An Open-Letter to Houston

By Bruce A. Smith

I’ve had some burning questions about Hurricane Harvey, particularly the flooding in Houston that no one in the media is addressing. Yes, the storm and the rescue of thousands is important and is being told well. But many questions relevant to both issues are mostly overlooked, especially surviving-in-place.

The basic question is how did all of this happen? Yes, we now know about the over-development of Greater Houston, and we have a keener sense of politics, big money, and big rains coming into conflict in Texas. But other significant questions linger, especially the lack of personal preparedness by individual residents. So this is both a rant and a questioning statement that I will enjoy hearing your response. Here are the questions:

First, I see two major disasters this week in Texas. One was the hurricane and its traditionally destructive forces, such as high winds and storm surge. The second is the massive flooding from the prolonged rains experienced in Houston, Port Arthur, and Lake Charles.

I agree that evacuating out of the hurricane’s landfall in Rockport and Corpus Christi was wise, but what were the instructions to folks who had to leave their homes in the face of 130 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge? What were officials doing to prepare them for life in an evacuation center, such as bringing spare clothes, diapers, food, water bottles, etc.? Why are thousands of folks telling TV crews that all they have are the clothes on their backs? Didn’t they have the presence of mind to make any preparations for leaving their homes? If not, why not?

As for Houston and its flooding, I agree with the mayor’s decision not to evacuate. I always think staying-put is best unless one has to absolutely leave due to life-threatening conditions. But, I haven’t heard anything about how the mayor of Houston, or FEMA or anybody in authority helped folks to prepare to survive-in-place: how much food and water to stockpile, how to pack up a “Grab and Go” bag in case one has to evacuate, nor identifying individuals that would absolutely need to evacuate – such as dialysis patents, folks of ventilators, etc. Yeah, writing your social security number on your forehead is wise when in trouble, but what was the information given to the public to avoid that fate? I never heard any specific instructions or advice on how to successfully hunker-down in place, nor any media asking those questions of officials. Did you?

In addition, were there any neighborhood-level preparations in Houston? Did the city or FEMA help neighborhoods realize how much water would likely appear? Did they help identify places locally that would have safer, higher ground, and then help equip those places to receive evacuees – such as folks in a single-wide coming down the block to a two-story apartment building, etc.

What did officialdom, ie: Houston’s mayor, FEMA, Texas Governor Abbott, the Prez, think 50 inches of rain would look like? Did officials envision that 30% of Houston would be underwater? If not, why not? If Tropical Storm Allison dumped 47 inches in a more localized manner in 2011 and still brought sections of Houston to its knees, what were the official perspectives of how a much broader deluge would impact them? What did officialdom think would manifest in Houston after Harvey dumped four-feet of rain across hundreds of miles of lowlands, rivers, and bayous? I only heard officials speak in generalities. Why didn’t they offer specifics?

How does a Houston cop die in his own squad car? Did he drown? Did he have a heart attack or some other medical emergency? If he was completely stuck in the flood water, why didn’t he escape? Sure the water shorted-out his electric windows and doors, but if that was the case why didn’t he shoot out his windows? If he did, did the concussive waves injure him and trigger medical issues that rendered him immobile? Was his radio working? Did he call for help? Was his cell phone working? Was an autopsy performed? What were its findings?

Why did what happened today, Thursday, August 31, and yesterday in Beaumont, Lake Charles, and Port Arthur, happen? After spending four days watching Houston drown, it appears these cities and their residents and officials learned little. Not only did thousands of residents still needed emergency evacuations, their refugee centers flooded. How come? How did that lack of preparedness manifest? Lousy leadership? Widespread emotional breakdown? Trauma? Exhaustion from days of preparation and rendering support to Houston?

The mayor of Beaumont said he was told by the National Weather Service that 8-10 inches would fall Tuesday night, and yet 12-20 inches fell so his city was unprepared? Really? That’s his excuse – a bad weather report? Is there really any meaningful difference between 8 inches of rain and 20? What does that mean – two feet of water in your house versus six feet? Your house is still flooded – and your town – no?

Is rational thinking about saving one’s butt just too disturbing for most people? Are they internally paralyzed by fear and incapable of making significant preparations? If so, then why aren’t religious and cultural leaders, governmental and health officials addressing this mass-level, epidemic-level contagion of fear? Why aren’t churches running workshops on how to survive in a house for a week when the water is up to your knees? Why isn’t FEMA? Does Houston have any self-reliant groups? Graham and Eatonville do, so hopefully Houston will have them soon, as well.

Are politicians too leery of warning their citizens of potential disasters since they have been accused of “crying wolf” too many times? Is it smarter politically, and physically, to let a city or state get really walloped so as to build the political capital necessary to change building codes, establish a more robust emergency system, and transform people’s behavior into a more self-reliant posture?

All the best, Houston. I have a cousin down there somewhere, but no one has heard anything. So, I trust his best angels are keeping a close watch on him. Gawd knows he’ll need it, and so will a lot of other folks.

By the way, Houston, I understand from HULU that they are experiencing epic delays in up-loading their streaming TV service due to all the folks in Texas and Louisiana who only have TV to help them cope. As a result, I don’t attempt to turn on HULU and watch any of my favorite shows until 11 pm Pacific Time. I figure it’s the least I can do to help you guys.

This entry was posted in Back East, Culture, Environment, Health, Nature, Self Reliance, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to An Open-Letter to Houston

  1. Jane says:

    Intense…I think you asked ‘more’ questions than we will ever get answers! Thank you as I am making my list ‘again’ and checking it twice! Jane

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Thanks, Jane. I was expecting to be excoriated, but I’m glad you are taking my rants in the spirit they were intended. I’ll be posting the specifics of how I am preparing at my home. We all have potentials from Mother Nature that we need to prepare for. Mine in the PNW are earthquakes, volcanoes, and lahars, which are rainy floods and volcanic ash mixed together.

  2. brucesmith49 says:

    Editor’s Note:

    Here’s my Personal Preparedness Plan:

    The PNW has lots of rain – not 50 inches in 4 days, albeit – but we have the soil and infrastructure to handle most deluges, but not all. Nevertheless, we – and I think everyone – has their own geological/meteorological vulnerabilities. Houston has hurricanes, the Midwest has tornadoes, and I have mega earthquakes and forest fires. I think all we need to be prepared for complete regional disasters, regardless of their genre.

    For me, I take survival seriously. First, I believe that securing-in-place is safest. Evacuating somewhere else is only a Plan B when staying home is totally untenable and life-threatening.

    My first priority is physical safety: Burning ash and smoke from fires; fallout from nukes, like Fukushima, Diablo Canyon, or Kim Jung Crazy Pants; pumice, stone, and volcanic ash from Mount Rainier and other volcanoes in the Cascades. I have a little cave-like spot I can hunker down for 24-36 hours, and my longer-term abode is my 16-foot RV trailer that is protected by an overhead lattice of wood frames and tarps, surrounded by bedsheet curtains that can filter-out bad stuff and let is some measure of fresh air.

    Next is water. I have five, 50-gallon barrels with a hand pump, plus lots of five-gallon jugs and bottles.

    For food and supplies I go low-tech. Lots of “plumber” candles. Some lanterns and ultra-pure lamp fuel. For heat I have a “Heat Buddy” that uses propane bottles. Ten bucks for three at Walmart and I pick up extras every time I go shopping (and can afford it…).

    I have five-gallon buckets of rice and beans, and some wheat and a small hand-mill grinder. A few #10 cans of dehydrated veggies. I have a summer’s worth of potatoes that I leave in the ground until February, then I dig them up and plant a fresh crop in March, eating them through the year, of course. Same with Tuscan Kale, which overwinters fairly well here in the PNW. About 6 apple trees and two plum trees. I try to stockpile sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, tuna, canned salmon, toilet paper – but I go through this stuff quickly to supplement my writing habit. Plus I have two kinds of “Gotta Go” bags. One is “Gotta Go And Ain’t Coming Back” and has dehydrated food and fuel, a stove, warm clothes, sleeping bag, water filter, etc. The other is smaller and has raisins, nuts, respirator, meds, water bottle, a sweater, and the latest copy of Nat Geo. The smaller bag I carry everywhere I go.

    I have learned a few things about survival and preparedness. First thing, it is scary. I took me a lot of will-power to constantly divert financial resources to supplies, food, and stuff that I wasn’t gonna need right away. My NY ex-wife thought I was a “doom-and-gloomer,” and that dynamic was one of the underlying reasons I left the marriage. Second thing, it takes time. Third, it takes lots of meditation, focus and knowledge-gathering – what exactly are you surviving to? What crisis do you anticipate? How will you handle neighbors and friends who aren’t prepared and show up on your doorstep hungry, cold and frightened? Some folks I know have bunkers. Others buy guns and lots o’ ammo. Some folks are gonna make a million bucks selling flat-bottomed boats to Houstonians…

    I’ve seen Harvey – Katrina – Sandy and all the rest coming for a long time. Learning, preparing, getting mentally ready is a long-term process. After all, what the hell did Houstonians think 50 inches was gonna look like? Being able to envision what catastrophe is gonna look is a skill. I worked in the environmental business in NY in 1980s, and responsible scientists, experts, and officials have been talking about these kinds of potentials for a long time. But people are slow learners and most need a kick in the ass to make changes. I left NY and moved to the PNW in part because I don’t think low-lying urban areas in coastal zones are safe. Anyone who continues to live in Houston and doesn’t live in an up-armored house boat is nuts, imho.

  3. Paula Morris says:

    As always, I enjoy your “rants.” You are absolutely right about preparedness. My family here has “To Go” bags and stockpiled food along with tools and emergency safety gear, etc. Here is my take on what went down in Houston:

    Texas is a super business-friendly, oil mecca. The leaders there are all about “how to profit after a big event.” I don’t think there was much thought about people being saved or learning how to survive in this crisis. Have you heard the term: “Disaster Capitalism?” coined by Naomi Klein. Houston is now ripe for a corporate rape. As the waters recede, watch for tons of Charter Schools to pop up, cheap Fema houses in the worse sections–for the poor, and big expansive resorts for the rich–to suddenly transform the over-crowded Houston area into what makes for wet dreams by the profit seeking capitalists who are drooling all over their big plans right now.

    This is how it works: Major disaster–major profit for disaster capitalists. To hell with the little folk. They’ll just have to move somewhere else–like what happened with Katrina in New Orleans.

    That’s why there was no talk about survival techniques. Texas big shots didn’t want any survival.

  4. Jane says:

    This is some really ‘intense’ thought provoking ‘stuff’…all of it! My family has been prepared to the best of each members ability for years now. We gather/take apart/re-group constantly…it is a mind set and NOT everyone can or wants to do it. Especially when it ‘seems’ nothing is happening and you are waiting…things are quiet so ‘what’ are you doing? I thank the calm/quiet every single day I wake up…good…not today/yet. However, I also reassure myself that my family is/was intentionally placed in a area that we felt safe…the Midwest…right smack in the middle…on a river. Things ‘are’ quieter at this point. We have experienced 2 major floods (the 100 year ones) last summer and another summer before. Our low land flooded…the homestead is safe. Do we want to move? No! It was important to us to have access to water when we picked this land. We have moved all the things we don’t want to get destroyed “UP” built on tall pilings…as said, how hard do you want to work for your survival? It is a personal choice and many want someone to do it for them? I do not know how that mind-set from the victims to the perpetrators will ever be resolved :(! Jane

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Editor’s Note:

      I think “safe” is a relative term. We all have aspects of Mother Nature that we need to prepare for. Here in the PNW, we have earthquakes as I have described, but we also have ice storms and heavy snows besides torrential rains.

      I have been without power for seven days, once, while I lived in Yelm, WA, It was due to ice on the trees, which brought down limbs, which took-out the power lines. During that episode my neighbor’s house burned to the ground because they didn’t have power, built a fire in the wood stove and didn’t close the stove-door properly. On a cold night a log rolled into the door and popped it open, then rolled onto the floor and started the blaze.

      No one was injured, but the family lost everything. Again, a good reminder to have a grab and go bag – filled with medications, a spare twenty, some water and food, etc.

      Other localized disasters can have regional impacts. I remember about ten years ago the hills above Chehalis, WA received about 10 inches of rain in a matter of hours. Not unheard of, but due to excessive logging on the hillsides the water coming down to the flats was enormous. The Chehalis River flooded and shut down I-5 for three days,and food supplies were disrupted significantly.

      So folks in the mid-west may not have these conditions, but you’ve got your own stuff. Blizzards, extreme cold, droughts, etc….

  5. Jane says:

    This is all true…but ‘you’ haven’t moved because of your weather conditions and ‘we’ aren’t moving because of our weather conditions…as I said…we ‘both’ feel we have placed ourselves where we want to survive and feel ‘safe’ doing so. We choose to prepare! I agree with you as far as a people mentality…will some Houston people consider relocating or building a house boat? Or is the government gonna come to the rescue? Yeah right!

  6. goldenhandstherapies says:

    Wow B!!

    That was some deluge of emotion, Boy Scout experience and common sense released with focus upon Authority irresponsibility, Texas style. Not sure if you’d heard that Monica and I had flown out of The Lone Star State hours before Harvey hit. We had visited my Houston cousins, attended a dear friend’s wedding and played in Austin for a couple of days. Our flight was rerouted from Atlanta to Minneapolis and then to LaG.

    The East Coast is projected to experience a heavy hurricane season this year and Irma, a CAT 5 hurricane is already threatening FL. Gas prices in GC jumped 30 cents in a week!!

    I liked your recommendations, perspectives and suggestions and will pass them along to FnF as they are open.

    What about Korea? Your thoughts about Kim’s abilities to nuke Seattle??

    Looking forward,

    David Heller, MMT, RM, CPHC Golden Hands Massage and Aesthetic Therapies Founder / Director Port Washington Chamber of Commerce Executive Board Member 516.658.8443


    • brucesmith49 says:

      No, David, I didn’t know that you and Monica got outta Dodge just before the storm. Good on you guys. Glad you’re safe.

      Yes, I am following Irma, the new storm. One of the primary online DB Cooper researchers lives in Fort Lauderdale and is giving us updates. Irma could make Harvey look like just a rainy day. Cat 5? Whew.

      I’m not too worried about Kim Jung Crazy Pants and getting nuked. Nukes present two different problems. First is surviving the balst zone, and since I’m dozens of miles from any city, I am not too worried about this.

      The bigger issue is radioactive fallout. Oddly, that issue combines with a very real current problem, and that is the heavy, dangerous smoke in our air from forest fires. Currently, I am dealing with that via N-95 dust masks, a/c, and air purifiers – and writing about it elsewhere at the Mountain News..

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