Shelter From the Storm: Katrina’s Impact on Houston and Atlanta

Hurricane Katrina evacuees sit on cots Sept. 6, 2005, on the floor of the Astrodome in Houston.  
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
Hurricane Katrina evacuees sit on cots Sept. 6, 2005, on the floor of the Astrodome in Houston.  
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, black New Orleanians quickly scattered across the country—a sister's house here, a cousin's couch there, a college roommate's spare room.

Advertisement

More than 175,000 black residents left New Orleans in the year following the storm, according to FiveThirtyEight. Even though the city's total population has returned to 70 percent of where it was pre-Katrina, its black population dropped from 66 percent in 2005 to where it currently stands, at 59 percent.

For better or worse, depending on whom you ask and on what day, New Orleans is a much smaller and whiter city, with more than 75,000 black residents never returning.

Most evacuees migrated to nearby Baton Rouge, La., both soothed and frustrated by being so close to home. Some even migrated as far as Charleston, S.C., Phoenix and Chicago. By far, though, no two cities saw an influx of New Orleans residents as great as Houston and Atlanta.

Houston

According to CityLab.com, approximately 250,000 Katrina evacuees came to Houston, most of them bused to the city's Astrodome.

Former first lady Barbara Bush, after strolling through the Astrodome with former President George H.W. Bush, said, "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas.

"Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality … and so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway," she added, "so this is working very well for them."

Advertisement

Southern hospitality, Bush-style.

Luckily, not everyone in Houston was so completely insensitive, and an estimated 100,000 Katrina evacuees never left the city. One of those people was Lakesha Reed, owner of Houston's Beaucoup Bar & Grill.

Advertisement

"When the storm was approaching, I initially decided not to evacuate New Orleans," Reed told The Root. "There were several smaller hurricanes before Katrina that were supposed to be 'the Big One,' so my best friend and I decided to stay." 

Looking at the sky as Katrina barreled down the Gulf Coast quickly caused Reed to change her mind.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled Shelter From the Storm: Katrina’s Impact on Houston and Atlanta

"I was laying on the bed talking to her on the phone and looked at the sky. It was the brightest orange and purple I ever saw," Reed continued. "So I say, 'Umm, hey, Jen, I think maybe we should leave.'

Advertisement

"Fast-forward … routes heading eastbound out of New Orleans were cut at this point, so we had to drive westbound into Mississippi, then over to Texas. Twenty-five hours later, me, Jennifer, her sister, my two cats, her weiner dog, my laptop and four changes of clothes made it to Houston.

"I thought I would only be here for the weekend," Reed added. "Ten years later, I'm still here."

Advertisement

According to Reed, most Houstonians responded positively to evacuees, a sentiment that Bill White, mayor of Houston during Katrina and now senior adviser at Lazard, a firm that advises corporate leaders and governments worldwide, echoes.

"You know, I noted to people in Houston from the outset that we should treat our fellow citizens the way we wanted to be treated," White said to The Root. "The way we would want to be treated if our city was uninhabitable.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled Shelter From the Storm: Katrina’s Impact on Houston and Atlanta

"A significant portion of our population in Houston was either born in Lousiana or their parents were, so having folks come from the New Orleans area shouldn't be anything new for us," White continued. "I reminded folks that evacuees shouldn't be treated as guests, but instead we should consider ourselves guests in the only home folks had at the time.

Advertisement

"We were going to mobilize our resources to get people out of shelters and make sure there was opportunities to gain employment and, for those with difficulties, employment training," said White, who, in 2007, was honored with a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his leadership in the wake of Katrina. "Their job was to get kids in school and to look forward and not back in their lives. And I asked people if that was a fair deal."

It may have been a fair deal, but it wasn't always an easy one.  

 

"I was working at an alternative campus at the time Katrina hit in 2005 … by the end of the initial influx, we had well over 180 students," Authur Johnson, a Houston educator of 10 years, told The Root. "At the regular school, where I worked after the alternative campus, there were about 350 students who had been displaced because of Katrina."

Advertisement

With school-age children notoriously territorial, there were bound to be some difficulties. And those difficulties led to a rough transition, Johnson remembers.

"Initially the Houston students were quite standoffish because many of the Katrina students were aggressive and lashing out and trying to establish credibility," Johnson said. "Many of the Katrina students were well-adjusted as can be, [but] there were still a handful who were disrespectful to other students and staff.

Advertisement

"My school tried its best to provide as many services as possible to help with their adjustment, not only to our campus but to Houston period," Johnson added. "Eventually the handful of troublemakers were sent off to the county juvenile center, which deals with them at a county level. The rest of the students were becoming settled, and the Houston students started becoming welcoming to them because all the extra nonsense with establishing credibility was over."

Though Johnson says that many of his students grew to love Houston, there were some who "were homesick and left as soon as they possibly could."

Advertisement

In a 2006 survey conducted by Steven Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, 97 percent of Harris County, Texas, residents believed that the "Houston community really came together to help the evacuees.” Conversely, 74 percent believed that "helping the evacuees has put a considerable strain on the Houston community."

Despite their misgivings, 46 percent of Houston residents would do it all over again if another natural disaster struck that required the city's assistance. Twenty-eight percent called for "less assistance," while 25 percent of Houston residents said they would do even more to help.

Advertisement

Since most of the evacuees were black, the subject of race can't be avoided, especially in a traditionally segregated city like Houston. Klineberg told The Root that there was, indeed, racial tension as "compassionate fatigue" mounted during the long months post-Katrina.

In a study that Klineberg has conducted annually since since 2005, positive feelings about race relations following Katrina and evacuees' migration to Houston fluctuated, veering downward—from 45.9 percent to 37.9 percent—between 2005 and 2006. Now, in 2015, that number stands at 48.2 percent.

Advertisement

"There's not much doubt about the short-term impact of Katrina on ethnic relations in Houston," Klineberg noted, "but the feeling of community that came through Houstonians all coming together to help others in their time of need resonated deeply post-Katrina and changed how Houston saw itself. … That has had and will continue to have a deep psychological impact on the city."

Atlanta

Illustration for article titled Shelter From the Storm: Katrina’s Impact on Houston and Atlanta
Advertisement

Because Atlanta is a longer distance from New Orleans, there were no buses provided to transport people there. Those who made it to the ATL largely got there under their own steam. For the most part, this already placed them in a different financial bracket from those who either could not afford to evacuate New Orleans or who crowded into buses heading to Houston.

An estimated 100,000 evacuees migrated to Atlanta, and an estimated 70,000 remain. Although Jenna Garland, press secretary for current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, told The Root that the city does not track displaced residents—a stance also taken by current Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who was quoted by CNN as saying, "They're all Houstonians now"—one educator remembers Katrina as if it were yesterday, and the impact it had on his students.

Advertisement

"Seventy-five students [displaced by Katrina] came," Kwesi Wilburg, a 19-year veteran educator at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Ga., a small city on the southwest side of Atlanta, said to The Root. "I taught five of them. Students struggled because they were starting from nothing and had to make a name for themselves in their new location. Students can be cruel, so they had to endure those who would make fun of [them] for not having anything.

"There was a period of transition for the teachers, too," Wilburg added. "In order to make them comfortable, it was necessary to develop a relationship first."

Advertisement

Darren Hunter was entering his senior year at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans when Katrina hit. The standout football player relocated to Atlanta with his mother and sister and began attending Tri-Cities. After graduation, he went on to attend Savannah State University on a four-year scholarship; he graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

Hunter, who lost several family members to Katrina, slipped into the culture at Tri-Cities seamlessly, according to his English teacher Tammie Jones, but you could sometimes see the "grief and sorrow" in his eyes.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled Shelter From the Storm: Katrina’s Impact on Houston and Atlanta

"Darren lost everything, and we are not talking about just material items; we are talking about family and loved ones," Jones told The Root. "Was the adjustment period difficult? Yes. But he became active in sports and became a leader and a role model, well loved by all of his teachers.

Advertisement

"He took a tragic event and made it positive to show that 'the storm is over,' and now it was his time to shine, no matter what," she added.

Today Hunter is a specialist in the U.S. Army and often goes back to recruit at his old high school.

Advertisement

"I just saw him today," Jones says with a smile.

In an interview with The Root, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said the storm brought out the best in her city, even if there were "some bumps along the way."

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled Shelter From the Storm: Katrina’s Impact on Houston and Atlanta

"That's going to happen when you integrate 100,000 people in two weeks," said Franklin. "For the most part, people from Atlanta and surrounding areas just opened their hearts.

Advertisement

"We set up our own store so people could get everything from medical supplies to water … then we set up our own clothing closet, and we operated that for months after the storm," Franklin continued. "We were holding weekly job fairs. We didn't think about how hard it was. We thought about our obligation to help people who were in need and who had undergone serious trauma."

Franklin was "skeptical about [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]" by that time. "They were slow," she said. "It was apparent that people without resources were not being evacuated quickly enough in the first few days and were forced to fend for themselves at great personal risk." So the city of Atlanta allocated $1 million to Katrina efforts, and with the $5 million eventually advanced by FEMA, the city was able to do what needed to be done without shifting funds away from Atlanta residents.

Advertisement

Not that they would have minded.

"People from all backgrounds, even those with limited financial means or wealth, were more than willing to step up and help other folks in need," Franklin said. "The amount of outpouring and the gifts the first week we opened the store—we were coming into until midnight every day, and they would come in with everything from baby wipes to formula; you name it."

Advertisement

If there's one thing Franklin says she's learned from Katrina, it's that a city government must be trained and prepared for disaster.

"If our response had been two weeks later," Franklin said, "people would have suffered, and they had already suffered enough."

Advertisement

Saying "Thank You"

Earlier this month, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu commemorated the 10th anniversary of Katrina by visiting Atlanta to express his gratitude for the city's help during the weeks and months of Katrina's aftermath—an aftermath in which New Orleans is still reeling.

Advertisement

 

During a press conference Landrieu had with Reed, the two city leaders declared Atlanta and New Orleans to be "sister cities," but Landrieu made it clear that he had left the lights on for all evacuees who have become Atlanta residents.

Advertisement

"We want everybody who was in the city of New Orleans to feel welcome to come home," Landrieu said.

In an Aug. 22 editorial in the Houston Chronicle, Landrieu gave Houston an extra-special salute while sharing the same sentiments.

Advertisement

"Before and after the storm, New Orleanians sought refuge in cities across the country. But no city opened its arms wider than did Houston, where as many as 250,000 evacuees were greeted with compassion, charity and warmth.

"[It's] is a great American city and a great place to raise a family," Landrieu continued. "Just know that should you ever make the decision to come back home, we will welcome you in the only way we know how: with love, fellowship, great music and a big pot of gumbo."

Advertisement

For many former New Orleanians, the idea of going home may sound enticing; for those who have planted roots in Atlanta and Houston 10 years deep, however, they're already there.

DISCUSSION