JUST ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I was driving along the edge of one of Houston’s nicest neighborhoods when I noticed a young black woman on foot taking in the sights. It was near sunset, and the sky was a radiant mix of pink, gold, white, and blue, courtesy of our airborne pollutants. The trees were lush from rain, and the houses were suitably showy. The woman couldn’t have been more than eighteen. Dressed in tired clothes and swinging a cheap suitcase, she was dancing slowly in circles, happily awestruck, as if she had landed in Oz.
Like so many Houstonians during that first week of September 2005, I was in a state of total enervation, drained by local rescue efforts that had begun immediately after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and sent an estimated 200,000 evacuees reeling our way. I figured this girl for another newcomer and thought her happy, game expression boded well for her and for us. Welcome, welcome, I thought.
That was the mood in Houston then: über-hospitable. As the closest big city to New Orleans and by far the most welcoming place in Texas, Houstonians created a whole city within a city for the evacuees virtually overnight, one that included housing, hospitals, missing-persons bureaus, stores, playgrounds, whatever, all free of charge. Elected officials put competing interests aside as city, county, state, and even federal agencies worked in a semblance of harmony. According to a 2006 Houston Area Survey conducted by Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg, fully 85 percent of the local population said they donated money, food, or