Five Years Later, Former Houston Mayor Still Looking Forward
ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
We're continuing our focus on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, including stories from one who rode out the storm and the continuing reconstruction effort, as well as one who left as the storm hit and found a new life in a new city in Mississippi. She was one of thousands of New Orleans' residents who fled the city any way they could, sometimes unsure of their destination. A huge number found their way along Interstate 10 to Houston, Texas, 350 miles west.
In fact, reports indicate that more than 200,000 New Orleans residents were sheltered in Houston in the immediate aftermath of the storm. At the time, some Houston residents expressed fear that the influx of Katrina victims would sap their city's resources and increase crime.
But Bill White, Houston's mayor at the time, refused to let those worries stop him from welcoming those in need. His leadership eventually earned him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2007. And Bill White joins us now from Houston. Welcome to the program.
Mr. BILL WHITE (Former Mayor, Houston): Great to be with you.
KEYES: I wonder, what's the thing that you remember the most in the first few days after Katrina? I mean you had this huge influx of people coming in. What was the most personal memory for you?
Mr. WHITE: Well, just the human need and the hardship. I mean we had at one time over 100 buses that were backed up outside the old Astrodome complex. I would be there and I'd see some of the buses as they were coming in. There were people who were dehydrated, hadn't had water for 24 hours. People who had been picked up the highway, there were school buses coming in.
But also, I remember being lifted from time to time at just the response of people in this community when I asked them to treat our neighbors the way we would want to be treated.
KEYES: Why was it so important to you, sir, to open your city's doors? I mean I know there were politicians that wanted you to keep people out. And I know that they were residents, because I spoke to some of them, that didn't want that level of help given to them either.
Mr. WHITE: Well, it was critical to our fellow Americans that they be able to get back on their feet and living with some dignity and independence as soon as possible looking forward, not back. You know, none of us can change what's happened. But we can change how we react to it.
Nobody in the southern Louisiana area or southern Mississippi asked for this. A natural disaster could occur anywhere in the country. And we ought to, you know, treat our neighbors the way we would want to be treated. At times, I would hear some TV commentary that would talk about the income or ethnicity of some of folks who had not evacuated. But the truth is what we saw were just fellow Americans.
And to be self-sufficient, you need to be in an apartment, on a bus line, where your kid's in school and have job training or employment - and we offered that to people who came.
KEYES: I spoke to a fair number of people there that said that they were very worried about crime. They were worried about losing their jobs and housing to folk that they thought were outsiders. I wonder if people in Houston, from what you've seen, feel the same way five years later about the people that were displaced that have stayed in the city.
Mr. WHITE: Well, nobody lost any benefit they had. Nobody lost any apartments. Nobody lost any jobs. There was a spike in crime because, you know, New Orleans had been one of the most violent cities and everybody evacuated from the person who was the CEO of the biggest corporations to the persons in middle management, to the people who swept the floors to people who burglarized businesses.
But that was only a small percentage of the individuals who came here. And I don't think if any American city were forced to evacuate to some other city, law-abiding people would want to be judged by the actions of the few. When we did we did have a zero tolerance policy. We did crack down. We following Katrina uptick, we were able to bring down our crime levels to the lowest levels in decades.
KEYES: I wonder what did opening the city's doors to the Katrina victims cost your city and where did you get the money?
Mr. WHITE: Well, there was a lot of leap of faith in the early days. I called on hundreds, really, thousands of different businesses to contribute apartments, furnishings, electricity, food, water, whatever is needed to get people back on their feet. And there was no program in place that would explain how we'd get that back. In my heart, I knew that the American people understood that when you had a major American city destroyed, it wasn't just weather, you know, something a hurricane come in and out, but the levees broke. That you couldn't just pile people into trailer cities. But, you know, this is a generous city and we did the right thing.
KEYES: I wonder how many people actually stayed in this city and have they been embraced now by Houston residents or are they still kind of seen as outsiders?
Mr. WHITE: Oh no, they're not seen as outsiders. And my best testament is there's something along the lines of 60 to 80,000 people that have remained. Now, some of them, you know, were never they never would have known it from the newscasts. The newscasts tended to focus on the shelters that we set up, the emergency shelters. But the fact is that most people moved here with friends and relatives, are in hotels and motels, some in churches, because the levees broke, before Katrina actually made landfall.
And those included businesses, business owners, small businesses, large businesses. So a slice of New Orleans and that New Orleans area has remained here. And we did everything we could to help our neighbors rebuild. We even used funds and raised some of the private funds we did to help people get the trailers that they needed to take their belongings back and what they had acquired here in Houston back in the system, to return anytime they wanted. But we still have a large presence of folks here.
KEYES: Let me just ask one last question. Five years after the storm, what do you wish the nation had learned from Houston's experiences after Katrina?
Mr. WHITE: I hope the nation learns that if people focus on a common goal such as getting our fellow Americans back on their feet and don't simply point fingers, but assign to the businesses, houses of worship, sororities, fraternities, nonprofits, divide up the work, like I did here in Houston, where every organization of any size has a role, then this nation can do anything.
If we view helping people with a hand up, not a hand out as something that's just the government's job, then we will always be limited. But if we draw on all the resources of the community, we will be able to do remarkable things in this great nation.
KEYES: Democrat Bill White is the former mayor of Houston, Texas. He is currently running for governor of that great state. He joined us from Houston, and thank you, Mr. White, for your insight and your remembrances.
Mr. WHITE: It's great to be with you.