In 2005, when the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States struck New Orleans, tens of thousands of people would wait out the rebuilding of their city in Houston. Now it’s Houston’s moment in history to recover from an epic inundation.
Déjà vu is understandable. This week, we watch images of residents sloshing out of submerged neighborhoods, a convention center turned into an evacuation camp, orange Coast Guard choppers plucking people off of rooftops, and freeway overpasses turned into boat ramps for a spontaneous civilian-led rescue effort. Harvey produced, in some places, more than 50 inches of rain in five days, a rainfall record for a tropical storm in the lower 48.
But there are big differences between hurricanes Harvey and Katrina.
For many days after the storm, New Orleans ceased functioning as a modern American city. Its civic infrastructure dissolved.
- The New Orleans Police Department lost command and control. Officers were on their own, patrolling the few passable streets solo or in pairs. Other police hung up their uniforms and walked off the job. The Houston Police, while its downtown precinct was flooded by Harvey, never lost communication or organizational command in the city.
- In New Orleans, patients had to be evacuated from two dozen hospitals that had lost power, water and sewer service; some personnel had to make agonizing decisions about which patients to save and which patients to allow to die. Some hospitals have been evacuated in Southeast Texas during Harvey, but nothing on a scale of Katrina.
- When NOLA’s Emergency Operations Center took on water, Mayor Ray Nagin and his aides moved to a makeshift command center on the fourth floor of the Hyatt Hotel. Houston’s EOC never went down.
- In New Orleans, there was desperation in the air, a whiff of the apocalypse. Downtown hotels, fearing the rule of law had disintegrated, hurriedly shut down and ejected guests. Evacuations were chaotic. Some panicked residents stood on front porches brandishing weapons. Wild rumors flew around town — of snipers and rapists and piles of bodies. Almost all of them turned out to be unfounded. Journalists are not encountering that level of alarm and anxiety in Houston.
The contrasting experiences between these two major Gulf Coast cities struck by tropical storms 12 years apart, almost to the day, is not hard to explain. Eighty percent of below-sea-level New Orleans went underwater; at the worst of Houston’s flooding this past week 25 to 30 percent of above-sea-level Harris County was submerged, an official with the local flood control district told The Washington Post.
Houstonians had days of advance notice that a slow-moving tropical storm was coming their way and could cause catastrophic flooding. New Orleanians were advised to evacuate before the arrival of Katrina, and most of them did. But for those who stayed behind, the federally built flood protection system would fail and Katrina’s massive storm surge would engulf the Crescent City. Water would surge violently through the breaches into the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview neighborhood with enough force to wash houses off their foundations. Nothing like that happened in Houston.
The tale of two storms is also told in the loss of life. Katrina was responsible for 1,833 deaths; so far, the death toll of Harvey was fewer than 50 on Thursday afternoon.
The aftermaths of Harvey and Katrina may end up having more in common than their opening acts. In Houston, as in New Orleans, thousands of residential homes will sit in fetid floodwaters for days and weeks. Wallboard will mold, studs will rot, furniture and possessions will become rubbish.
The TV cameras will cut away from Houston, and residents will begin the long battles with insurance companies and building contractors and code inspectors.
Each storm has proven to be The Big One that people always feared. In New Orleans, with its storied history of surviving hurricanes, many folks now refer to Katrina simply as “the storm.” One wonders if Houstonians will start referring to “the storm.”
John Burnett is an Austin-based National Desk reporter who covered Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath extensively for NPR.