Irene Recovery Advice From Katrina Hero

As communities along the East Coast begin recovering from Hurricane Irene, host Michel Martin hears from Bill White, who was the mayor of Houston when Hurricane Katrina hit. He welcomed hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims to his city during the storm's aftermath. He offers advice for leaders in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, the stars came out for the VMAs - MTV's Video Music Awards; they were last night. We'll talk about the music and the scene, who showed up, who showed out. Yes, there were some notable saggy pant sightings. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, even as the eastern United States cleans up from Hurricane Irene, we are looking back to Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast six years ago. We've been checking in with people whose lives were affected by the storm. And among those tested were not just those affected by the storm directly, but political leaders who were called upon to respond.

Our next guest was one of those leaders. Bill White was the mayor of Houston, Texas, during Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. In the days and weeks after the storm, tens of thousands of people either fled to or were brought to that city, where White mobilized community support for them. In 2007, Bill White was awarded a John F. Kennedy Profile In Courage Award for his leadership in the wake of Katrina. And he's with us now from Houston. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us once again.

BILL WHITE (Former Houston Mayor): Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, do you still think about it?

WHITE: Yes. You know, I'm reminded almost weekly when I run into somebody who used to live in New Orleans, who now lives in Houston - as do tens of thousands. And it was an experience that many of us will never forget.

MARTIN: Initially, over 200,000 people made their way to Houston somehow or another. And two years later - we last talked two years after the storm - 100,000 people were still in Houston, who had come because of the storm. Do these folks now see themselves as Houstonians, do you think? Or do they still see themselves as evacuees?

WHITE: Yeah, sure. You know, the United States is about people, not just about places. Look at the westward migration; cities have gone up in population, down in population. But the resilience of so many people who re-created their lives once their kids were in school and they found jobs, planted roots in the community - let me say, they're very proud of their New Orleans heritage, but you would be inspired by some of the stories of people who just lost everything but came back.

MARTIN: Do you think that they are viewed that way by the rest of the city? When we last talked, one of the things that we talked about was that they were led by you and, you know, and other citizens of Houston, just a tremendous outpouring toward many of these evacuees - many people who were terribly frightened, who were traumatized, who had literally lost everything - a tremendous outpouring of compassionate support.

On the other hand, a couple of years later, you heard some of the grumbling. You heard oh, the kids are not doing well in the schools. Oh, there's - people still haven't moved on. Now, six years later, are the folks who came because of Katrina viewed as an asset to the city? Or are they viewed, perhaps - not so much?

WHITE: Well, as an asset. I mean, somebody who came and did armed robbery isn't viewed as an asset of anything but the penal system. But the vast majority of people were good people. They wanted to work. They wanted to re-create their lives. We saw, through programs we implemented when the federal government failed to come through - by private giving - tutoring and summer school brought so many young people from the area up to grade level in Houston, and they flourished. People were able to find jobs.

There was that, you know, backlash. But I'll tell you what, I don't think there's anyplace in the United States that doesn't have some, you know, gang members or people who sell drugs. And if they - we took everybody who came from New Orleans. And you don't judge the many by the few.

MARTIN: Are there steps that you took to welcome and support these newcomers that - perhaps strategies that are applicable in other circumstances that are not as extreme? Or is that just that the disaster creates kind of a context where people want to step up to the plate? I guess what I'm asking is, are there lessons learned there, from that experience, that are applicable to other situations?

WHITE: Absolutely. And you know, there may be, periodically, these hurricanes such as Irene - and obviously, Katrina was the worst one, in terms of the human damage and property damage, that we've had. But there's disasters that go on in families every single day in our nation. And the idea that we would have special programs to provide vocational and technical training for people seeking to change jobs, that's something that worked. And I often reflect that that's more what our country needs every single day, not waiting for a disaster.

MARTIN: Katrina happened in 2005. Of course, it was years before the kinds of economic conditions that we're now experiencing. And I wonder, now that states and cities are cutting funds for what many people considered essential services, I wonder if you had to face this disaster in the current climate, could you do the same thing?

WHITE: Well, we were able to manage without compromising the existing level of city services. But obviously, it imposed a strain. You know, people looked to FEMA and what it did and did not do, but most services that touch people's lives are provided on a local basis. The safety, the schools, basic water, sewer, public health - those are, by and large, provided by local providers. And that's why it's so very important that local governments be strong.

And while I have an opportunity, I got to remind folks that almost all local governments in the United States, they must balance their operating budget every year. They have separate budget for capital expenditures. And so when people talk about the problems of local government, it's not the same as the federal government, which seems to be able to borrow all that it can want to.

MARTIN: Well not, apparently, all that it can want to - as we've seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well finally, before we let you go, Mr. Mayor - we only have about 20 seconds left - how are you doing?

WHITE: Oh, I'm doing great. And it's, you know, down here in Texas, we don't want another hurricane, but we sure would like some more rain. I think it's forecast for 105 in Houston today. People are happy, they're productive, but we could use a little water down here.

MARTIN: Well, we can send you some from up here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Bill White is the former mayor of Houston. He was kind enough to join us from member station KUHF in Houston. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us.

WHITE: You bet.

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