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How Texas Responded to Katrina

What have we learned ten years later? Progress is possible when we work together.

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In the last week of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall three times along the Gulf Coast, causing catastrophic destruction, large-scale dislocation, and profound human suffering. Ten years later, the full toll of the storm remains unknown, and necessarily somewhat indeterminate. As of 2008, for example, public health researchers had determined that Katrina was the direct cause of 986 deaths in Louisiana; earlier this year, public health researchers with the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals revised the figure upward, to as high as 1170. Also uncertain is how much progress towards recovery has been made since then.

There’s not much debate, however, over the moral imperative for the latter effort, although the leaders who visited New Orleans this week offered different assessments of the progress made thus far. George W. Bush, who was president at the time and was widely excoriated for the federal government’s desultory crisis management, focused on the progress that has been made in New Orleans’ public schools over the past decade. Barack Obama, who is president now, praised the resilience of the local people, but decried the cities’ persistent inequities.

Both perspectives are valid. The need for progress was actually evident enough before the storm made it unignorable. Almost 90% of the people killed in Louisiana, according to the aforementioned public health researchers, lived in two of the state’s 64 parishes–Orleans and St. Bernard. More than half of the dead were African American, although only a third of the state’s residents are black. And although many of Katrina’s victims were made vulnerable by pre-existing conditions, such age, illness, and poverty, a quarter of the people killed by the storm drowned. This the United States and the 21st century; major cities should have better infrastructure. And New Orleans isn’t America’s only vulnerable coastal city; if you haven’t already read my colleague Robert Draper’s cover story about Galveston Island, from the August issue, I would encourage you to do so.

Progress takes time, though–and a decade isn’t much time, compared to the lifetime of a nation, God willing. And so I’d like to add one more article to the many commemorations and updates in circulation this week. In the aftermath of the storm, my colleague John Spong spent several weeks reporting from Houston, where thousands of evacuees had taken shelter in the Astrodome. His dispatch, “Dome Away From Home”, appeared in the November 2005 issue:

I looked at the kid, who stood there in silence. His eyes surveyed the crowd, the magnitude of the task at hand still a happier thought than the prospect that there might not be any use in pursuing it. His father was alive or he wasn’t. The son looked as if he might be saying a prayer or wondering if it wasn’t about time to start. “I’ve got to go find my dad,” he said, and then walked down through the stands and onto the floor. I saw him about an hour later. He was still looking. I never saw him again after that.

This is a heart-rending story, but not an unhopeful one. Texas received several hundred thousand evacuees after Katrina, many of whom are still here today. As many Texans will remember, it wasn’t an entirely seamless transition; there were the usual flaring tempers and frayed nerves you can expect when a state receives an unexpected influx of newcomers, many of them traumatized and dispossessed, as is typically the case when you’re looking at an unexpected influx. Still, Texas’s response to Katrina has to count as one of our state’s finest moments. We saw real leadership from people like Rick Perry, then the governor, and Bill White, then the Mayor of Houston, among many others, and real graciousness on the part of millions of Texans, who welcomed so many neighbors at their time of need. I’d like to think that’s who we are. And I’d like to think it’s a good reminder for us today, since ten years later we have the flaring tempers and frayed nerves without the proximate cause of a historic natural disaster: when people work together, progress is possible.

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  • Unfortunately Mayor Bill White said we don’t want those filthy stinking lowlifes here in Houston.
    Fortunately for them, Guv Perry said “you will take them and help them.”
    As a result Houston’s crime rate doubled.
    Who was right Mayor White or Guv Perry?
    Nagin the mayor of New Orleans made a series of bad decisions causing most of the deaths is now serving time in prison where he rightfully belongs.


    Overall, Texas and Texans responded well….The problem is that we have failed to learn the lesson of Katrina or our own version in Galveston of what preparations and changes have to be made to protect us from the ravages of similar disasters in the future.

    (The TM just recently had an article on how we refuse to face the fact that tidal surges, high water, rising oceans levels and subsidence threaten much of our industry and coastal areas….but boy will we scream “why didn’t somebody do something?” when they are under water.)

    Contrary to the TROLL….most of those who took refuge in Texas were decent citizens…including my then 89 year-old-aunt and her son who lived with my brother’s family in Houston for three months….or my then 91 year-old–Catholic nun-aunt…….They were just many of the thousands who needed our help and got it….Texans can be proud of what they did….while being shamed by the attitude of the Trolls.

    • Texans stepped up and welcomed the refugees, I was speaking about democrat Mayor Bill White. If you want me to explain it better I can but by now even you should be capable of understanding my post. Guv Perry told Mayor White to help them.
      White is just another example of the democrats and their compassion.

  • José

    Rice University set up an arrangement with Tulane to allow their students to attend classes at Rice for that semester. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but one does what one can, and I’m sure it made a difference to a few people.

    • WUSRPH

      UT law school did the same…although they had a problem teaching the Code Law, rather than Common Law, still used in Louisiana.

  • Indiana Pearl

    Mr. P. and I went to NOLA in Jan. 2006. Appalling. More tomorrow . . . many won’t like what I will have to say.

    There are no excuses . . .

    • WUSRPH

      I was there in March for my aunt the nun’s 101st birthday and the gathering of the clan. (She’s the effective chieftain…as having once been a Reverend Mother in an order of nuns, you are always a reverend mother in personality.) I had not been there since before Katrina….The city was cleaner and better furnished—but that is what happens after a few billion dollars of FEMA fix-up money—but the basic problems of racial and economic discrimination still persist. It has always struck me as an “old” city where little will change. Things are better in that regard than before Katrina… Any improvement in the public schools is worth noticing…. but it has always been a city where virtually half of the school age population—and a higher percentage of both black and white higher income—go to “private” schools. Having seen my relatives and the city over the years I am glad my father declined to settle there. It was not then a place for any ambitious person and much of its society still is not. But the food is still great! (Creole, of course.)

      • Can we fix stupid?

      • Indiana Pearl

        NOLA has always been a special city for my family – grandfather was in the sugar business before WWII and took the family there several times. My parents went there on their honeymoon. Mr. P. and I have visited many times as has my son.

        We visited in Jan 2006 to cheer up a couple of Mr. P.’s high school friends who were fairly distressed. One couple was living in a FEMA trailer. They had evacuated to a hotel in Houston for a couple of weeks in the beginning. “Party time” with the other evacuees quickly dissolved into reality. These folks were well-to-do. The folks at the Convention Center didn’t fare so well . . .

        We have some friends here from NOLA who left after Katrina. Although their home wasn’t damaged, it was like a ghost town and creepy.

        • WUSRPH

          My grandfather was a wholesale grocer and food importer….but closed it down in 1932…but maybe they did some business.

          • Indiana Pearl

            He also did business in Mobile and Biloxi. Got started after WWI. WWII and sugar rationing did in his success.

  • Kozmo

    I recall being in the Shoal Creek Salon in Austin about a week after Katrina and a couple of guys came in while I was sitting their with my crawdad basket and asked to speak with a manager — said they’d left New Orleans and were looking for work, had heard this noted Cajun joint might be simpatico to their situation. This was a direct demonstration to me of how the Louisiana network might have been working unseen to help out the dispossessed. I don’t know what happened to those guys but the manager on that shift heard them out with concern and talked to them earnestly and they went to a back room for a huddle. Maybe they were hooked up with jobs or a place to stay or at least some temporary relief.

    A few years later, Ike devastated Galveston and on my visit during the Christmas after the storm I was appalled at the scenes. And I remember published stories a year and more later about the horrible mess still left on the Texas coast. Miles of walls of debris and rotting garbage bulldozed up in long lines along the coastline. The state was badly remiss in dealing with that, a lot of damage was swept under the rug or out of public view. There was not the level of public or governmental involvement that Katrina sparked, even at it’s worst “heckuva job, Brownie” moments. This is an underreported story in the years since.

    • Indiana Pearl

      There’s a great Cajun restaurant now in Marble Falls thanks to Katrina refugees . . . grilled oysters are excellent!

      • WUSRPH

        Try the Acme Oyster House just off Bourbon Street next time you are in New Orleans….

        • Beerman

          I do, every trip…..a favorite of mine…..

    • WUSRPH

      The problem after the two Texas storms was that the job of supervising much of the cleanup was “privatized” and got all screwed up like most of the other privatized contracts the State has entered into since the GOP took over. That is why Gov. Perry had to ask Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson to step in and take over. Things worked much better after that. It appears the GOP talks a good game about “privatizing” and “doing it more like a private business” but just does not know how to write a workable contract….Many millions wasted.

  • Indiana Pearl
  • José

    An interesting bit of Katrina history that is often overlooked. The Mexican Army helped with relief efforts, largely in Texas. President Bush personally thanked them for the assistance. I don’t remember hearing anything about Gov. Perry sending militia down to the border with machine guns to repel the invasion.
    This is rather amusing and ironic in light of the fact that a couple of the nativist contributors to this blog are from Louisiana, the state worst affected by the hurricane.

  • Many have coming to America for its liberties and Texas leads the way with jobs, low taxes, etc. and many in the US want to come here. But they need to assimilate into our culture, find jobs and learn to do it our way. Why because it doesn’t work your way.



    NASA says sea levels will rise by 3 feet by 2100….Does not sound like much….but that means a lot of the coast will be underwater….So, if you want beachfront property, but a lot a couple of blocks inland and wait. It will come to you…either over time or with the next big storm.

    • Jed

      and by “coast,” you mean a whole lot of inland, too, in places where there isn’t much grade. like houston. and half of florida.

      i think half the reason that red state conservatives don’t care about global warming is because they aren’t worried about rising sea levels – because they don’t live near the sea. but there is plenty of atlantic and gulf coast that is republican-dominated and in for a rude awakening.

  • Jed

    the timing of this piece is fortuitous. can we expect this to lead in to a call from the author for texas to welcome a couple ten thousand syrian refugees?