The decision by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (@sylvesterturner) to not order a voluntary evacuation of the city will be debated for years to come. As the full scope of the devastation becomes clearer, Monday morning quarterbacks are jumping all over his decision, and it may bring an end to his two decade run as Mayor in the next election. So, what went wrong?
In reviewing the Houston OEM, Mayor Turner’s tweets, and city media releases and tweets, it seems like the danger and potential impacts were either not recognized, or were consciously minimized. For example;
Weather experts had initially predicted lower rain totals, as the storm was still gaining strength. However, they quickly revised their predictions as additional weather data was collected by the Hurricane Hunter flights and buoy information, confirming the epic rain totals and inevitable record flooding was going to impact the entire Texas region. Mayors of surrounding cities, and the Texas governor pleaded with citizens to get out.
So, why such disjointed emergency messaging for a large regional disaster event? Why did the Houston Mayor appear to downplay the potential impacts? “Expecting a lot of rain”?, “Take the time to reposition some of your furniture”? REALLY?
Gerard Baud (@gbaud), a crisis communications and PR consultant shares his thoughts on Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, and the importance of viscerally connecting and motivating citizens to heed warnings and take action before the feces hits the oscillator.
I agree with the mayor’s statements regarding the challenges of trying to evacuate 6.5 million people. It simply wasn’t realistic given the short warning time as Harvey blew up just off the coast. But, he and his staff made a strategic communications error early on in not realistically stressing the dangers and impacts on their citizens, managing public expectations, and supporting voluntary evacuation efforts. Their decisions now look like they minimized how bad things were going to be, and for that Mayor Turner may be looking at retirement soon.