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Houston's dams are like “a bomb,” says general who oversaw Katrina

by Michael Hopper
Sep 1 2017, 11:23am

HOUSTON — Retired General Russel Honoré, the administrator who oversaw the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, feels that the response to Harvey was not what it needed to be. Despite multiple days of warnings about the intensifying storm, federal and local officials treated the storm “like a normal hurricane” each day leading up to landfall.

For example: The mayor of Houston made a mistake not ordering the evacuation of people living in flood zones and not offering voluntary evacuation. That the power grid didn’t go down is “part luck, part good engineering” that averted a major catastrophe.

“When you have a disaster, if anyone tells you they have control of the situation, then it’s not a disaster, it’s an inconvenience,” said Honoré in an interview with VICE News at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

Flawed federal response

The biggest mistake in the response to Hurricane Harvey, Honoré said, was that local officials tried to handle it on their own and only asked for help when they realized the scale of what they were facing. Similarly, the federal government was practicing a “pull system as opposed to push” strategy for their response rather than anticipating local government needs before they occur.

The Trump administration’s offer to “tell us what you need” doesn’t show that they’re thinking about the next step. “The federal government needs to be bigger than that,” he said.

“You gotta plan for it, anticipate it, and pre-position it. With this model, they’re waiting for the city,” rather than anticipating needs. Troops, resources, equipment, all needed to be staged closer to Houston so the response could be more rapid.

The emergency response by first responders and civilian first responders was “laudatory,” but you have to have a system in place that coordinates search and rescue teams, first responders, and civilian volunteers “and that has to be worked out ahead of time,” he said. Optimizing technology available from Google or Facebook might have helped with coordination.

Next challenge: infrastructure

General Honoré pointed out that the next challenges for the city of Houston are related to infrastructure — specifically dams and drains.

The dams to the north of the Houston “hold the city hostage every day.” Both dams, the general said, have received a D-grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. “Why would you want a bomb like that sitting north of your city when south of your city you have the biggest petrochemical facilities in the world?”

Houston, he said, needs to hurry up and get the drainage system cleaned. “Immediately they have to have a special task to clean to clean the drainage system.” With the catch basins blocked with debris as they presently are, it would only take an additional 1.5 inches of rain to flood the city.

Every part of the system needs to be cleared and the city needs to contract it out to make sure it gets done now, “not in October.”