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How North Texas Sheltered 26,000 Katrina Evacuees With No Disaster Plan

KERA news
Reunion Arena was opened as a shelter for Katrina Evacuees.

The storm and the disaster that followed reshaped New Orleans and had a dramatic impact to North Texas, and beyond.

About 26,000 evacuees made their way to Red Cross shelters near Dallas. The influx of people shocked the city.

The first night after Hurricane Katrina, a single Red Cross shelter hosted 11 people, all from one family. A few days later, everything changed. Anita Foster of the Red Cross remembers getting the call to open Reunion Arena.

“And I just remember thinking, Reunion Arena? In your entire career you never think you’re going to open a major sporting arena as a location for evacuees” she says. “At the end of it all, Reunion Arena was actually one of our smaller Red Cross shelters.”

The storm made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29 and three days later busses packed with evacuees were pouring into the Dallas Convention Center.

“And every single door that opened to a bus, just opened up more wounds,” Foster says. “People were walking out of the busses and they hadn’t been fed, they didn’t have medicine. People smelled, it was a loss of dignity for them.”

A Convention Center City

Thousands stayed at the Convention Center, more than at any of the dozen shelters across North Texas.

“Prior to Katrina, the largest shelter we had operated in North Texas was about 130 people and it was for a hurricane in the late 80s, Gilbert,” says Rosemary Mote who’s worked for the Red Cross for 30 years. “So sheltering of that magnitude, was just unheard of.”

Credit Red Cross DFW
Red Cross DFW
Once Reunion Arena was opened, it quickly filled to capacity.

 And Dallas wasn’t prepared. The Red Cross only had a couple thousand cots on hand. Nobody was sure who should be in charge of food. Nonprofits were duplicating services because a disaster plan hadn’t been established. Local officials and relief agencies had to scramble to come up with a roadmap, and Foster says, they had to do it fast.

“With the city, with the police, with the fire departments, EMS, emergency management, with churches, with individuals. It took everyone, it really, really did,” she says.

Rosemary Mote remembers how the Dallas Convention Center became a self-contained city.

“County Health was there, Walmart literally set up places where people could come get products and clothes. Walgreens came in, they filled prescriptions,” Mote says. “Spiritual care, mental health workers, the laundry services. Everything you take for granted every day in your own home, we had to establish and set it all up there.”

Resilient Families

Susan Hoff is with the United Way now. She was CEO of the nonprofit ChildCareGroup when Katrina hit. She couldn’t believe how quickly evacuee families re-grouped and got their kids back in school.

“Wow, you had to be really brave as a parent, all this that you’d rode, not knowing where you were going. And three or four days later, you put your child on a school bus to go to school some place,” says Hoff.

There were evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and a few weeks later, Hurricane Rita. Red Cross shelters stayed open until close to Thanksgiving. Then, relief agencies got to work preparing for next time. Anita Foster of the Red Cross says the ways North Texas nonprofits face disaster now, are a direct result of Hurricane Katrina.

“We train together to this day, we participate in disaster exercises, we fundraise together, to be sure that our organizations are equipped, should a Katrina ever happen again,” Foster says.

Lessons Learned From Katrina

Technology has changed dramatically, so if families get separated by a storm, reuniting them should be much easier. Websites are stronger, phone systems have better backups and perhaps most importantly, North Texas relief workers have already been through a major disaster.

“I’ve never witnessed anything in my life that came closer to a true humanitarian crisis in the United States than Hurricane Katrina,” says Foster.

Ten years later, Susan Hoff is still thinking about the people who came here.

“They behaved almost as if they were guests in our city,” she says. “Not people who had to come here when they definitely did not want to.”

Nobody wants to flee in the wake of a storm, and few cities are prepared to house tens of thousands of evacuees. A decade ago in Dallas, that was reality. If it ever happens again, North Texans say, they’ll be ready.

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.