Living in Houston, several friends and colleagues have asked me recently for my perspective on Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy in New Orleans and its impact here in Houston.
Both Wendy and I (and my sister Michelle, who was visiting from Canada) have either volunteered a couple of times at the Astrodome for the Red Cross or stopped by to drop off donations. It is absolutely heartbreaking; the saddest experience I've seen. The sheer mass of humanity is staggering.
I assisted on the first day the shelter was open by helping arrange cots, sorting clothes, handing out Red Cross personal kits (containing a comb, toothbrush, soap etc.), or handing out food.
As you walk on the floor of the Astrodome, you see people without shoes (I guess about 20% of all people are missing shoes), young and old, in tattered clothes, with their entire life stuffed into black garbage bags. You help where you can, but words don't seem enough. How do you respond to the question "I don't know where my wife/husband/sister/father/son is. Can you help?". You ask "Are they here, in the Astrodome?" and the answer is "I haven't seen them in days". You wish there was something more you can do; the words "I am sorry" are not enough. I cannot begin to understand their loss.
While far from ideal living conditions, every single person I met was grateful (dare I say "happy") to be in the Astrodome, especially the hell that became the Superdome. Despite the circumstances, people were friendly, and appreciative. The Astrodome was cool and air-conditioned (New Orleans was probably humid and in the 90sF or about 35C), the toilets worked, there was light, beds, showers and food.
It is pretty remarkable that a city within a city appeared virtually overnight; in 19 short hours, the plan was hatched - bus people out of the Superdome and into the Astrodome. At one point, it was estimated 35,000 people were living at "Reliant City", including 13,000 at the Astrodome. Crazy. Those numbers are still mind-boggling.
Even now, weeks after Katrina hit, it is still hard to grasp the magnitude of this disaster. I have developed an immense newfound respect for the Red Cross.
Katrina could have hit Houston…