August 2017

Advice from a Katrina Refugee on Hurricane Harvey

It may be a truism that the storm washed massive structural injustices into our collective view, but as a country, we seem to have rationalized them away.

Twelve years ago, I was glued to CNN in my uncle’s living room in Houston. I watched analysts discuss storm surge, wind speeds, and projected rainfall. I squinted at flyover shots for landmarks and maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of my home. I tried to take little breaks to call friends or to go for short walks. My uncle’s mother-in-law baked a cake for my roommate, whose birthday coincided with the landfall of the storm. Our rendition of “Happy Birthday” was eerie. Everyone was so worried. Mostly we all watched CNN and wondered: what next?

Houston was an anchor for me; I lived there for nearly a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. I was incredibly grateful to have somewhere to go, though there were a thousand little things that made it feel difficult. Being out of work indefinitely. Wearing the same clothes every day. The suspicious looks from store managers when you asked for a “Katrina discount.” The horribly racist things I read and heard about my city and its people. There was the sense that this was somehow our fault, which was expressed beautifully by that bastion of ethics, Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who declared that “that place could be bulldozed.” And then there was returning to a ghost town where tens of thousands of residents would never be able to return. Even now, large chunks of the city—predominantly poor and black—remain uninhabited.

September 2, 2005: Heavily armed police patrol past Hurricane Katrina survivors outside the New Orleans Convention Center. Photo by Reuters via IBT.

It may be a truism that the storm washed massive structural injustices into our collective view, but as a country, we seem to have rationalized them away. We have done precious little to combat inequality, coastal erosion, climate change, and our selfish tendency to blame victims for their misfortune. In fact, most of these problems have only grown worse over the last twelve years. I hope for the sake of Houston that we can put the obstacles of self-interest behind us and advocate vigorously for residents simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Here are a few ways, based on my experience, that you can be most helpful over the coming months.

First, call your Congressional representatives and tell them to push for a robust relief package for Houston to help Houstonians get back in their homes. (You can find a directory of contact information for Congressional representatives and other government officials under our “How to Be Engaged” tab.)

Second, donate your time and money to relief efforts. If at all possible, go volunteer with church or community groups to visit the devastated area and help with the cleanup. Take the time to listen to locals about their struggles and desires. They will appreciate it and the experience will change you forever. You can also help organize community drives for toiletries, especially diapers and baby formula, and collect gift cards to be donated and distributed locally. Here’s a list of ways you can be more immediately helpful.

Third, think carefully about how we can best prevent widespread suffering like this. Advocate for policies that treat our shared climate responsibly and equitably allocate our collective resources. We cannot afford to continue to ignore these issues. Do you part to make sure we don’t.

hurricane-katrina-anniversary Astrodome
September 4, 2005: A man looks at evacuees from New Orleans sheltering at the Astrodome stadium in Houston, Texas. Photo by Reuters via IBT.

I cannot fully express my gratitude to Houstonians for showing me and my neighbors such hospitality more than a decade ago. I am truly sorry to see you suffering now. Please know that we will do everything in our power to make sure you have what you need.

William Horne, Katrina refugee

To donate to a Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief Fund, please click the button below.


William Horne, Co-Founder and Editor of The Activist History Review, is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, disability, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. He is a former high school teacher, barista, and warehouse worker and is an avid home gardener. He holds a PhD in History from The George Washington University and can be followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

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