4 myths about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on Houston

Photo by Andrea Booher

For 34 years, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has taken the pulse of Houston in a systematic effort to measure the way area residents are responding to the biggest challenges facing the region.

The 2006 survey came at an especially eventful time for the city. Conducted just six months after tens of thousands of evacuees arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the survey provided valuable insight into Houstonians’ unplanned role as good Samaritans to those coming from New Orleans.

Ten years after the hurricane, now is a good time to re-examine what we thought we knew about the city’s responses to the storm victims. Here are four common beliefs about the Katrina experience that the survey findings call into question:

1. Houstonians generally regretted their role in accepting the Katrina evacuees.

The survey data show that after an initial glow, Houstonians were soon experiencing “compassion fatigue” in the wake of the storm. In the February 2006 survey, 74 percent agreed with the suggestion that “helping the evacuees has put a considerable strain on the Houston community,” and 66 percent agreed that “a major increase in violent crime has occurred in Houston because of the evacuees.” Almost half (49 percent) said the impact of the evacuees was on balance a “bad thing” for the city. One year later, that number had grown to 65 percent, and it increased further to 70 percent in 2008.

Yet Houstonians do not seem to have regretted the experience overall. Mindful of these ambivalent attitudes, we asked a new question in 2008: If a storm like Katrina happened again, should the Houston community respond with more assistance, less assistance or the same amount that was offered in 2005?

Just 28 percent of the survey respondents said the city should offer less assistance. Despite their misgivings, 46 percent called for the same level of help, and 25 percent said the community should do even more. Although Houstonians had grown increasingly unhappy about having to accommodate so many newcomers, they knew helping them was the right thing to do.

2. The Katrina evacuees have had an indelible impact on Houston

In 2009, we asked again if the overall impact of the Katrina evacuees on Houston was positive, negative or had no clear effect on the city. By then, the evaluations had improved. About 57 percent now said the Katrina experience was generally bad for the city, down from 70 percent the year earlier, and 14 percent said it had been a “good thing,” up from 7 percent in 2008. The remaining 29 percent thought the overall impact of the Katrina evacuees had no clear effect on the city overall.

That ambiguous conclusion seems basically right. The sociological and demographic impact of the evacuees, per se, was unlikely to be significant in the long run. Although 150,000 people arrived here overnight, they came into an eight-county metropolitan area (at that time) with more than 5 million people in a geographical space that was larger than the entire state of New Jersey. As a result, the evacuees — despite the many who came with serious economic and psychological problems — were fairly quickly and relatively easily absorbed into this sprawling and diverse metropolis.

3. Virtually all of the evacuees were poor and black.

An estimated 150,000 people evacuated from Louisiana into the Houston region as a result of Hurricane Katrina. More than 90 percent of the evacuees who moved into the area shelters were black. And those in the shelters tended to garner the most media attention in the weeks following the storm. Many failed to realize that an estimated 15,000 evacuees of Vietnamese descent also fled Louisiana for Houston.

With little attention from the media, these newcomers found their way not to the official shelters in the Astrodome or the George R. Brown Convention Center but to the Hong Kong City Mall in the middle of the Houston Chinatown, which spreads for miles along the Bellaire strip. There, the 60,000 Vietnamese families in Houston quietly absorbed them. A remarkable 23 percent of all the Asian-American respondents in the 2006 survey said they had Katrina evacuees staying in their home, compared with just 5 percent of all Houstonians.

4. Overall, the Katrina evacuees have had a negative impact on Houston.

We know that those who evacuated from New Orleans into the Houston shelters were disproportionately lower-income and unlikely to have health insurance. Those demographic factors clearly contributed to the concerns area residents had about their new neighbors.

Yet Houstonians responded with an unprecedented outpouring of volunteer activity. Virtually overnight, with the city and county working together seamlessly, Houston established the largest shelter program in American history. Some 60,000 area residents came out to help, giving unexpected evidence of civic engagement in a city where measures of community connectedness (social capital) are generally quite low. In January 2006, The Dallas Morning News, despite time-honored rivalries, named Houston the “Texan of the Year.”

In the 2006 survey, an almost unanimous 97 percent agreed that “the Houston community really came together to help the evacuees.” Fully 85 percent said they volunteered their time or provided money, food or other items to offer assistance. More than half reported that they had personally interacted with an evacuee, and 5 percent said they actually had an evacuee staying in their home.

The outpouring of generosity that Houstonians showed in the wake of Katrina is impressive. Few cities, if any, have been asked to provide the degree of collective altruism the Katrina events demanded. What does all this mean for Houston in the long run? We don’t know. But the remarkable experience 10 years ago of an entire urban community coming together to help people in need may well have a lasting positive impact.

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Stephen L. Klineberg

Founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research