Five Years Later, Houstonians Conflicted About Katrina

'Astrodome' stadium filled with refugees from Louisiana in Houston, Texas, USA, on September 3, 2005.
'Astrodome' stadium filled with refugees from Louisiana in Houston, Texas, USA, on September 3, 2005.

They came by the tens of thousands, forced from homes by a wall of water and rescued from the horrors of mass shelters only after days of suffering. Bus after bus deposited throngs of the poorest people from one of America's poorest cities into Houston — perhaps the only nearby metropolis with the wherewithal to handle the influx. Others from Louisiana, those with more means, had fled to Texas even before the storm hit land. 

The uneasy arrangement was a shotgun marriage from the beginning: Many New Orleanians had no choice in whether or where they went, and Houstonians had no choice, for humanity's sake, but to take them in.

Five years later, residents of the Bayou City remain conflicted about the experience: deeply proud of their role yet suspicious of the newcomers' impact, according to Rice University researchers who have explored the effects of the historic population replanting on Houston's economy, crime, social services and collective psyche. Despite the city's lauded efforts in comforting the Louisiana diaspora, Houston Mayor Annise Parker did not mark Sunday's Katrina anniversary in any official way. “We put out the welcome mat and stepped in to lend a hand to our neighbors in need," she says of the massive relief effort the city mounted as exiles poured in, "but Katrina was not our disaster.”

At its peak after the storm, estimates of the evacuees in Houston grew as high as 250,000 people. A year later, reports indicated as many as 150,000 remained. Five years later, Parker says, “I don’t know what the number is, and I don’t believe we will ever know, nor should we need it any longer. They are Houstonians.” 

Many in Houston have not always been so magnanimous. Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice, remembers scratching his head when the black woman behind the cash register at his neighborhood grocery complained about “these people” — pointing to black people. “I realized she meant the people from New Orleans,” Stein says. “There was a lot of antipathy there.”

Audio highlights: Klineberg, Stein, Ho and Wilson

The stresses of suddenly adjusting for thousands of new residents were numerous. “There were schools that were crowded,” Parker recalls. “The lowest social strata here felt the evacuees cut in line. There was the perception of an increase in crime and a big increase in homicides among evacuees.”

Some of the concerns have dissipated with time. Evidence suggests that Texas public schools, took on the challenge with a certain degree of success. According to a study released in April by the Texas Education Agency, public schools in Houston and elsewhere "substantially" closed the performance gaps between Texas students and 7,600 Louisiana exiles in grade school.

The myth of a Katrina crime wave 

The myth of a widespread post-Katrina crime wave has been largely debunked. Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice concluded “the contention that displaced persons altered a city's crime problem found limited support.” Moderate increases in homicides were detected in Houston, but not a pattern of crime that could be attributable to the new population. In San Antonio — which took in roughly 30,000 evacuees — no significant crime increase was detected.

In 2007, Stein, at the request of then-mayor Bill White, prepared a memo detailing how apartment complexes that housed large populations of New Orleans transplants did experience a spike in crime. But the acts were almost exclusively evacuee-on-evacuee, with no spillover effect. “You had a lot of crime,” Stein says. “But it was so contained that you could literally live two blocks away from the apartment complex and — unless you were there when the police car entered the complex — you wouldn’t know about it.”

Meanwhile, other problems are harder to shake off. Rice economics professor Vivian Ho, collaborating with political science professor Rick Wilson, surveyed evacuees in Houston’s rescue centers about their health status. They found a group with high levels of chronic disease, poor access to health care and a high reliance on Medicaid and the state's children’s health insurance programs. The issues were exacerbated by the trauma of the flood — nearly 30 percent of those surveyed said their health declined as a result, which stifled the job search for many. In a system already struggling with a higher-than-average percentage of uninsured, Ho says, “to add more individuals on to that — who need appropriate health care [and who] don’t have jobs — it’s an important situation that got looked over. It’s going to continue to be a financial burden to our system.”

The reality of perception

Some of the longest-lingering effects are those visited upon the Houston psyche. Sociology professor Stephen Klineberg tracks such perceptions in the Houston Area Survey, an annual snapshot of Houstonians’ attitudes that is approaching its 30th consecutive year of operation. In a city long-dominated by a shrinking population of white males, the Katrina experience forced Houston to face its rapidly increasing diversity in ways it never had before, Klineberg says.

To put it bluntly, the sudden surge in outsiders — many black and poor — prompted a starkly negative turn in attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, one that worsened with time and only recently has begun to ease. The percentage of Houstonians calling the experience a good thing for the city dropped from 32 percent in 2006 to just seven percent in 2008, though over the last two years, that number has risen slightly to 11 percent. The percentage calling the Katrina experience a bad thing for Houston currently sits at 59 percent, down from a peak of 70 percent in 2008. Similar trend lines appear in general questions about attitudes toward diversity and immigration. Those saying increasing immigration mostly strengthens society dropped from 57 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2007. Houstonians calling increasing ethnic diversity a source of strength for the city dipped from 69 percent before the storm to 60 percent in 2008. This year, it returned to pre-storm levels. 

More than anything, Klineberg was struck by how Katrina — more than any event documented by his survey — revealed seemingly irreconcilable disparities between the lived experiences of different races. Seventy-eight percent of black Houstonians said the government would have responded more quickly if the New Orleans population had been predominantly white. Seventy percent of the white Houstonians said it wouldn’t have made a difference. “It’s about as striking a difference as you can imagine,” Klineberg says.

The hidden evacuees

Of course, the mass relocation was not limited to poor black New Orleanians. Large slices of the evacuee population assimilated under the radar of popular perceptions and stereotypes. Klineberg notes that an estimated 9,000 Vietnamese evacuees came to Houston. Instead of taking shelter in the public offerings, they were largely absorbed by the 46,000 Vietnamese families in Houston.

Evacuees can be divided into two starkly different groups: the voluntary — generally those with the connections and means to get out before Katrina hit — and the involuntary second wave that came after Katrina, shipped in from shelters like the Superdome and the city's convention center. Many, without the means to evacuate, had been pulled from rooftops in the Lower Ninth Ward and eastern New Orleans, where up to 20 feet of water had ripped through houses, knocking some off their foundations. The poorer latter group, more easily accessible to reporters in the confines of the Astrodome and FEMA housing, dominated the coverage and literally colored perceptions of the evacuee population. Rick Wilson conducted a number of social experiments with individuals in the rescue centers and found them to be, as a group, highly cooperative, conscientious and willing to share. “One of the things I wanted to do was dispel this myth that, when you get traumatized, or when government collapses or fails, it doesn't mean people just start running around and killing each other,” he says. “And they don’t.”

Ultimately, the story of post-Katrina Houston is one of thousands finding a home — by choice or necessity — in a diverse metropolis of about 5.5 million. “Has it affected the culture of the city?” Yeah, it’s had an impact," Wilson says. "Has it fundamentally altered the city? I don’t know about that. Has it made the city think about itself? Sure. Has it made Houston the new New Orleans? Nope.”

Parker says her office receives daily reports from former New Orleanians who have planted roots, bought homes, obtained jobs and enrolled their children in school. “For many, Houston has been a good move,” she says. Though, she acknowledges, “There are also many that still yearn to return to New Orleans.”

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