Conservative media launch partisan attack against Houston Democrats over evacuation orders

Conservative media launch partisan attack against Houston Democrats over evacuation orders

Right-wing criticisms ignore reality that a prior evacuation led to massive gridlock and the death of more than 100 evacuees 

Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Right-wing outlets are seizing on Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to issue an evacuation order for the city ahead of Hurricane Harvey to launch partisan attacks against Democrats. But these attacks ignore the numerous journalists and experts who have supported Turner’s decision, citing a storm evacuation order in 2005 that led to more than 100 deaths.

As Hurricane Harvey approached Houston on Friday, Turner urged residents to stay in their homes. But during a Friday press conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott delivered a conflicting message, saying: “Even if an evacuation order hasn’t been issued by your local official, if you’re in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating.”

As CNN reported, the contradictory messages from Turner and the governor confused Houston residents. In a subsequent interview, Abbott deferred and insisted that residents listen to their local leaders.

But that didn’t stop right-wing media from launching partisan attacks against Houston Democrats -- and Mayor Turner in particular -- for not issuing an evacuation order. Nevermind that Harris County Judge Edward Emmett, who is responsible for overseeing emergency operations and who echoed Turner’s decision not to evacuate, is a Republican.

During an interview with Secretary of Energy Rick Perry on the August 28 episode of Fox & Friends, host Ainsley Earhardt posed the following question:

Mr. Secretary, I hate to politicize this, but many people are questioning was it a political move when you have the governor, who is a Republican, he was telling everyone to evacuate on Friday. Was it mandatory because maybe it’s not his place to do that. But he looked to the local government; they started essentially making funny of him on Twitter, saying, “Evacuate? Are you kidding? This is not going to be that big a deal. Don't evacuate.” A lot of people frustrated now because the mayor who -- a bunch of Democrats were basically laughing at the governor and now look at this situation. So was it a political move? Why didn't the mayor ask for a mandatory evacuation, knowing this storm was as big as it was?

During a Fox Business interview that was also promoted on The Daily Caller, conservative columnist and frequent Fox News commentator Kristin Tate said that Turner “completely failed the city” by not calling for an evacuation. And Fox contributor Alexander Muse tweeted, “Why did local Democrats in Houston tell citizens not to evacuate after the governor begged them to?”

A number of other conservative outlets also adopted this line of attack. RedState claimed, “There is no nice way of putting this. Houston in a Democrat stronghold and the urge to make Greg Abbott look like an idiot was just too big of a temptation to resist.” And an article by the fake news purveyor TruthFeed featured an image of Turner with “IRRESPONSIBLE” written in bold on the top, and asked, “Why did Houston’s Democrat mayor encourage citizens NOT to evacuate?”

Yet, as of Wednesday last week, the hurricane’s path was still unpredictable, and the storm suddenly intensified before it made landfall. On the August 29 episode of The New York TimesThe Daily podcast, Times correspondent Alan Blinder explained, “Officials [in Houston] have argued there wasn’t enough time ... to evacuate people, so many people on such short notice. This is a storm that really only revived itself in the Gulf last Wednesday. It made landfall in Texas on Friday as a Category 4 storm, and that was even stronger than anticipated.”

More importantly, what the right-wing media attacking Turner have missed in their reporting is that the city learned a valuable lesson during Hurricane Rita in 2005. At the time, a sizeable number of those who died from the storm were evacuees -- something numerous journalists and publications have pointed out. As Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker wrote:

People have criticized Houston residents for not evacuating. Plenty did, and with more understanding of the context, you might excuse many of those who didn’t. Evacuating a city like Houston, on these interlocked freeways—where a one-way commute might take two hours on a normal day—can very easily turn into a secondary disaster. The majority of Hurricane Rita deaths in Houston occurred in the evacuation, and two-thirds of flood fatalities happen in cars. Without financial resources, evacuation is a uniquely difficult experience, and 22.5 per cent of the population in increasingly unequal Houston lives under the poverty line.

Indeed, as an August 25 article in the Houston Chronicle pointed out, in 2005, “the muddled flight from [Houston] killed almost as many people as Rita did. An estimated 2.5 million people hit the road ahead of the storm’s arrival, creating some of the most insane gridlock in U.S. history. More than 100 evacuees died in the exodus. Drivers waited in traffic for 20-plus hours, and heat stroke impaired or killed dozens. Fights broke out on the highway. A bus carrying nursing home evacuees caught fire, and 24 died.”

And former Houston Chronicle columnist Bill King, who served “on a governor’s commission that studied what went wrong in the evacuation” during Hurricane Rita, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times that evacuating Houston would have been an “a logistical impossibility. There is simply not enough roadway, gasoline in inventory or facilities in nearby cities to transport and house 2.3 million evacuees.” He added, “I can tell you from that experience, any attempt to evacuate Houston ahead of Tropical Storm Harvey would have made the situation much worse and almost certainly resulted in more deaths.”

Christopher Lewis contriubed research to this post. 

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