After Hurricane Katrina hit, some 100,000 New Orleans residents decided to stay in the Houston area to rebuild their lives. I was one of them, driving in bumper to bumper traffic heading to a new city, leaving my house behind me.
Now, 12 years later, I’ve once again found myself packing up my car and running from a disaster worse than anything I’ve seen since Katrina.
I never thought I’d be in this situation once again.
It wasn’t just me. After I left New Orleans, I joined a Houston congregation made up of people who relocated to the city as a result of Katrina. Some hoped to make the city their temporary home until they were able to return. Others decided to stay in Houston for good. There was Shantania, who sells life insurance and said that Houston had more opportunities. Then there was Glen, who sold modern furniture and would go on to open a store in Montrose that is still there to this day.
And there is me. After Katrina, I moved to Houston and lived there for eight years instead of returning to rebuild my life in New Orleans. I eventually settled in Victoria, a city located two hours outside of Houston.
Last week, when I heard my colleagues talking about Hurricane Harvey, I did not think much of it beyond the typical flood warnings that come with any bout of heavy rain in Houston. It was not until I saw the news that I started to understand why they were so worried. By the time I decided to evacuate Victoria, I hoped it wouldn’t be like the last time where I would never return. At that point, I remained optimistic and hesitant to make comparisons between Harvey and Katrina. Soon it was impossible to not see the connections.
The exodus from New Orleans
It was August of 2005 and I remember watching Ray Nagin, the then-mayor of New Orleans, on television ordering an evacuation of New Orleans. I had just moved from Ohio to my mother’s duplex that month and was looking forward to living in the city of my birth. In just a few days, I had grown to love New Orleans because it seemed to love art and jazz as much as I did. I had spent plenty of time there as a kid with extended family. The last thing I wanted to do was leave it all behind.
I remember the surprise and anxiety that came with being ordered to leave. Where would I go? What would happen to my house, where I had just spent the day before painting a bedroom and hallway? How long would it be before things cleared up and I could head back to the city?
Eventually, I settled on Houston, the city where I had grown up and where my mom and sisters still lived. I threw my bag in my car and headed west. Even though inbound lanes were reversed to increase the flow of traffic, the exodus was a crawl. The trunk of my car contained much of my life — files of important documents, clothing, shoes, a couple of boxes of books.
This was the first time I drove between New Orleans and Houston on my own, though I grew up traveling between the two cities often. One person called me an “I-10 baby” because spent so much of my youth getting shuttled between the two cities on this freeway.
Once in Houston, my family and I watched in shock at the scenes of flooding that started to pour in on the news. The images were horrific, but what I remember most was having no clear idea of what was actually happening to my family’s house or my neighborhood. I remember wondering why the reporters could not tell us which areas were affected or where the photos they kept showing were taken.
Weeks later, I found a map online that noted which areas were flooded and our house was on a line separating a no-water area from a flooded area. It took nearly a month before someone could confirm that my mother’s first house where I was living was flooded and my remaining clothes, furniture, and books had been floating in water for weeks.
It took many months before the full impact of what had happened became clear. Despite constant news of destruction, I held onto the idea that the city would soon dry and I would be able to return. It hadn’t sunk in that the life I had begun in New Orleans was effectively over. It wasn’t until October that I realized I wouldn’t be returning.
Starting over in Houston
I was lucky enough to have a safety net of family in Houston. Still, the process of rebuilding my life was full of unforeseen complications.
The first step was seeing if anything could be salvaged. In December, I returned to see if anything escaped the flooding or the mold only to take one stuffed teddy bear. He was sealed in a plastic bag and was afloat on the bed through the whole ordeal. Everything else was put on the curb when they came to gut the house.
The next step was recovering what I lost. My mom had flood insurance on her house in New Orleans, which helped cover part of my losses. Once that money came through, combined with aid from FEMA, I was able to move out of my mom’s house in Houston and find a permanent place to live.
I’m lucky that I was able to replace a number of things I lost. Homeowners without flood insurance could only make insurance claims based on hurricane wind damage. But there are so many things that I could never replace: the photo albums, the art I created in college, the book I wrote as a 5th grader, and the notes I wrote in the margins of books.
I took a temporary position with a nonprofit arts organization in downtown Houston. Once that was over, I met Carl Lindahl and Pat Jasper, who were recruiting for the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project. They were looking to hire interviewers to help collect the stories of people who came to Houston as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Through working with them I met so many others whose lives were turned upside down by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was captivated by the stories of what happened once the flood waters came. I heard about people rescuing each other. People being stranded on bridges for days. People helping strangers find dry land.
These stories did not make it to national media but are archived at the Library of Congress. And many of the stories of Katrina survivors, stranded on bridges, waiting for any refuge, sound a lot like the ones being told by the people still waiting to be rescued in Houston.
Hearing echoes of Katrina in coverage of Harvey
When I left for Houston in 2005, I did not understand the nuances of the levees or the damage that could be a result of the hurricane. What I did understand was that the mayor’s request to evacuate was based on recommendations from people who understand how natural disasters can disrupt a city. Because of my experiences with Hurricane Katrina, I decided to leave upon recommendation by Victoria’s mayor. I doubted the weather projections about the week of heavy rain heading our way, but took every precaution that Katrina had taught me.
I put my cat and a bag of essentials in my car and headed to my sister’s house in Rosenberg, Texas, which is in Fort Bend County between Houston and Victoria. Behind her house sits a small reservoir the size of one football field. When I arrived on Friday, I cringed to see that it already had a few feet of water. I wondered if I would see it fill in the next few days. When I went to bed, I chided myself for imagining the possibility that I could wake up to find some of the reservoir on the bedroom floor.
In our part of Rosenberg, the rain came late and barely fell long enough to cause a scare. In the morning, I saw that the water rose a few feet after the worst of the storm hit. Unlike many others in the greater Houston area, we did not seem to be in danger of being flooded.
I spent most of Sunday watching local news coverage on television and YouTube of the flood in Houston. As I watched, I heard references to people on roofs, people getting into attics, people wandering around on overpasses, people not being allowed to have guns in the Convention Center, which was going to be used as a shelter. All of these moments sounded like echoes of the major news stories after Hurricane Katrina.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina lurks in everyone’s minds as we watch Hurricane Harvey continue to wreak havoc in Houston. We don’t know the full damage Harvey has caused yet, but already the media narrative that has emerged seems to be focusing far less on the black and underprivileged populations that suffered the most at the hands of Katrina.
Much is still up in the air, but one thing is abundantly clear: Low-income communities of color often have fewer economic and social resources to quickly bounce back after natural disasters hit. While the flood disaster does not discriminate, some people will recover quicker than others. It was the case in Katrina, and it will be in Houston as well, from the some 80 percent of the hardest hit Houstonians that don’t have flood insurance to the fears of undocumented Houstonians seeking shelter during the storm.
It feels like living in the Gulf Coast is a fragile truce with mother nature that can break without provocation. For now, the Gulf Coast is home. But for people like me who are becoming very familiar with the danger hurricanes can pose, the threat will not be enough to pull me away again. Of course, my attitude might change if something like this ever happens again.
I tend to think of myself as someone who was involved in the effort to build a sense of community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through my work with the theater and the researchers at the University of Houston. After I return to Victoria and after the waters drain, I will be someone who will try to help others make sense of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in a similar way.
The story reporters and journalists inevitably tell about the natural disaster will often be miles away from the personal stories of those who live through them.
Nicole Eugene is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Houston Victoria. She is an interdisciplinary scholar, a disability advocate, and a scholar-artist.