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.
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.
Her boy's name, she decided, would be Jeremiah Bayshore Schexnayder. Jeremiah because it's a biblical name. And Bayshore because the hospital staff, Ashley says, treated her "like my mama treats me."
Ashley's was the first refugee family admitted into Bayshore. The hospital has since treated several others, including a 93-year-old woman who was found navigating the flooded streets on a mattress, according to Bayshore spokeswoman Patricia Driscoll.
Ashley says they're all in good hands. After her recovery, Ashley and her family will continue their journey to Houston. She still hasn't talked to her baby's father, and worries that he didn't escape safely. But she giggles at the thought of telling him that she named their baby Bayshore.
"Hopefully," she says, "he won't mind."
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Although human beings had a hell of a problem getting out of Louisiana, hundreds of pet dogs and cats didn't. They were rescued and brought to the Houston SPCA.
You'd think that would earn kudos from the area's pet-rescue folks. But you'd be wrong.
Almost immediately nasty rumors started to spread about just how HSPCA suddenly had the room to take in those 263 animals (a number that grew to more than 900 through the weekend) and to reap the ensuing PR bounty.
One caller to the Press talked darkly about what the normally packed HSPCA facility had done: They'd euthanized all the pets they had on hand to make way for the hurricane victims. Another rumor being floated was that the Houston pets weren't euthanized on site; they were moved to other local facilities to be killed there. Either move would have been a financial bonus for the organization, since local folks who had dropped off their pets pre-Katrina likely forked over some cash to house and feed Rover or Garfield until they were adopted. (Or killed.)
So, the theory went, before Katrina the HSPCA had a facility full of pets. With the chance to be on TV (and actually have some pets adopted, because of their ties to the historic storm), they eliminated their existing inventory, so to speak, and opened up space.
It says something about the HSPCA's image that people in the rescue community didn't reject the rumors out of hand. A Press staffer, as it turns out, had recently dropped four kittens off at a different shelter. She called that shelter and said there were rumors animals were being killed to make room.
She didn't mention any specific facilities where this might be happening, but the reply was quick and brusque. "We're not the Houston SPCA," the staffer sniffed before hanging up.
So no one was putting it past the HSPCA to do the deed. In this case, however, it appears the shelter is innocent.
Alice Sarmiento, the group's director of development and community outreach, said an unusual amount of space was available because HSPCA had conducted a telethon the weekend before Katrina hit, and 150 dogs had been adopted. She urged anyone with interest in the animals to call the HSPCA information hot line at 713-802-0555.
"We are not euthanizing any animals to make space for the animals coming in," she said, also denying that they'd moved any animals to local shelters to have them euthanized there.
Boy -- if you have to deny a rumor like that because it's gaining credence, you've got some problems.
More Torture -- Free Coogs Tickets
The University of Houston's season opener against Oregon at Reliant Stadium on Thursday had all the earmarks of a typical college football game day: long lines for parking, crowds of people milling about and plenty of Cougar-red T-shirts. The difference was the red was for Red Cross volunteers, the crowds were exhausted refugees, and the buses waiting to park were fleeing disaster.
Reliant Stadium, hosting the game, sits just a few yards from the Astrodome, where the Louisiana victims were being housed.
The scene outside the game was a bit surreal.
To get from the parking lot to the stadium entrance, fans decked out in their UH red and white (or a few in green-and-yellow Ducks gear) had to walk past a staging area crowded with several hundred refugees, many of whom were wearing Saints and Tigers apparel. Overhead two media helicopters circled, and nearly every national news organization had reporters on the ground. UH Athletics only dreams of this kind of coverage.
There was no clear line of demarcation between the college kids chugging from beer bongs and the thousands of tired and hungry refugees trying to get into the Astrodome. The refugees' pink bracelets, given to those who had been cleared to be inside the Dome, singled them out, however.
"I feel like I should give 'em a beer," said one tailgater standing with a six-pack. He didn't go so far as to sacrifice a Bud Light, but others did.
Anyone with a Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama ID also got into the game for free, although there were few takers. It seemed most would rather protect their cots or stay near family.
Once inside Reliant, everything unfolded as it should. UH surprised Oregon State early to cheers of nearly 20,000, only to fold in the second half, losing 38-24. Next door, in another stadium, thousands of people who couldn't care less about football were in their own sort of halftime, contemplating how they'd make their own comeback.
Les Bons Temps
The bar in the Hyatt Regency in downtown Houston has never seen so much action outside of the Super Bowl. With the hotel booked up with hurricane and flood victims, it's been packed, appropriating the most famous of New Orleans traditions: Mardi Gras.
"We brought Bourbon Street to the Houston Hyatt," says one victim. Working behind the bar is a tired and tight-lipped Lucio. When fully staffed, the bar has only about six people working, but at the moment it's just he and another employee. He's had to shut the place down at 2 a.m. and kick everyone out to their rooms, unusual for normally staid hotel bars. The most popular drinks are sweet ones with rum, like the Crescent City's famed hurricanes. The party has happened here and at other hotel bars every night since Sunday, when those who got out early began arriving.
During the day the bar is still full. While Lucio talks, a customer comes up and orders a triple Scotch. The TVs play CNN, and patrons talk in quieter tones. Surprisingly, it seems like most are avoiding looking at the TV. With New Orleans still underwater, there isn't much to do other than wait. That, and throw parties.
It's hard to criticize public officials for miscommunications during chaotic times like Katrina, as it can be difficult as hell to get coordinated. But those miscommunications can bring added grief and hassle to victimized people already at the end of their rope.
Shortly after noon on Friday, September 2, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels's office issued a press release headlined in all caps "THE ASTRODOME IS NOT TURNING AWAY EVACUEES."
"The gates are open," the release said. "When a bus arrives, medical personnel board the bus and determine the medical needs of the persons on board."
Which was fine, except that at the same time there was a large electronic traffic sign -- the kind that typically warns of an accident blocking traffic ahead -- blinking prominently on the southbound side of State Highway 288, a main road to the Dome.
Its welcoming sign? "EVACUEE SHELTER IN SAN ANTONIO OR DALLAS."
The sign may have been intended for Katrina victims in their own cars, but it was impossible to tell. And not all the buses transporting Louisianans had working radios for drivers to clear up any confusion.
So while the press release said "Come right in," the highway sign said "Don't let the proverbial doorknob hit you on the ass, guys."
Welcome to Houston, in other words.
During their mass exodus to Houston, countless Katrina refugees faced price-gougers who exploited their suffering for profits in the form of jacked-up costs for gas, food and lodging. Fortunately there are other, more humane opportunists also seeking gains from the Katrina catastrophe.
Rather than dollar signs, they see a unique chance for cultural enrichment. After all, they argue, New Orleans was home to many of the world's most celebrated chefs and musicians. And here they've landed, en masse, in H-town.
"We need to get an order pad or a knife in their hands and get these people to work," says John T. Edge, a member of the restaurant committee for the James Beard Foundation, which is urging restaurants in Southern states to hire and find apartments for evacuees.
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Terry English, a Houston-based jazz and classical pianist, called an emergency meeting of local musicians August 31 at the Magnolia Hotel downtown, where he often plays. It's there that he founded NOAH (New Orleans And Houston), an organization that aims to house and secure gigs for musicians transplanted from the Big Easy.
English started a Web site -- www.noahleans.com -- that includes a database linking New Orleans musicians to professional Houston players. He has also entreated local music stores to offer free instrument rentals and started a "buddy system" in which local musicians share their instruments with refugees.
"I really want people in Houston to get excited about this," English says. "Just think of the music of New Orleans on the streets of Houston. What if Houston became New Orleans in exile? How rich would that be for our community and our culture?"
Maybe the first song they should play is "Shake Them Titties" by the Rebirth Brass Band. Just to give the full New Orleans flavor and all.