City of Refuge
Harris County Welcomes Worn and Weary Louisianans
The eyes of the nation, drawn to the heartbreaking scenes of devastation and despair in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, turned to Texas when the Lone Star State became the first point of refuge for thousands upon thousands who lost everything when Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, ravaged parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana on Aug. 29.
Tens of thousands of New Orleans residents sought shelter in Louisianas Superdome to wait out the storm, only to learn they had nowhere to go as their homes were soaked or submerged in filthy, festering floodwaters. As conditions inside the Superdome grew to horrific proportions, authorities seeking an evacuation site turned to Houston.
We got a call at 3 a.m. one morning, and by 10 p.m. that night, we were taking buses, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels told the media.
Houstons Astrodome, a county property located in Reliant Park, was quickly converted from a recreational facility to a giant shelter, as volunteers set out rows upon rows of green cots and organized distribution lines to give relief to the worn and weary evacuees, some who would arrive with only the clothes on their back.
As the Astrodome filled to capacity with some 15,000 people, Harris County opened Reliant Arena and Reliant Center, housing 25,000-plus evacuees in the county-owned Reliant Park facilities just days after the evacuation was launched.
Broadcast journalists eager to speak with Eckels about the relief effort expressed surprise and awe that Houston was so aptly prepared to accommodate so many with so little advanced notice. Journalist Geraldo Rivera described it as a herculean effort, while others labeled the response as massive, enormous and amazing.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels had another term for it: neighborly.
We know New Orleans would do the same for us, Eckels said repeatedly on national television.
Harris County employees quickly switched gears, convening in Reliant Park to organize volunteers and process evacuees, many taking 18-hour shifts in an unprecedented relief effort.
During one of his shifts at the relief center, Paul Bettencourt, Harris County tax assessor-collector, credited Eckels with making the program in Houston work. Harris County developed what Bettencourt called a playbook after Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston in 2001.
When Katrina hit Louisiana, Eckels pulled out the playbook, Bettencourt said, and with the help and cooperation of all other local government entities including the city of Houston and Mayor Bill White, he went to work. Other cities have since called asking for the playbook.
They want to know how he has managed such a large undertaking in such a short period of time, said Bettencourt.
When questioned, Eckels was quick to describe the response as a team effort, recognizing the kindness and service of countless volunteers and city and county employees who worked 24/7 to bring hope and help to their desperate neighbors.
Editors Note: In the November issue, County Progress will chronicle the experiences of Harris County officials and employees who played pivotal roles in the response effort.
By Julie Anderson. Johnny Johnson contributed information to this story.