As Hurricane Harvey continues to ravage Houston and the rest of Southeast Texas, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has been forced to defend his decision not to call for evacuations. The city is dealing with catastrophic flooding, and multiple deaths have been reported. Houston is facing feet of rain, not just inches. The The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed on Tuesday that a rain gauge near Houston recorded a record 49.32 inches of rain, making Harvey the wettest storm to hit the contiguous 48 states.
The New York Times reports that 30 deaths related to Harvey have been confirmed.
Turner has now turned the Houston convention center into a shelter. Turner announced late Tuesday that he was imposing a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. “to allow volunteers and others to do their great work.”
In a NPR interview, Turner said he felt the city was prepared for the storm.
“We encouraged all Houstonians to go and make sure that they have enough food, enough water, medication, supplies for a four or five-day event,” Turner said. “And by and large, that’s exactly what they did. So I’m very proud of Houstonians. We encourage them to stay off the road. And the overwhelming majority of them did. This was a storm that really no one knew which direction it was going to take. But the best thing was for people to get – to hunker down and then be prepared.”
Turner is a Democrat and was first elected in 2015, after two previous failed attempts to hold the office. He also served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1989 to 2016. The 62-year-old Turner, who was born in Houston, has a daughter, Ashley Paige Turner, with his ex-wife Cheryl.
To find shelters in Houston, click here to visit the city’s website.
Here is what you need to know about Turner and his response to Harvey.
1. Turner Defended His Decision Not to Call for Evacuations, Saying ‘You Can’t Put 6.5 Million People on the Road’
Since Harvey hit Houston, Turner has been criticized for not calling mandatory evacuations in some neighborhoods. During a press conference on early Sunday, Turner defended his decision, saying you couldn’t have the entire city’s population trying to leave at once.
“You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road. If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare,” Turner said, Reports Click2Houston.
Turner said Harvey turned out to be much worse than predicted, calling the storm “unprecedented.” “Every neighborhood, every community received water and flooded. Every bayou went over its banks,” Turner said. Even though officials knew heavy rains were coming, he said people should stay in their homes. “For those homes that are flooded, we’ll come in to rescue them,” he said Saturday.
Turner said the mayors of San Antonio, Dallas and other cities reached out to help Houston. He also said he had confidence that the city can persevere.
“This is a storm that is testing the city of Houston. This is a storm that I know for a fact that the city of Houston will rise to the occasion,” he said. “If we all work together…we will get through this.”
According to Weather.com, over 1,000 people have been rescued. Texas Governor Greg Abbott activated 3,000 national and state guard members to help in rescue efforts.
The Houston Chronicle reports that six people have died in the Houston area.
Turner likely didn’t want a repeat of the situation Texas faced before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005. As The Texas Tribune reports, 139 deaths were linked to Rita and 73 of them happened before the storm hit Texas. Ten died from hypothermia caused by heat exposure, and 23 died in a bus fire. In the end, Rita didn’t impact Texas as badly as feared, so lawmakers and officials began changing programs to make evacuations work better.
2. Turner Said Water Hasn’t Been Turned Off in Houston, Despite False Reports
Despite a false rumor that circulated on social media, Turner and other Houston officials said that the water service hasn’t been turned off and the water is safe to drink. “Rumor: @HoustonPWE is NOT Shutting (sic) off water. Water is currently safe to drink and meeting 100% of the need,” the Houston Office of Emergency Management said in a tweet.
Turner retweeted the message. Turner has also been keeping citizens up to date on Twitter and thanked first responders for their service.
Turner also said in a statement that false reports help no one. “False forecasts and irresponsible rumors on social media are interfering with efforts by the city of Houston, and its government and news media partners, to provide accurate information to the public about the expected effects of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Harvey,” Turner said.
3. Turner Told People to Avoid Leaving Their Homes Before Harvey Hit
On August 23, Turner told KHOU that he advises residents to stay at home during the storm.
“I simply don’t want people unnecessarily to be caught on the road trying to travel on our streets in areas that we know are prone to flood,” he told the network, which had to evacuate its studios because of Harvey. “You know it’s coming, so don’t make it more difficult for yourselves and for the first responders who have to be out there to rescue you.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has also been criticized for the lack of an evacuation order, admitted on August 23 that the city will see street flooding in some areas. Emmett defended his decision not to call for the evacuation, saying that Houston wasn’t hit by a hurricane directly. By the time Harvey hit Houston, it was a tropical storm.
“One of the biggest problems we had was trying to craft the message: Everyone’s talking about hurricane, hurricane, hurricane. We were never going to get hit by a hurricane,” Emmett said on August 26. “We’ve been saying for days, this is a rain event, this is not a hurricane. People think hurricane and they think evacuation, and that doesn’t apply to us.”
In his NPR interview, Turner said he worked closely with Emmett and said they do not want to second-guess themselves.
“The local officials – we were all on the same page that to try to move 6.5 million people two or three days before this hurricane was scheduled to land would have put more people in danger,” Turner said. “And then where do you send them when no one knew the direction in which the hurricane was going to take? And so you can’t ask 6.5 million people to get on the road and send them – where?”
4. Turner Has Supported the Proposed ‘Ike Dike’ to Help Protect Southeast Texas From Hurricanes
Harvey is the first hurricane to make landfall in Texas since 2008’s Hurricane Ike. In the years since then, officials have been trying to get an “Ike Dike” built to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from hurricane storm surge. The project has an estimated price tag of $6 billion.
Although the project could help Houston, the City Council has yet to pass a resolution backing it. But in August 2016, Turner endorsed it.
“Providing multiple lines of defense against storm surge, including a comprehensive system of barriers and gates extending along Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula to create a ‘coastal spine,’would protect the economy, the environment, and most importantly, the people in the greater Houston region,” Turner wrote in a letter to the legislatures, the Houston Chronicle noted.
5. Turner Is a Co-Chair of Climate Mayors, a Group That Plans to Meet the Paris Climate Accord Goals, Despite Trump’s Opposition
In June, Turner was named co-chair of Climate Mayors, a group of 372 mayors who have vowed to reach the goals set by the UN’s Paris Climate Accord. The group was organized after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement.
“As the Energy Capital of the world, it’s our responsibility to find sustainable ways to power the future,” Turner said said in a statement. “By investing in green power, improving building efficiency, and revitalizing our green spaces, Houston is proof that large industrial cities can act on climate and maintain a robust, growing economy.”
The Houston Chronicle notes that Houston pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. In the past 10 years, the icty has dropped green house gas emissions by 35 percent.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is the co-founder of Climate Mayors.
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