As the result of coverage by Facing South and a few other media outlets about the decision to not evacuate over 1,000 inmates and staff of the Galveston County jail for Hurricane Ike, officials are now reassuring the public that the inmates were not hurt and are being well cared for.

In the last 24 hours, the Galveston County Sheriff's Office website has been updated with a section titled "Current status at the Galveston County jail." The link takes you to four pictures with captions. Here's the first:


Their caption:"At no time did the tidal surge breach the walls of the Galveston County Jail."

Our comment: And it's a miracle it didn't.

The Sheriff's department picture appears to confirm that the County Jail is a one-story structure. As you'll remember, the National Weather Service was warning that those in one-story buildings faced "certain death" if they did not evacuate for the Hurricane.

 
The jail is likely sturdier than your typical family home, but let's not forget the level of devastation that officials and weather experts feared from Hurricane Ike. The Category 2 hurricane was speeding up to a Cat 3, aimed straight at Galveston. Ike's massive size -- 900 miles wide -- meant that even buildings far from the coast were at risk of storm surges.

Here was the National Weather Service's warning on the morning of Friday, September 12 -- the day Galveston officials like sheriff Gean Leonard were supposed to be carrying out evacuation orders:
COASTAL STORM SURGE FLOODING OF UP TO 20 FEET...WITH A FEW SPOTS TO NEAR 25 FEET...ABOVE NORMAL TIDE ALONG WITH LARGE AND DANGEROUS BATTERING WAVES...CAN BE EXPECTED NEAR AND TO THE EAST OF WHERE THE CENTER OF IKE MAKES LANDFALL.

THE SURGE EXTENDS A GREATER THAN USUAL DISTANCE FROM THE CENTER DUE TO THE LARGE SIZE OF THE CYCLONE. [my emphasis]
Here's a 3D rendition of what a 20-foot surge could have looked like in Galveston -- and did look like for much of the city. Basically, this model showed that everything within one mile of the beach would be under water.

As it turns out, that's just how far the Galveston County Jail is from the coast. Here's a Google Map showing the location of the jail:



The jail is almost exactly a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, and less than 2,000 feet from the inlet leading into Galveston Bay.

By sheer luck, the storm surge turned out to be less than expected -- about 15 feet. But the Galveston County Sheriff couldn't have known that when he made the decision to keep over 1,000 inmates trapped in the one-story jail.
 
What would have happened if the storm surge had been 20 or 25 feet, as the National Weather Service predicted? Areas in the Galveston historic district, near the jail, flooded up to seven feet. What if that had happened at the jail?
 
Further, what are conditions like at the jail? The sheriff has also posted pictures suggeting that inmates have access to water, toilets and air (one would hope so!). But why are they being kept in an environment that Galveston's own city manager described as "unsafe" and which city residents are being strongly discouraged from returning to?
 
This much is clear: if everyone at the Galveston jail turns out to be alright and safe from harm, it will be in spite of the decisions made by Sheriff Leonard and Galveston officials.
 
Given that reality, the question Galveston, state and U.S. officials should be asking is this: What are the consequences for a public official who puts over 1,000 people -- under government custody and dependent on wise public decisions for their very survival -- in harm's way?