Even as the years pass and details fade, one moment in the history of the Gulf Coast sometimes seems crystal clear. Ten years ago this week, the nation faced one of the most expensive natural disasters it has ever known. On August 29th 2005, Hurricane Katrina first decimated towns on the Mississippi and Alabama coast, leaving hundreds dead and over 10,000 displaced. That in itself was an alarming tragedy, but amazingly, the much larger urban area of New Orleans once again seemed to escape the worst effect of the storm.
The City of New Orleans, Lousiana during the Katrina flooding, 2005. Photo credit: WLU Academia.
What was already a devastating hurricane suddenly became a national nightmare. The death toll multiplied, and the 10,000 refugees suddenly ballooned to over 250,000.
Many say that with every tragedy, there lies the opportunity for great leadership. Such was the case for the City of Houston, and it’s Mayor at the time Bill White. While others watched the events in horror, including many tasked to lead the Federal Government response, White and other Houston-area leaders stepped up to help our fellow Gulf Coast brethren in their time of need.
Just last week, the current Mayor of New Orleans came to Houston to mark this fact. Here’s more on a very special press conference from Madlin Mekelburg of the Houston Chronicle…
Standing alongside U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, former Houston Mayor Bill White and former Harris County Judge Robert Eckles, Landrieu said he was grateful for the widespread aid his city saw after the storm — particularly from Houston.
“When that flood receded, you see, another flood came in,” Landrieu said as the 10-year anniversary approaches. “That was the flood of good will that came from people all over the world … I can tell you this, we would not have survived without friends and neighbors like the people from Houston.”
Throughout Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught a decade ago, more than 1 million people evacuated the waterlogged coast, scrambling to find higher ground. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama residents made their way to the northern reaches of their home states while others went farther and found lodging in Tennessee or Arkansas. Nearly 250,000 residents opted to travel west and ended up in Houston.
The city sprang into action as the diaspora pushed more evacuees westward. Houstonians and city officials worked to establish temporary shelters and find ways to provide food and health care to the evacuees. White said the money that was put forth to provide aid for the evacuees was nearly completely reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
Here’s a link to the full press conference, via HTV.
As reserved as Bill White was during the press conference, it’s pretty clear that he was the lead actor in an incredible response. While many at the Federal level sat on critical funds to help the city, White pioneered unique Houston solutions, first opening the Astrodome, the George R. Brown Convention Center, and several sites around town to house evacuees. And then in just a few short weeks creating a bold Public-Private housing partnership, placing hundreds of thousands of people in temporary apartment housing. A similar plan was done by Harris County under Judge Robert Eckles’ leadership.
The government leadership was very important, but even that couldn’t have done what he did without the thousands of Houstonians that volunteered at shelter sites, donated money, food, clothing and shelter, or worked to rescue stranded persons across the region. As extraordinary as Katrina was, it’s important to remember that the resilience of victims and those who assisted them was even greater.
As a brand new Houstonian in 2005, I was one of those who just showed up at the George R. Brown one night to see what could be done. I ended up at a check-in table working to collect basic information on the displaced… asking if they were able to rescue any of their vital records (Driver License, birth certificate), and directing them to a place to sleep and shower. I was one of hundreds of students from the University of Houston who dedicated several sleepless nights to help out at the GRB. After that experience, I can say without fail that who I admire most were my fellow volunteers, and the incredible, proud and strong people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. As we celebrate those who helped them, let’s also remember the extraordinary effort it took for evacuees to rebuild their lives in Houston, back in New Orleans, or other places they settled across the nation. It’s that inner strength that embodies the true American spirit, and we are thankful for all those that endured persevered and recovered.
L to R: Bishop Robert Blake Jr., Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckles, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Former Houston Mayor Bill White. Photo credit: Mayor Mitch Landrieu via Twitter.