Hurricane Harvey — The Numbers are Terrible, but DO THEY ADD UP?

Screenshot courtesy of CNN

(Note: I have just donated to the Houston Food Bank. See the last paragraph of this article for reasons and for details.) — — — — — —
Tuesday, August 29, 1:00 PM — — — — 
No doubt about it
. Hurricane Harvey has been Noah’s Ark terrible for the areas on Texas’s eastern coast. The above picture (from last night’s CNN broadcast) shows rescue efforts going on in one area of Houston. Below you can see a “before and after” depiction of a river going through Houston’s downtown.

Pictures courtesy of Matt Reagan’s Twitter Feed and he cites “street repoter” on YouTube.

What’s do we see above? A rise of 20 feet? More? Hard to know exactly. But to the left you can see an easier height to estimate. What the hell? The water is 15 feet or more above its normal level! How can any city survive such mayhem? The whole area appears severely wounded, and if they’re not at death’s door, they’re certainly within a short walking distance of it.

But wait a minute! Houston IS surviving. In fact the number of people who have been crushed by this natural monster seem far fewer than what has been portrayed in the media. At least it appears that way from the following excerpt from a CNN report early this morning.

Reporting courtesy of CNN, Tuesday morning, August 29, 2017

SAY WHAT?? I know that 30,000 people in shelters is a horrible and soul-crushing thing, but 30,000? According to the number I see most cited on the internet, Houston’s metropolitan population is 5.68 million! That would come out to 1/2 of 1% of those residents needing shelter. Even if you only count Houston’s official city population of 2.3 million, those shelter numbers would equal 1.3% of all the people within Houston’s city limits. What about the other 98% or 99% of the people. Are they okay? Are their streets simply very wet, but without flooding? Or are millions of people living in flooded homes with all the health hazards that would would entail?

Now the 450,000 people who are predicted to seek “some sort of disaster assistance” makes more sense. That would be around 20% of Houston’s citizens or 8% of Houston’s metro population.

Nevetheless, doesn’t that seem relatively small compared to the damage we’re seeing on television?

Compare these numbers to those that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Information courtesy of The Data Center

Over 52% of New Orleans’ residents left after Katrina! I do not know how many of those affected people moved back, but the city seems to have recovered — knock on wood till Harvey is over — to a great extent. However, the impact of losing 20% of your people cannot be underestimated. (Ironically, a great number of those who fled Katrina moved to Houston! I can’t imagine the psyhological impact this must be having on them.)

LET ME SAY THIS CLEARLY. I do not doubt for a second the ravaging that Houston has suffered. You can’t get across the city because so many areas are flooded. You probably can’t get out of the city because so many of the interstates are flooded. You can’t live any normal kind of life.

However, we need some context here. Not once have I seen a “flooding map,” which would show the extent of the water danger in different areas of Houston. If you know people who live in certain neighborhoods, how can you find out if they are on the run or able to remain in their homes? (And please don’t say you can just call them. How can someone in a one-story flooded house charge a phone?) The closest thing I have been able to find is a map by Matt Dempsey and published in the Houston Chronicle yesterday. It shows the ever-changing web of flooded streets in the city. And I thank Matt Dempsey for what must be incredibly detailed and tiring work.

Nevertheless, this map seems to show that a great percentage of streets in Houston are NOT flooded. How can that be? Again, we need something to tell us what the total situation is, such as you could get from a drone that flies over the city and broadcasts what part of the city it is surveying at that moment. Obviously the media is concentrating on the most extreme scenes. But what’s the truth?

I did some research on Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans and found the following map on the FEMA site.

Map courtesy of FEMA. Sharpie-type editing by Daniel Berenson.

Here we can see relative flood levels throughout the city. While the French Quarter (circled in mauve) was definitely far better off than the rest of the city, the Lower Ninth Ward (circled in blue) was buried in water between 6–12 feet. And look at the area straight north of the French Quarter and bordering Lake Pontchartrain!! Words are insufficient. It was literally smashed by Katrina.

GRANTED — the constant rain makes it close to impossible to give bird’s-eye views of the overall damage in Houston. So my drone idea might only be possible in a week’s time (or more).

GRANTED — the situation is constantly changing throughout the area which would make such a map certainly difficult.

BUT — Isn’t this what our government is for? Should media outlets be responsible for collecting and amalgamating such info? Isn’t there ANYONE who could put up a color-coded map of the overall Houston area to show us the neighborhoods that have been most affected and those that have so far escaped relatively unscathed (like the New Orleans model above)? If one exists, I haven’t seen it. I’m not asking for the same detail FEMA could provide in retrospect; just an overall map with a three-color key: flooded, in immediate danger of flooding, and so far okay.

I have close family members who live in Houston-Galveston and I want to know how their particular neighborhood might be faring. As fate would have it, they are out of the country on vacation right now and it is incredibly difficult on them NOT to be in (or at least near) their home. As both airports in Houston are closed, they don’t even know when and how they’ll be able to get back.

Can the media quit focusing only on the worst visuals of Harvey and the best — eg., how so many people are helping each other, which is indeed inspiring — and give viewers a balanced picture of what the rain damage really is?

I’d appreciate that a lot.
 — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -→ Update (1:00 AM, Wednesday, August 30)
As of tonight at least one news channel (MSNBC) was reporting that 25–35% of Houston was “under water.” Also a curfew was announced for tonight. In terms of information, this is definitely helpful in that it starts to put the whole picture in a better perspective. But the perspective looks quite intimidating as the rains don’t seem to have ceased. My heart goes out to Texas’s residents and I hope Harvey’s effect will diminish considerably in the coming days as it moves north.
 → Update #2 (3:30 PM, Wednesday, August 30)
After extensive research I’ve decided to donate to the Houston Food Bank. It has been given a 100% rating by Charity Navigator and also it is located at the heart of this disaster. 
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — About the author— Daniel Berenson is a sometimes contributor to Medium on all sorts of topics, a middle school teacher for over 30 years, the founder of Freaky Dude Books, and currently an instructor in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) for recent immigrants. I would appreciate any applause for this article or comments. Thanks very much!

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