Twelve years ago this month, Houston mayor Bill White did the seemingly unthinkable, opening the doors of his thriving city to a traumatized flood of homeless Katrina evacuees — more than 200,000 of them in all.
It was a complicated political gamble, which he justified in shockingly uncomplicated terms: “You should treat your neighbors the way you’d want to be treated,” he argued. A controversial decision at the time, it is remembered as one of the city’s finest moments.
Now the man known for sheltering displaced evacuees during a historic disaster is himself in need of shelter. On Sunday, White’s home in the upscale Memorial neighborhood of west Houston was engulfed by Tropical Storm Harvey’s fast-rising floodwaters, leaving the prominent Houstonian to fend for himself in the sprawling urban pond like so many others.
A photo taken by a neighbor moments after he was forced from his home shows the 63-year-old wading cautiously in waist-deep, coffee-colored waters, a hiking pole in one hand, a black briefcase full of work documents in the other.
On his face, a faint smile, his attempt to stay upbeat amid tragedy, he said, is barely visible. Asked what he thought the public might make of the distressing image, White paused.
“I hope it says we’re all in the same boat here in Houston, regardless of who you are,” he said, speaking on his cellphone from a neighbor’s house, where he is living at the moment.
The great equalizer
Five days after Harvey arrived, that boat remains in the thick of what has begun to feel like a protracted, slow-motion nightmare. The former politician — now working as a senior adviser for a financial services firm — joins tens of thousands of his fellow Houstonians in an epic communal struggling to endure the biggest rainstorm in the history of the continental United States.
Unlike Katrina, which hurt New Orleans’ most vulnerable residents, Harvey saturated vast swaths of Houston, a 650-square-mile metropolis. The result was a storm that left almost no neighborhood untouched, forcing rich and poor and suburbanites and city-dwellers of all backgrounds into the streets of one of the most diverse cities in America.
“It has hit people across the economic spectrum,” White said. “Neighborhoods in northeast Houston, where home prices are $20,000 and $30,000 are underwater and some of the most expensive houses in the metro area along Buffalo Bayou had extensive damage and required people to be rescued.”
The number of people in the city who sustained damage to a vehicle or a home will be “in the hundreds of thousands,” he predicted.
White escapes his home
White never expected to be one of them. He and his wife built their home on stilts overlooking one of the city’s well-known bayous. Sitting above the 100-year floodplain, the home was designed so that water could flow underneath the structure during a flood. On Sunday, White said, that didn’t matter, as the bayou started “swelling like a river,” surrounding the home.
Like countless Houstonians taken by surprise by Harvey’s deepening waters, White realized he didn’t have much time. White’s wife, Andrea — an author of young adult books and an editorial writer at the Houston Chronicle — was working outside the house at the time, he said.
“Then I heard the gurgling of the water pressing against the floor boards and in a few minutes it started pouring out of cracks and electrical outlets until it was up to my ankles,” he said. “I grabbed a few vital papers and put on a backpack that I prepared and I carried what I could to the upstairs. Then, with neighbors looking from afar, I waded into the waist deep water until I could get to higher ground.”
He wore khaki shorts, water proof hiking boots, wool socks and a T-shirt, and carried some extra socks and underwear in his backpack, he said.
“I was trying to have a good attitude and I was smiling at my neighbors, who were looking at their neighbor and former mayor wading chest-deep in water,” White added.
Despite being homeless, White said he has spent recent days glued to his phone, talking to relatives and professional contacts, as well as fielding calls from emergency responders eager to tap some of the knowledge he amassed navigating Houston through powerful storms like hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike. Andrea White is staying at the family’s country home about 20 miles outside town. Their three children are grown and living on their own.
Tuesday night — with city shelters overflowing — Harris County officials reached out to White, former Harris County judge Robert Eckels and former Houston mayor Annise Parker to assist them in quickly opening a shelter for storm victims at NRG Park, a convention-style hall next door to the stadium where the NFL’s Houston Texans play.
The shelter, run by local nonprofit Baker-Ripley, will be able to house as many as 10,000 people and will include a pharmacy, a children’s center and an area for pets, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told reporters, according to NBC affiliate KPRC.
How Houston can house its people
The shelter is a temporary solution, White said, a lesson city officials learned after Katrina, when newly arrived flood victims were given apartments vouchers that allowed them to settle in 35,000 vacant apartments. In the process, NPR reported a year after the storm, Houston spent far less money than the Federal Emergency Management Agency did on sheltering evacuees in trailers and hotels in other states.
“We got people out of shelters and into apartments so people could be going to work and going to school rather than the FEMA approach,” White said, noting that he thinks the same approach will work for Harvey flood victims. “If we end up now with over 100,000 people with homes that are uninhabitable, well you need some kind of voucher program that puts people quickly into modest apartments.
“The many Houstonians who were living at the margin of existence on minimum wage or who are seniors living off Social Security, that’s what they’ll need.”
White doesn’t know if his home is salvageable. If it is, he said, he intends to rebuild, but isn’t worried about his residence at the moment.
“We lived in the house 18 years and raised the kids there — had a lot of memorable events there,” White said. “I arise each day lucky to be alive and I know there are people who don’t have the safety net that my family does.”
“And frankly, my thoughts are more about them than material things I have lost,” he added.