The sheer size of the survivor population in Houston, the special nature of that population, and the stakes of the civic experiment now unfolding here make Houston the natural choice for a large–scale project in which hurricane survivors record each others' stories.
Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, some 250,000 evacuees—nearly one quarter of the population displaced by the storm—were living in the Houston area. One year later, as many as 150,000 continue to live here. The evacuees' range of reasons for being in Houston tells us why it is so important to have their voices on the record.
First, because Houston was the major emergency evacuation destination, most of those who were rescued from New Orleans rooftops or shelters of last resort have come to Houston. A large percentage of those who filled the Houston shelters remain here because their homes and neighborhoods have effectively vanished and rebuilding has not yet begun in many of the places where they used to live. Others are here because they are in need of medical attention, schools, or services that are no longer available in their former, storm-ravished neighborhoods.
Glenda Harris (left) interviews Loren Phillips.
Listen as Glenda Harris speaks of her experience in Houston.
Second, although many who came to Houston had no choice, well over 100,000 were already in the Houston area when the storm hit. Many came and stayed because of strong pre–existing bonds with the people and culture of this city: they came to join family, friends, schoolmates, and fellow employees already here. They came to be with people who shared their languages and traditions. Houston's Vietnamese, Latino, and Creole communities, among others, welcomed the evacuees from their sister communities in New Orleans.
The history and culture of Houston have been largely shaped by earlier migrations west along the Gulf Coast. In some ways, this most recent migration simply intensifies a natural growth pattern that is part of Houston's metropolitan history. As survivors tell their stories to fellow survivors in Houston, they often reveal the special history and traditions shared by their old neighborhoods and their new hosts. This shared history is one of the best ways to help survivors to come to terms with their current situation as well as to help life–long Houstonians get to know their new neighbors.
Finally, Houston is now at the center of a national debate over how generous Americans can afford to be. Immediately following Katrina, with pathetically few exceptions, the governmental response to the Gulf Coast's need was at best inadequate and more often negligent. Some three hundred miles to the west, the response of Houston was compassionate, bipartisan, generous, and smart—the nation's single greatest act of civic heroism in recent years. Bill White, the city's Democratic Mayor, and Robert Eckels, the Republican Judge of Harris County, worked selflessly in tandem to staff two enormous refuges, the Astrodome and the Brown Convention Center.
Yet, one year after the storm, the headlines coming from Houston did not stress compassion and sharing, but rather distress and anger. The participants in this project feel that the city and its citizens' acts of generosity and friendship are now being obscured by slanted news creating tensions between long–time Houstonians and their newest neighbors. The directors of this project believe that the more that Americans in general, and Houstonians in particular, get to know the survivors through their stories, the more readily they will come to see that the people who now share their lives with us in Houston are exactly the sorts of neighbors that we would all like to have.