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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Hurricane Katrina Survivor Leads Red Cross In North Texas, Helps Evacuees Start Over

Red Cross of North Texas
Keith Rhodes at a news conference announcing shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees would open in North Texas.

In 2005, Keith Rhodes was running the Methodist Home for Children in New Orleans. Then, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana Gulf Coast. He had to evacuate dozens of kids, and move his own family to safety.

That experience prepared him for the influx of people seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey this past August. He coordinated their care as CEO of the North Texas chapter of the American Red Cross.

The whole country was watching as Hurricane Katrina pressed in on Louisiana 12 years ago. Keith Rhodes lived through that catastrophic storm. And as the floodwaters rose, he had a lot more people to worry about than just his immediate family.

"Unbelievable destruction. We were out of that area for about six months and then went back in, and the city just, it's still, in a sense, it's still recovering. Things still are not completely the same," he said.

Getting the children to safety

As CEO of the Methodist Home For Children in New Orleans, Rhodes had to evacuate three dozen kids, and move them to another residential facility near the Arkansas border. He also had to track down kids living in foster care when Katrina hit; kids who'd been moved all over the country in the aftermath of the storm. He had his own family to worry about, too.

"Hard to put into words. But just imagine going home today from wherever you may be to know that nothing is in your home anymore," he said.

Rhodes weathered the storm, made sure his family was secure and kept the residents of the Methodist Home For Children safe. It was an exhausting experience, one he says led him to his current job.

"I would not have traded that experience for anything in the world. I think it's put me in a unique position to work for the American Red Cross," he said. "It gives me a completely different perspective and scope to work from, and energy and focus."

Credit Red Cross of North Texas
Red Cross of North Texas
Keith Rhodes is CEO of the Red Cross of North Texas

Getting ready to respond

And those skills were put to the test in August, just over a year into his tenure as CEO of the North Texas branch of the American Red Cross. That's when thousands of Hurricane Harvey evacuees made their way north. Rhodes says coordinating care for all those people brought back a flood of memories.

"What I learned through this exercise has been that there were some things that I had kind of stored away from an emotional standpoint that I had forgotten about," he said. "That this really made a lot of those feelings resurrect."

Rhodes and his team opened shelters in Dallas, Fort Worth and Irving, providing beds, food, mental health counseling and more to just under 4,000 evacuees. He says his experience with Katrina came back to help him, not haunt him.

"It's the lowest point that you can be in life. But for them to understand and hear from someone who's been through that, that you will recover, you will bounce back, and you may even bounce back even stronger," he said. " It's exciting to see some of the families that have now stayed in the area begin to really draw roots here and to really start seeing success and seeing that things can be better."

More than a hundred families have put down those roots, leaving places like Port Arthur and Beaumont behind and settling in North Texas, eager to start over. And Rhodes says after a disaster, the first step is finding a new place to live.

"For me it was housing. And I can tell you that for individuals, you know everyone needs a nest; they need a home base," he said. "From that, you project forward.

That's something Keith Rhodes and his family did 12 years ago, and he's committed to helping these new North Texans move forward, too.

One Crisis Away: After The Flood 

On Dec. 5, KERA will launch a new chapter in the One Crisis Away series. "After The Flood" will share the stories of Hurricane Harvey evacuees who chose to leave their storm-damaged homes behind, and start over in North Texas.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.