Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Learning from our Mistakes - the Fifth Anniversary of "The Big Heart"

Whenever we hear about mistakes and Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans take the spotlight. Poorly built levies that failed. Buses that could have been used to evacuate, but weren’t. ‘Refuges of last resort’ that were never equipped to serve as such. Hospitals that were left to fend for themselves.

Houston comes through in a positive light. We got the nickname “The Big Heart,” for our compassion after the storm. It’s true that we Houstonians opened our arms to New Orleanians when other cities wouldn’t. But there were some very serious mistakes here, too:

- There was a lack of long-term services for evacuees. They got counseling at the Astrodome – along with other services . But they were soon rushed to far-flung apartments, and the services went elsewhere. It would have been better if the evacuees had gotten help like job placement and grief counseling on-site in the apartments.

- There was inadequate policing to handle the evacuees in the long term. HPD should have hired officers from New Orleans to come and join the force. Those officers could have given valuable insight into the gangs and crime patterns that were prevalent in New Orleans before the storm; not to mention adding to HPD’s manpower. To their credit, HPD wanted more officers after the storm; but they didn’t have the money to do it.

- Housing was poorly administered. The goal was to put as many people into apartments as quickly as possible, and for the most part that goal was met. But in the rush, important things were missed:

o There were no guidelines for habitability, safety, or security in apartments that welcomed evacuees. Evacuees moved into some pretty squalid complexes.

o They didn’t screen evacuees. It was too easy for criminals to move in and wreak havoc. Some apartments faced mounting crime, and it was (sometimes rightly) blamed on the evacuees.

o FEMA checks didn’t always come on time. The program kept changing. It led to uncertainty on the part of landlords and evacuee tenants – and fueled tensions.

These mistakes were amplified by the scale of what happened. 250,000 people came to our City over a matter of days. Our City grew by 10% within a week. Neighborhoods changed – many for the worse. People talk about the mistakes in New Orleans after Katrina. But we should also learn from the mistakes that were made here in Houston.

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