Why Wasn't Houston Evacuated For Hurricane Harvey? Officials Said It Would "Create A Nightmare"

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Since Saturday an inundated Houston has struggled with floodwaters, but local officials  have defended their decision not to evacuate Houston before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast. “You cannot put, in the city of Houston, 2.3 million people on the road ... That is dangerous,” Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference on Sunday, according to The Texas Tribune. “If you think the situation right now is bad — you give an order to evacuate, you create a nightmare."

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the nation, has seen six deaths due to Harvey reported so far. “When we have hurricanes, we know who to evacuate because you have a storm surge coming, and we have that down to a very fine art,” Harris County Judge Emmett said on CNN on Sunday, according to the Tribune. “In this case, we have a rain event. Unless you know where the rain is going to fall, we don’t know who to evacuate.”

In Texas, evacuation orders depend on the decisions of local officials like the mayor and county judge. So although the city of Corpus Christi issued a voluntary evacuation order and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recommended that people in southeast Texas “strongly consider evacuating," many Houston residents stayed put.

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Houston's mayor said that it considered the evacuation that preceded Hurricane Rita in 2005 as a precautionary precedent when deciding whether or not to evacuate prior to Harvey, the strongest hurricane system to hit the continental U.S. in a decade. According to The Texas Tribune, of the 139 people who died due to Rita, 73 of them were killed before the storm system even hit Texas, with many dying in car accidents or overexposure to heat.

Abbott agreed that Hurricane Rita's example made the decision of whether or not to evacuate Houston a difficult one. "There were obviously concerns, as you pointed out, about the complications of evacuation that we saw when Hurricane Rita came to the state of Texas," he told CNN journalists. "So it's so difficult to look in hindsight to see, would it have been better to evacuate or not evacuate, which is why we simply aren't focused on it right now.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, in response to a Fox Business News anchor's question about the decision not to evacuate Houston, said that he supported the the mayor's call. Calling critics "backseat quarterbacks," Acevedo said: "I don’t think they understand the complexity, they don’t understand just how widespread this entire emergency has been.”