New Orleans draws on lessons of Katrina to help Houston

New Orleans resident Bruce Nolan spent the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina text messaging his son and daughter in northeast Houston, as rising flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey approached Tuesday.

A dozen years ago, Katrina drove Nolan’s daughter from her Louisiana home. Now she’s holed up in her Houston home with 15 other people, including a displaced family of eight whose house a half mile away took on 18 inches of water.

“We’re in the helpless phase right now,” said Nolan, a retired newspaperman who worked at the New Orleans Times-Picayune for more than 40 years. “In a little while things are going settle and we’ll find out what the damage is and then we’ll find out how to help.”

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans. Federal levees and floodwalls crumbled. A powerful storm surge left 80% of New Orleans underwater for weeks. More than 1,500 people were killed.

As Harvey’s outer bands threatened to douse Louisiana over the coming days, Nolan said many New Orleanians were not cowering or paralyzed by flashbacks.

“No, we’re not whole. OK,” he said. “We are as good as we’re going to get and we have resumed our lives in the new normal after Katrina.”

The scars of Katrina are all over New Orleans. Memories of the catastrophe lie just below those scars, but “emotionally and psychologically” Katrina is “very much in the rear view mirror,” Nolan said.

The hard-won knowledge of the last 12 years will be prove invaluable as the people of Louisiana mark a tragic anniversary.

“I’ve seen people posting things: Here’s what to do. Here’s how to prioritize dealing with your flooded home. Here’s how to save documents. Photograph everything. Make a record of this. Do throw out that,” Nolan said. “There are to-do lists coming out of New Orleans for the people of Houston.”

‘This is us’

One Facebook post in particular stood out to Nolan. It was about a man seen fueling up his boat at a New Orleans gas station. The man said he was going to Houston with the Cajun Navy, a grassroots citizens’ organization formed in the aftermath of Katrina.

“Random people, total strangers, throwing all the cash they had at him, offered to fill up his truck, fill up the boat tanks, buy him food, one guy asked if he wanted beer,” the post said. “This ya’ll … this is us.”

Nolan said tractor trailers throughout New Orleans were being filled with food and other donations.

“Our hearts are going out to Houston and we are saddled up and ready to go,” he said.

A New Orleans company, Dirty Coast, is selling T-shirts with the outline of Texas and a large fleur de lis at the center. Part of the proceeds will go to the Houston Food Bank.

“Our neighbors in Texas took many of us in when our entire city was displaced in 2005,” the company said on its website. “We want to extend a helping hand at their time in need.”

Another company, Fleurty Girl, is selling T-shirts saying “Hou Dat” — a play on the city’s “Who Dat” mantra — with proceeds donated to the nonprofit Feeding Texas.

“We haven’t forgotten that Houston helped New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina,” the company website said. “Now it’s our turn.”

Nolan said the ties between New Orleans and Houston predated Katrina. During the oil and gas bust of the 1980s, tens of thousands of New Orleanians moved to Houston in search of work.

“I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I stood in the middle of the street and waved goodbye to a moving van as neighbors relocated to Houston,” he said.

And many people who left New Orleans after Katrina ended up in Houston.

About 42,000 New Orleans residents filed their taxes from Houston in 2006, the year after Katrina, according to an analysis of IRS data by Moody’s Analytics. About 12,000 taxpayers moved back to New Orleans in the subsequent five years, which suggests that many are still in Houston and facing another devastating storm.

“We have the overwhelming sense that Houston was there for us 12 years ago,” Nolan said. “They really, really stepped up and they really opened their hearts to us and now it’s time to give back. And we really feel privileged and grateful for the opportunity to do that.”

Ron Mazier, executive director of the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, said he had been exchanging text messages with friends in Houston, offering advice such as filling the upstairs bathtub in case the water supply is compromised.

“Obviously watching what’s going on in Houston brings back a lot of emotional memories for people here,” he said. “Katrina was like the baseline of our memory. I vaguely remember things that happened before Katrina. We live it every single day.”

‘It will take years for people to recover and many never will’

Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, recalled riding out Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in a New Orleans hospital with his wife, Debbie, an oncology nurse. Many people died at the hospital before a volunteer boat evacuated the couple several days later.

The Quigleys ended up in Houston for four months.

“We moved our entire law school into the University of Houston Law Center after they generously offered to house us,” Quigley said in an email.

“Over 300 students and dozens of faculty and staff moved to Houston and conducted our fall semester there,” he said. “We, like tens of thousands of New Orleanians, will never forget the kindness and generosity of the people of Houston.”

Harvey has stirred the hearts and minds of Katrina victims, Quigley said.

“Some are having mild PTSD,” he said. “All have heavy hearts. Especially for families and neighbors who moved to Houston after Katrina for several months or permanently. What they are going through is so very sad. Based on our experiences, it will take years for people to recover and many never will.”

New Orleans City Councilmember LaToya Cantrell was an activist in Broadmoor, a hard-hit neighborhood that at one point was among several low-lying areas that the city said would not be rebuilt. Residents banded together to save Broadmoor from bulldozers.

“You can’t help reflect on where our people in New Orleans have been,” she said. “It’s a sign of hope because Houston, too, will be able to overcome this. It may be hard to imagine that now.”

Cantrell said many New Orleanians were waiting for the flood water in Houston recede to volunteer in Texas.

“It’s not an overnight thing,” she said. “Houston can do it. New Orleans has done it.”

Cecile Tebo, director of the officer assistance programs for the New Orleans Police Department, recalled the progress that came with each year after Katrina. There were piles of debris where homes once stood — then trailers and lumber arrived, signaling the return of neighbors. She remembered the almost magical flickering of lights in rebuilt homes, the trees and gardens and chirping birds that replaced the long, eerie silence.

“The significance of this anniversary is that we made it,” she said. “We can offer Houston a vision of coming back.”