Oral Histories Show Generosity in Evacuees
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
After Hurricane Katrina hit, hundreds of thousands of people fled to Houston. It was the country's largest mass migration since the Dust Bowl. Almost immediately those evacuees started telling their stories of the storm, and some of those stories have been captured in a project called Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston.
As part of the project, survivors interviewed each other.
Johna Reiss fled New Orleans with her husband and mother-in-law and in March, she began recording stories, and she's compiled some of them for us.
JOHNA REISS: At the time of Katrina, I had lived in New Orleans East for about three years and was studying to become a social worker. I left the city on Sunday morning, the 28th of August, and drove for 14 hours to get to Houston.
For those of us whose lives were personally touched by Katrina's force, the experience was almost Biblical. All along our evacuation route, we met people who, without being asked and without taking no for an answer, gave us food, a tank of gas or a place to spend the night. These acts of kindness created instant community. Many who were once strangers became best friends overnight. This generosity kept many of us going during the most difficult times.
Governor Reese is a young Christian rap artist. He told me that he heard about the storm for the first time from a stranger in his Ninth Ward neighborhood.
GOVERNOR REESE: I was pulling up in the gas station, and I was getting gas, paying for my gas. And this white lady - you understand, in my neighborhood, you don't have a lot of white people, and so this was kind of odd for me right there.
And so she spoke to me and she said, wow, did you hear about this hurricane? They say it's coming directly for us. And when she said that, that kind of struck me. So that's how I heard about it, the little white lady in my neighborhood at the gas station.
REISS: Days before Katrina hit, hospitality worker Ida Peterson and her friend also met a nameless messenger. This man, like a guardian angel, made their escape possible.
IDA PETERSON: Well, money was low. We didn't have any money. So this doctor told just to come along with them. And he paid everything. Hotels, every hotel we went to, he paid. Food, he paid all the food.
I couldn't find the rest of my family, all scattered all over. I didn't know where the other five kids were. And neither my grandkids, 16 of them, I didn't know where they were. He stuck with us until the end, until I found my kids.
REISS: For Vincent Trotter, it was the company of strangers that gave him strength. Trotter is a deputy sheriff who had spent the last several days overseeing the evacuation of prisoners from the Orleans Parish jail. He was walking away from the Broad Street Bridge, heading to his own home in the Algiers section of New Orleans.
VINCENT TROTTER: I ran across I would say a middle-aged man, and he was walking across the bridge, too, so I'm like, Cool. I got somebody to walk with. See, he was walking a bit slow and was slowing me down, with my feet hurt. And I'm sort of like in a hurry. I'm ready to go. But you know, he was somebody to talk to. So I just slowed down to his pace and kept walking.
About, I'd say, a half hour to 45 minutes after we started walking, a convoy came by that was an SUV with a boat, a five man boat hooked to the back of it and they were picking up people that were walking. And they stated that they only had room for one more person. And I figured since the guy that was walking with me was having a harder time walking, that it would be better if he went than I. So he got into the truck with the other guys and I kept walking.
REISS: People who fled the storm and its aftermath told story after story of spontaneous acts of good will and empathy. Sixty-year-old Dorothea Scaglioni is a Sicilian American native Brooklynite who lived in New Orleans for years. She headed out of the city the day before the storm hit and found herself on the Mississippi border.
DOROTHEA SCAGLIONI: When we had been coming up 55, right before we crossed the border into Mississippi, there was an overpass and it has always, always made an impression on me. There were about 30 people standing on the overpass and they had hung a sheet over that said Godspeed. Hope you make it. And that made a big impression. It still does. I have tears in my eyes thinking about those people standing there.
REISS: Most of us didn't get any help from officials along the way. Instead, it was regular citizens who came to our aid.
Glenn Gidroux(ph) owned a shop on Magazine Street. It took him eight and a half hours to reach Houston, and he remembers the very first people he met there.
GLENN GIDROUX: I'll never forget going to Denny's, which was attached to this hotel at 5:00 in the morning. And I was sitting there and I was sitting next to some people - a husband and wife, an elderly person - and we just got to yakking. And she said, Are you from the storm?
And I said, Yes.
And she said, What room are you in?
And I said, I'm in number 112.
I'll never forget that room as long as I live. And about an hour later there was a knock on the door and it was this lady, this very, very kind, kind lady and she gave me two gift certificates to Denny's for $5 each. So I thought this has to be the friendliest, nicest city in the world.
We worried about the animals, taking them in and out of the motel. I didn't want anybody to see them. I didn't want to get thrown out. When I checked out of the motel, I said to the lady - she was Vietnamese and owned the motel - I said to her, you know, I want to thank you very much for allowing us to bring our pets in here. There were a lot of Louisiana people there.
And she said to me - and I'll never forget what she said - she said, of course. These are your children.
REISS: In coffee shops, gas stations, motels and grocery stores all along the highways leading out of the Gulf Coast, evacuees encountered a helping hand, a gift of food or an offer of gasoline.
Angela Trehan(ph) remembers what a difference these moments meant to her and her family.
ANGELA TREHAN: We came in the store - it was a truck stop - and everybody was going to use the bathroom and cool off for a minute and everything. And you could tell we had just been through hell. So when we came in the store, you know, we sat down and my mom started talking to this older man that was sitting there and he asked my son, he said, hey man. Y'all was just in that storm?
And my son said, yeah. It was bad.
And he said, are you hungry?
And my son said, you know, a little bit.
And he said, well, take your mom and go up there and get you something to eat.
And so I turned around and I said, you know, we appreciate it but there's nine of us, you know. And he was like, I don't care how many of y'all it is. Everybody go up there and get something to eat. Come sit down. It's all on me. Get as much as you want. You know, get something to drink. Get something to go.
So he did that for us and we got back on the road. And by this time, we were an hour outside of Houston and we needed more gas, so we found a little gas station that was off the road, and the minute we were getting out, it was a pastor for the church that was down the street, his wife and his two daughters, and when we pulled up to the gas tank, like you said, it's just written all over your face, you know, when you've gone through something like that. So they come up to the car and they were like, pull your cars up. Pull the car and the truck up. Gas up and we'll pay for it and everything.
And it was like $45 for the car and like $55 for the truck. They gassed us up, they took us in the stores, they brought the kids snacks, they brought drinks. They were like, does anybody need any cigarettes? You know, what, everything you need, get it and we'll cover it. They did that plus they gave us money.
REISS: Angela Trehan's 10-hour trip ended in Houston's Fifth Ward. This is where she lives now along with of her Creole relatives who fled earlier storms and disasters along the Gulf Coast. Now she works as a nurse's aid in a local hospital.
TREHAN: We were blessed all the way from Mississippi here to Houston, and once we got here it was just like, thank God. Because we really did not think, you know, that we would make it.
REISS: Governor Reece, Ida Peterson, Vincent Trotter, Dorothea Scaglioni, Glen Gidroux, Angela Trehan and I all ended up in the Houston area after Katrina, and we're all trying to make a home in our new city.
SIEGEL: Johna Reiss is an evacuee who gathered stories as part of a project called Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston. You can hear more stories from hurricane survivors, from pump operators and police officers, doctors and dock workers at our Web site, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.