at home for a while, than in an evacuation situation. I believe this was a calculated risk for the city of Houston and the best option under the circumstances.

  9. Sarah Rosnick says:

    I struggle with this conversation a little more than the average student, partially because I’ve worked with FEMA on several occasions and been part of crisis management operations. Part of the burden of city leadership for cities that are along the ocean is to plan and manage a variety of difficult situations like this. In order to manage these scenarios, organizations run simulations on how they would manage a crisis up to and including this kind of magnitude. If whoever the crisis management team was didn’t plan a “better safe than sorry” option, they’re probably not mean for this kind of planning as a profession.
    Candidly, the roads weren’t managed to funnel people out of the city effectively. Every single major highway should have been turned into an exit route for people moving out of the city. Special circumstances could have been made for the few who needed to go back and rescue their families, etc. Ultimately, in crisis management planning, it’s unacceptable to plan for a scenario that doesn’t capture the worst of the possibilities. I completely agree with Kim’s comment about mitigating the loss of life (and limb and eyesight.) I don’t agree, however, that evacuation would have put several more people in danger.

  10. Jordan McCroskey says:

    I agree that there are downsides to evacuating and I think Julia made a great point tying bottlenecks into her comments. Sarah also brings up an excellent point about the need to turn all available roads into exit routes.

    It’s certainly easier to judge via hindsight the decisions made during crisis. I agree that poor infrastructure and a fast moving hurricane made the concept of evacuating 6.5 million people next to impossible. Perhaps rather than recommending residents stay home only, the concept of lilypads could have been used to provide local evacuating points better built to withstand hurricanes. Schools, worship centers, and other community buildings could have been used to provide shelters for those who’s homes were highly flood prone (low elevation) or if the residents needed attention during the emergency.

    When it comes to lives – calculated risk is more than just a number.

  11. bairdjb says:

    Reading the comments of my cohorts I greatly appreciate everyone’s perspective. I theoretically agree with Julia and Kim and tying this situation to a bottleneck discussion. However, I disagree with the arguments around the financial cost of evacuating individuals stranded as they try to exit the city. With poor planning, people are going to be stranded somewhere and there is going to be a cost to evacuate them.
    I think Jordan said it best “When it comes to lives – calculated risk is more than just a number”. Hence the reason I ultimately agree with Sarah’s candid evaluation of the emergency preparedness of the City of Houston.

  12. Andres Rueda says:

    There is a mixture of things around the situation before the arrival of the hurricane ranging from unclear instructions, lack of clarity about where the evacuation order should proceed or set 6 hours as the reaction time that faced the possible disaster .
    My perception is that there was a lack of planning considering that the forecast of the passage of the hurricane through Houston was known in advance. By August 25 there was already information that Harvey would arrive in Texas with at least grade 3 and had recommended the evacuation of Corpus Christi.
    The evacuation should have taken place. Knowing the alert about the intensity of the rains and the level of the floods, it would have been possible to determine the most vulnerable areas to be evacuated and establish a plan of action identifying the critical points to carry out the displacement of the families towards the established places or those recommended by the city administration, with the appropriate logistics to minimize congestion and thus begin to mobilize. There was no calculated risk and that shows that several days passed before many people could receive help. The magnitude of natural disasters reaches the point of being incalculable and in this case the lives of people were endangered despite having the information.

  13. Jennifer Greminger says:

    Moments of crises are incredibly difficult to manage even before the human factor enters the picture. If every storm were the same, then a “prescription” could be written, but each storm brings an incredible unique set of circumstances, and a new set of human behaviors. One of the responses above notes that their family members had the means to evacuate – but that is just one family’s circumstances. There are hundreds/thousands of unique circumstances that get laid on top of the conditions of the crisis. I’m not suggesting that nothing be done, but to think a set of rules can be written “in the moment” and followed with overwhelming compliance seems lofty. However, educating repeatedly, regularly, frequently, when there isn’t a storm is as critical as trying to reach millions when a storm surge is within hours. In the ‘off season’ are they running public service messages around purchasing a generator, knowing your evacuation route, understanding what you would need to take to be gone for 1 week, 6 weeks, 2 months…..and if you must stay, basic survival skills.

  14. Paul Aoun says:

    Since they had only “6 hours’ notice”, it is almost impossible to evacuate 6.5M people given the available highways capacity out of the city. Highways are usually designed with a certain capacity to handle the traffic demand, at a given level of utilization, both of which are stretched to the extreme during rush hour traffic. Therefore, if everyone was on the road at the same time, gridlock is certainly going to develop and flow will be completely halted. In addition, there is the probability factor they had to take into consideration and the uncertainty of what areas would be flooded.
    Obviously, what happened showed the gaps in their risks management processes, and they should review and improve based on the lessons learned, at great personal and material cost to the people living in Houston.

  15. Mike Carter says:

    Evacuating 6.5 million people within such a small amount of time would be nearly impossible. I’m sure the roads and highway infrastructure would not be able to contain the amount of traffic and the roads would become complete gridlock. I believe the governor was aware of this and thought the risk of having all of those people stranded on the highway in their cars posed more risk to lives than staying at home where you could potentially go to the attack or climb on the roof. The city of Houston should review their episode plan to develop new strategies for short-notice evacuations. Based on this review, new evacuation routes may be created as well as increased highway driving lanes or flood mitigation infrastructure development.

  16. Jason Anderson says:

    A voluntary evacuation would have probably made the most since looking back. The problem lies in the decisions of the general public as to if they want to “voluntarily” loose everything or just stay put and weather the storm.The ambiguous direction provided by the mayor to the general public did not help matters. A coordinated evacuation plan might have helped, a real evacuation plan didn’t appear to exist. Just as others have said 6.5 million people relocated in 6 hours is on the scale of impossible.

  17. Ken Janicke says:

    Both options, staying put or evacuating, introduce risk. Having a well thought out strategy for dealing with natural disasters should help in reducing those risks. Early informed communication with the citizens about the anticipated severity of the storm and flooding, coupled with an option of voluntary evacuation thru state ran distribution channels may have been a better option. This would allow those feeling confident and secure in their location and preparations to remain put, while relieving some of the congestion for those less prepared and opting to participate in the voluntary partial evacuation.
    Obviously, coordination of any evacuation activities should be carefully planned, and include both routes and destinations. Reducing traffic congestion, citizen decision stresses, and destination overloads are all factors that should be considered in any such planning.
    It appears that lack of communication and coordination between various city, county, and state officials led to decision confusion. Each personality at each level apparently had their own estimates or opinions about the coming storm, its possible implications, and acceptable risk levels. The decision making should have included the citizenry as they were most effected.

  18. Ruth Stone says:

    Making the decision of whether or not to stay put during a hurricane involves so many factors that each situation requires its own analysis by officials. It’s impossible to give a consistent yes or no answer to the value of evacuation for all hurricanes. Specifically, to Houston during Harvey and based on this article, it appears that there were not clear indications about where Harvey would touchdown or where the most rain would fall. Without that information, City officials did not know who to evacuate or to where.

    In general, yes, the city of Houston should have a plan available to evacuate the city in case of emergency. It was not clear if a plan existed or not. It is clear that an evacuation was not called, and therefore, an evacuation plan was not implemented. The article did state that high-water rescue vehicles were “strategically positioned to help evacuate people if needed” and churches were available for those in need.

    The decision not to evacuate was a result of calculated risk based on these facts:
    – No one could define the amount of rain that would fall or where it was going to fall.
    – The evacuation disaster after Hurricane Rita proved that evacuation has its own set of risks.

  19. Peter Rigakos says:

    I believe the best strategy is such a case is to choose the option with the least amount of risk to human life. If we look at this case, they had to move 6.5 million people with six (6) hours notice. I am sure we can come the agreement that this demand on the infrastructure would not work, and the people would have less shelter in their cars, that at home.
    Planning such an evacuation may have been possible with the right plan and evacuating certain areas first, however, such a plan may have taken weeks to prepare along with extreme communication to each area of the city. Once again, the six hour time frame is not enough time to prepare.
    It seems as though Houston is not familiar with such weather and therefore not a prepared as they wanted to be. Also, the weather reports were changing and were not consistent. Once it was determined to be a hurricane and the time was limited and therefore I believe this decision was a calculated risk.

  20. Rolando Saca says:

    I think the strategy has to always be minimizing risk. I believe it’s very arcaic, or naive even, to think you can either evacuate that vast amount of people or none at all. The city of Houston needed to have a dynamic plan that, depending on the geographical location of the catastrophe and analyzing demographics, an active plan should have been taken into place that efforts and resources should have been focused profoundly in evacuating critical areas. Then, educating citizens on what to do and what signs to look for in order to act (whether to evacuate or not) is always helpful in areas that were hit but not critical (obligatory evacuation) for citizens to analyze and take the decision to voluntary evacuate or not.

  21. Sara Moscato Howe says:

    In this situation, it is easy to play Monday AM quarterback. There are many factors to consider, as everyone above has pointed out. When you compare the situation in Houston to Florida a few weeks later, there was much more time (if I recall correctly about a week) to prepare and recommend evacuation. As a result, many in FL did evacuate and we heard of much less loss of life in the Keys and other Florida towns.
    Taking a step back and looking at island such as Puerto Rico, where evacuation involves air travel, and the community infrastructure is more fragile, I can see how even more time to prepare is not enough. In the case of Houston, I think they did the best with the information they had available. Was it ideal? Likely not. But policy makers have to make very quick decisions and the goal is to minimize loss of life and injury. As weather prediction gets better, hopefully these situations will serve as a guide for future decisions that minimize human (and animal) impact.

  22. srinivas tadepalli says:

    I agree with a lot of the comments above. Evacuating 6.5M people within 6 hours is practically a very challenging task. there is no point in discussing what could have been done due to the fact that its already past. We can definitely learn form those experiences and god forbid a similar city such as Houston is in a similar situation, how better can we react is the task at hand. I Believe we can benefit a lot from the technology and innovation happening around us. A smart and connected world that Tom cruise lived in minority report (15 years ago) is not a fantasy anymore. A lot of that is possible today which can aid in better city and disaster planning. Please check this link out. i am not trying to sell anything here but just a show case of how technology can be used in these circumstances. Our company is working with many cities around the world on a first of a kind project called 3DEXPERIENCE City (https://www.3dexperiencity.com). The idea here is to create a complete digital twin of the entire city and this is where you can use virtual models coupled with simulations to plan for unforeseen emergencies such as this one and plan effective emergency evacuation if needed.

  23. Jayme Richardson says:

    Like everyone else, I think hindsight is always 20/20. However, I think their biggest mistake was not issuing a voluntary evacuation order. Obviously with a lot of unknowns, it would have been difficult to say who and where they should evacuate to, but by advising everyone to stay put, I think they eliminated the possibility for people that were more “at risk” (e.g. elderly, locale, etc.) to seek refuge elsewhere. However, I do think the mayor is completely responsible due to his lack of clarity in his statements. When cornered with what he really meant, he advised everyone to listen to their local authorities, who were likely getting their directives from him. A plan to make a plan is not a plan.

  24. Camilo Rodriguez says:

    On the contrary to most opinions, I believe that under the possibility of danger, evacuation is something that should happen. I believe that it is much safer for people and that the logistics is doable. Being from the insurance sector, I know that, although not exact, there are models that can predict and detect hurricanes as well as give good ranges for their impact and area of influence. I believe that massive education campaigns, as well as scheduled and controlled evacuation can help people be prepared and know what to do.

  25. Wendy Mehringer says:

    The problem in Houston was not in the decision to evacuate, in my opinion. i agree with others; hindsight is 20/20. The issue was twofold: (1) poor disaster planning and (2) ineffective communication strategies. (1) In the video, the mayor commented that crafting an evacuation in just a few days would be impossible. Agreed. Given the flood-risk of the flat Houston area, city engineers could surely determine when evacuation was necessary. If less than 5″, do this. If 5-10″, do that. If 10″+, evacuation must be considered, for instance. The forecasters were calling for 20″ on Thursday. (2) The mayor and governor should have appeared together, to give folks confidence and to ensure a singular message. And, the mayor should have inspired confidence while allowing emergency planners and city engineers to be the mouthpiece for disaster and evacuation specifics. Such would allow the journalists’ questions to garner more granular answers. Also, I’m curious how social media played into city and state officials’ strategies. Speaking to the masses isn’t a function for only TV anymore. Reaching Houstonians is arguably easier in this digital age than in any disaster in history.

  26. Anna Dietrich says:

    Just as much as this scenario could be interpreted as an operations home work problem, it’s also impacted by the assessment of risk, and human behavior.
    I had a similar reaction to Wendy, in that while it’s likely that for any major disaster there will not be sufficient time to prepare, the probability that a disaster will occur at some point is likely close to 1. Therefore, how could cities such as Houston have plans in place so which only a few hours notice, services and emergency crews could be deployed, with some consistent approach to reduce congestion and calm chaos.
    Also to Wendy’s point, the use of social media opens up a new idea. With the ability to quickly access anyone with a cell phone, either through social media or emergency text notification, it is seemingly “easier” to coordinate groups if a mass evacuation could have been planned.
    But even with the best plans and communication strategies, human behavior enters, whether it be the person who doesn’t want to leave their home, or the dare devil that wants to play survival.

  27. Jennie Dekker says:

    I feel that the main issue with the strategy employed was the lack of options given. Whether poor planning or calculated risk – making the decision for each resident that they were to stay put is assuming that the structure they live in is strong enough to withstand the hurricane, that they have ample supplies, and that their risk tolerance accepts the choice. I am a big fan of options and feel that each citizen should have been given the option to stay or evacuate (in a pre-planned manner to avoid congestion). I understand this would require immense pre-planning for which they may not have had the resources, but given then severity of recent storms in the area years prior – there should have been a long-stanind safety plan in place that merely needed updating upon anticipation of the storm.

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