Katrina & The Waves

Houston gets hit with its own hurricane surge

Houstonians know what it's like to get hammered by a super-storm, so there were some guilty sighs of relief along with the requisite concern when it became clear Hurricane Katrina wouldn't be coming our way.

As the scope of the disaster and debacle in New Orleans became clearer, though, Houston quickly became intricately involved in the story. Victims came on their own or were bused here from the Superdome hellhole. Not everything went smoothly, as anyone who lived through Tropical Storm Allison could have predicted.

Wires got crossed. Tempers grew heated. Just like with Allison.

The usually empty Dome fills up with Katrina's victims.
Todd Spivak
The usually empty Dome fills up with Katrina's victims.
These victims came to Houston by car and sat outside 
the Dome, hoping to spot relatives arriving by bus.
Todd Spivak
These victims came to Houston by car and sat outside the Dome, hoping to spot relatives arriving by bus.

And as with Allison, there were countless stories, snapshots and slices of battered lives as Houston absorbed the wave. Here are a few:

The Troubled Gatekeeper

Nathan Njakoy, a Houston transplant from Cameroon, certainly means well.

The security guard is working a double shift on the afternoon of August 31, standing on steaming-hot blacktop at the corner of Holly Hall and Fannin, admitting city and county workers and members of the media into the Astrodome parking lot. Busloads of hurricane refugees appear sporadically.

But throughout the day a line of cars periodically spills back into the street and blocks traffic. These are driven by random do-gooders who at this point are being told to take their trunkloads of diapers, toys, water and snacks elsewhere.

Other drivers are refugees who found their own transportation to Houston but have been shut out of other shelters. Many are out of money, out of gas, with no place to go.

"There's sadness in their faces," Njakoy says, squinting and wiping his brow, "but I have to take orders."

Nikki Ramey, a 24-year-old mother, heard the media reports about refugees and volunteers who were turned away at the gate. Still, she was determined to get inside the Dome and invite a family back to her home in north Houston. So she and her friend lied to gatekeeper Njakoy. They told him they were hurricane victims who had ridden one of the buses from New Orleans.

"Do I look like a hurricane victim?" Ramey later asks a Houston Press reporter. "I'm wearing a full face of makeup and my hair is freshly straightened. Duh."

The hoax worked -- maybe the fresh hair and makeup helped -- and Ramey could see what journalists from across the nation still could not: the Dome's ground floor, which was lined with rows of narrow cots set inches apart.

Once inside, Ramey says, she approached seven families and offered to house them for free. Each family declined. Many said they wanted to stay in hopes that their own family members would eventually come to find them.

Safe For Now

Alaina Guillot closed on the house on Friday, August 26. Six days later she's waiting anxiously in her hotel room at the Hyatt Regency while her husband travels back to Marrero, just across the water south of New Orleans, to see if it still stands.

After hearing the St. Charles Parish president warn that after this storm "they might not have enough body bags," she and her family decided to make the drive to Houston, which took three times the usual six hours. So the Guillot clan -- two girls, age four and six; two in-laws; a husband; a cat named Princess and a dog named Stephanie -- piled into their cars Sunday morning and headed for a single-bed room at the downtown Hyatt. They've been sleeping four to a bed and two on the cot and expect it could be that way for another month, or at least until the money runs out.

The hotel has dropped the rack rate 30 bucks, to $69 per night, for the unexpected out-of-towners. And the young girls have been getting a kick out of Houston, hitting up the Aquarium and the zoo. "The animals are acting better than they are," says Annette, Alaina's mother-in-law, with a smirk. But while the girls jump on the bed, their parents choke back tears and worry about creditors. Alaina knows the apartment complex where she worked, on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, is now underwater.

The Guillots are ready for today. They've filed claims with FEMA, checked on insurance, stocked up on bologna, water and cat food. They've looked into Red Cross shelters. They've done all they can do. As for what tomorrow will bring, they don't know.

Good News and Bad News, Dad

As if the name Schexnayder weren't odd enough.

Ashley Schexnayder, 19 years old and nine months pregnant, fled New Orleans during the hours before Hurricane Katrina hit. She and seven others -- including her ailing mother, who suffers from terminal uterine cancer -- had been riding in a Suburban for several hours when Ashley's water broke.

They rushed her to the nearest emergency room, which happened to be Bayshore Medical Center in Pasadena. On the night of August 31, Ashley gave birth to a healthy boy.

Homeless and exhausted, Ashley found strength and comfort in a hospital staff that doted on her with gifts of baby clothes and money. She felt she owed them something, but had nothing to give. So she named her baby after the hospital.

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