Harris County Judge Calls Houston Flooding 'Unprecedented' NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Harris County, Texas, Judge Ed Emmett, who made the decision not to evacuate the millions of residents living in and around Houston due to Hurricane Harvey.
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Harris County Judge Calls Houston Flooding 'Unprecedented'

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Harris County Judge Calls Houston Flooding 'Unprecedented'

Harris County Judge Calls Houston Flooding 'Unprecedented'

Harris County Judge Calls Houston Flooding 'Unprecedented'

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NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Harris County, Texas, Judge Ed Emmett, who made the decision not to evacuate the millions of residents living in and around Houston due to Hurricane Harvey.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And joining us now is Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. He's the top elected official for the county that includes Houston, and he directs emergency management services there. Judge Emmett, thank you for making the time today.

ED EMMETT: Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to begin with the decision you made not to evacuate Harris County and therefore the city of Houston. At a news conference on Friday, you said evacuations for water are usually related to storm surge rather than rain. Let's hear just a bit of that press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

EMMETT: At this time I can re-emphasize there will be no mass evacuations called. We'll have a lot of water, but it's not the kind of water that we would ask people to evacuate from.

SHAPIRO: Judge Emmett, was that the right decision?

EMMETT: Yes, it was. Looking at it now you say, my goodness, those of us who remember the evacuation in front of Hurricane Rita, it was an absolute nightmare. It was chaos. And many, many people died on the roads. The other situation - the difference is when a storm surge comes, you know where it's going to hit. You know which neighborhoods you need to evacuate.

If it's an eight-foot storm surge, we have zones. We can say how high it's going to come up on land and we evacuate those people. In a rain event like this, a very significant rain event - matter of fact, this is a thousand-year rain event by everybody's measure - you don't know which neighborhoods are going to be affected.

So you would, in essence, have to evacuate the entire region, not just Harris County - Galveston County, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County. You're talking about almost 7 million people. That's just not - and where would those 7 million go? There aren't shelters set up for them. It would not have been something that people would have taken kindly to, shall we say?

SHAPIRO: Right now we're hearing of people...

EMMETT: And it wouldn't have been the right thing.

SHAPIRO: We're - right now we're hearing of people waiting hours on hold with 911. Do you have a sense of how big the backlog is of demand for urgent emergency response?

EMMETT: I don't at this time. I know it was bad. We have - in Harris County and the city of Houston we have three large 911 call centers. But again, this is an event that's absolutely unprecedented. And we are pulling people out as fast as possible, first responders - it was complicated even more. The state sent resources, National Guard and Texas Task Force 1, but they couldn't get through the high water either to get here. So that's when I put out the call for private residents, if they had boats, to come help and coordinate it through us.

SHAPIRO: And more rain is coming, which means more people will need rescuing. So is help on the way...

EMMETT: Well, that's not - no, that's...

SHAPIRO: ...Or should people expect to fend for themselves?

EMMETT: No, no, no, that's not necessarily true. More rain is coming. The areas that have flooded are flooded. And now National Guard is here, Texas Task Force 1 is here. And we're working as fast as we can to remove all those people out of harm's way.

SHAPIRO: So if people are concerned about rising water where they are, is help on the way? Or are they more or less going to have to fend for themselves or hope that a neighbor stops by?

EMMETT: Well, as I just said, help is already here. The National Guard is now here. Texas Task Force 1 is now here. Many, many private folks are also here assisting the first responders. We're pulling people out. Houston Police Department, sheriff's office, constables, National Guard - everybody is full at it. And we're getting that number down as rapidly as we can.

SHAPIRO: Our reporters are describing shelters that do not have enough food that are already overcrowded. If more people show up to those shelters, will there be enough cots for them? Will there be food for them?

EMMETT: There will be, but the same circumstance applies. The Houston Food Bank was surrounded by water, and so therefore trucks couldn't get in and out in order to deliver food to the Red Cross shelters. That is being done now that the National Guard is here. We have put together a plan. The first responders were pulling people out and bringing them to high ground, to safe places as fast as they could. And now we have put together a logistical plan with Metro to use their buses to go pick up people and take them to the shelter. But not just any shelter.

One of the lessons we've learned over - from hurricanes over the years is you really don't want people to be too far from their homes even if their homes aren't livable. The children will still need to be back in school not this year - not this week, but perhaps next week. People need to be close to their jobs. And we want to make this just as - we want to restore their life to as normal as possible as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: The phrase that was used at the press conference this afternoon was, we're going to have to get used to a new normal. Just briefly, in the final seconds, what do you see that new normal as being?

EMMETT: I think there will be people out of homes for years depending on how quickly FEMA can work. And FEMA is already in Texas. But again, this is an unprecedented event that we have never seen. And we have to remind people Houston - Harris County did not get hit by the hurricane. There are still other parts of the state that were hit...

SHAPIRO: It's the tropical storm - Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, we appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

EMMETT: Thank you.

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