It was ten years ago, in the wee hours of August 29, that Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts on its way to becoming one of the largest disasters in the nation's history. According to official estimates, the storm left more than 1,800 people dead and caused over $100 billion in damage along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. But it was New Orleans that took the biggest hit. Massive flooding occasioned by the failure of the city's levee system created widespread destruction and death—particularly in the poorest neighborhoods—along with scenes of carnage that will live on in the country's consciousness forever.
Just as America emerged from the Katrina tragedy a different nation, Houston—five hours west of ground zero and hardly touched by the storm—emerged a different city.
On the evening of August 31, the first bus of Katrina evacuees, filled with mostly teenagers, arrived outside the Astrodome here. Over the next three weeks, some 65,000 victims, many fleeing the horrific conditions inside the New Orleans Superdome, would pass through the de facto checkpoint that became known as Reliant City. (Those victims were part of an estimated quarter-million people evacuated to Houston, over half of whom, by some estimates, would eventually put down roots here.)
More than 27,000 of those who arrived at Reliant City would remain there for portions of the next three weeks, sleeping on cots inside the Astrodome, while thousands of others were routed to additional shelters in Houston, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, and cities throughout Texas and the US. Many were sick or injured, most had been separated from their families, all were shell-shocked and wondering how to piece their lives back together.
Despite the short notice, Houstonians mounted a massive and remarkably well-organized response to Katrina. Even as the Red Cross, relief organizations and the federal government were at odds over how to respond in New Orleans, officials and volunteers here were doing what Houstonians do best at such moments. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
Within days of those first arrivals, the Texas Medical Center and Harris County Hospital District worked together to build an enormous medical facility inside Reliant Center adjacent to the Astrodome, complete with surgical bays and a working pharmacy. The YMCA, with help from Gallery Furniture owner Jim McIngvale, set up a sprawling children’s play area complete with basketball courts, a working daycare/preschool and an indoor video arcade. From meals to veteran’s services, housing to job placement, grief counseling to religious support, at least 60,000 volunteers from this city and around the globe worked in Houston to provide one of the most remarkable relief efforts ever assembled.
Among them was Katya Horner. The Clear Lake native arrived at the Astrodome just minutes after that first bus did, and spent the better part of the next two weeks offering support, lending a hand—and shooting photographs. Having taken up photography as a hobby just half a year earlier, Horner had no idea that some of the pictures she was posting online would become iconic images of the Katrina aftermath, or that she would eventually come to make her living as a photographer.
The last decade having changed her own life utterly, Horner was curious to revisit some of the subjects of her post-Katrina photographs, to see how their lives had or hadn't changed. But what follows is more than a then-and-now essay. It's a tribute to the spirit of Houstonians past and present, permanent and temporary, now and forever—a timely reminder that it's the worst of times that brings out the best in us.
You can leave New Orleans, but it never leaves you, it seems. Consider Niraj Kataria, a start-up business development expert who worked in NOLA in the early 2000s. He’d already relocated to Connecticut by the time Katrina hit, but as soon as it did he got on a plane to Houston, having read about the evacuation. “I felt the need to go there and help out,” Kataria explains.
Once there, he spent most of his time comforting evacuees and helping with Red Cross applications. “I met a man who used a refrigerator and a mattress to help his family float through the water,” recalls the 52-year-old. “The buses were coming in droves.”
He spent only three days in Houston before heading to New Orleans to help with clean-up and relief efforts, but it’s a place he’ll never forget. “I was very pleased with Houston,” Kataria says, “Not only the fact that you took [evacuees] with open arms, not only the fact that you were giving them a very clean place, but you gave them jobs.”
For Kataria, who made several trips to New Orleans to lend a hand in the months following the storm, it all seems like yesterday. “That was 10 years ago?” he asks. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe it.”
Reverend Brenda Overfield
Photographs offer a brutally accurate account of the death and destruction left in the wake of Katrina. But capturing the emotional toll it exacted on survivors has been harder. When the hurricane hit, Reverend Brenda Overfield, then a minister at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Long Island, New York, came to Houston to do what she does best: listen.
She vividly recalls the tales of horror she heard at the Dome. Everyone she listened to told a story of unspeakable tragedy, including an evacuee she remembers counseling. “She had been in the Superdome and was describing the nightmare of being there,” Overfield says. “She saw a man take a gun from a policeman and shoot him in the head. She watched him die.”
For a moment, her voice cracks. “It still touches me a lot.”
Overfield, who is now a rector at a church in Virginia, spent two long weeks at the Astrodome in 2005, listening and helping people sort out their lives. And sadness and loss were not the only things she heard. One evacuee noticed that Overfield had taken to wearing shorts with her minister’s collar to alleviate the Dome’s stifling heat. “Honey, I love your shorts,” the woman told her. “Jesus Christ has set you free.”
Judge Robert Eckels
“It’s never good when the phone rings at 2:30 in the morning,” says former Harris County Judge Bob Eckels, remembering the call he received from Jack Colley, Texas’s then-chief of emergency management, two days after Katrina hit. Eckels recalls Colley asking, Remember those 2,500 people we asked you to take care of? Can you make it 23,000? They’ll be there tonight.
It wasn’t a lot of notice, but as it happened, Eckels and other county and city officials had been preparing for the moment for over a decade. In 1995, when Eckels took office, he brought emergency management under his purview, a move that had its first test in 2001 during Tropical Storm Allison, which caused $5 billion in damage and 22 deaths in Harris County. But no amount of preparation could ever be enough for a disaster like Katrina. “There had been planning,” he says, “but not for this scale.”
Over the next three weeks, more than 60,000 evacuees escaping the devastation in New Orleans moved in and out of Reliant Center and other area shelters before being relocated, finding permanent homes or returning to the Crescent City. “The real miracle is not that we were up and running in 14 hours,” says Eckels. “It was that in three weeks, we had them out of here.”
While Eckels was responsible for coordinating much of the city's response, he heaps praise on the organizing team of officials from the county, city and state as well as the diverse array of people who turned up to help. “There was a woman here in pearls and a silk blouse, slacks, straight out of the country club,” he explains. “She was serving snacks and drinks to people from the lower Ninth.”
“It was one of those paradigm shifts for the whole city.”
In the aftermath of a catastrophe, little hints of normalcy can have a great impact on shell-shocked survivors, especially children. “They’d come in at first and be nervous, and it was only a few minutes before they were playing and laughing,” explains Trazanna Moreno, describing the YMCA playground, a kind of tent city for kids built in the parking lot of Reliant Park. “You wouldn’t think that people who were trapped—they had nowhere to go—that recreation for children would be their first priority, but it was really important that the kids had a place to play and that parents had a place where their kids could be safe.”
And it was quite a place. “We had basketball goals,” says Moreno, now the Chief Marketing Officer of YMCA Houston. “There had to be at least 10 of them in a parking lot wide enough so you could have five or six full court games going on.” In addition, tent city housed a massive daycare center with toys and padded floors “as if you were in a preschool,” as well as an indoor video arcade with unlimited free play.
Her most vivid impressions are of the scope of the entire aid operation, and not just by the YMCA. “It was just massive and overwhelming to see that whole space full, inside and outside.” Moreno says, adding, “It would be inappropriate to describe it as controlled chaos. It was organized. It was orderly.”
And the YMCA gave parents a chance to pick up the pieces of their lives while their kids had a place to feel like kids again. “At first it was really sad,” she says, “But for the times they were there, they weren’t sleeping in a cot….They got to play.”