Twelve years ago this week, the city of Houston responded with heroic life-saving actions to the near drowning of New Orleans. This as-big-as-Texas effort earned Houston this newspaper’s Texan of the Year designation for 2005.
In the days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 of that year, more than 1,800 residents died and millions were left homeless.
For the sake of those traumatized survivors, Houston met the challenge with the largest shelter operation in the nation’s history. More than 150,000 of the approximately 250,000 evacuees would eventually make Harris County their permanent home.
Perhaps Houston’s director of building services in 2005, Issa Dadoush, said it best as evacuees stumbled off buses and into the mega-shelter created within the Astrodome: “These are Americans. They’re our neighbors. If not Houston, who else?”
Not only did Houston provide emergency aid to the survivors, the city got them into permanent quarters as quickly as possible so they could resume some semblance of a normal life. School assignments for the children and job placements for the adults.
To get the work done right, “we” became far more than government. The extraordinary effort depended on churches, companies, nonprofits and tens of thousands of ordinary people waiting for that first convoy of fearful survivors who had huddled for days in the New Orleans Superdome.
In response, Houston became the heart of Texas. From those who served the first hot meals to those who made return trips to New Orleans to pluck even more survivors from nursing homes and deserted streets.
Now it’s the rescuer in need of rescue: Houston, its suburbs and the many smaller southeast Texas towns and surrounding counties lay devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
While the catastrophic causes are different, the similarity between images out of hurricanes Harvey and Katrina are chilling. With southeast Texas rainfall measured in feet, not inches, and a grim landscape of homes seeming to sink into a quicksand of floodwaters, it’s no small miracle that the death toll thus far is small. When Houston opened its arms to Katrina’s victims, its leaders noted that the county, local cities and other key agencies and corporations had worked together for years to brace for catastrophe. That planning is proving to be no less vital now that it’s Houston that’s at risk of drowning. Any sense of normalcy in southeast Texas is months, if not years, away as a hurricane that first blew through the small coastal tourist town of Rockport has grown into a multi-billion-dollar state disaster.
What’s most immediately needed is a few of our state’s trademark August days: hot, dry and sunny.
But no rain totals will drown out the resilience, resourcefulness and good old Texas neighborliness that earned Houston the 2005 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year designation.
As former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said when his city welcomed the Katrina survivors: “We will rebuild, one life at a time.”
As Houston begins that task again, this time on behalf of its own residents, our thoughts and prayers remain with our big-city neighbor to the south.