By Brian Thevenot
HOUSTON (Reuters) - As I sat with Raeann Barber in the Houston convention centre, surrounded by nearly 10,000 refugees from Hurricane Harvey, we figured out that we had nearly crossed paths 12 years ago - to the day - in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Barber, 36, used to live on Forstall Street, just east of the Industrial Canal, where a catastrophic levee breach sent a tidal wave into the impoverished neighbourhood.
She had picked a good time to have a seizure.
Just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Barber was taken to Touro Hospital in Uptown, which would soon be one of a precious few dry neighbourhoods. Already disabled by epilepsy and a head-on car wreck at age 21, she almost certainly would have died in the flood.
After the worst of Katrina’s winds had passed, I headed in the other direction, from The Times-Picayune’s newspaper offices, close to Uptown, to a bridge over the same canal, where I got our first look at the catastrophic flooding on the afternoon of Aug. 29, 2005.
I passed Forstall Street in a civilian rescue boat that we would load with people, a large dog and a duffel bag full of cats, all pulled from rooftops or second stories.
“There are going to be tons of dead people,” our boat captain, Jerry Rayes, accurately predicted as we navigated down St. Claude Avenue.
Barber’s life was spared but upended. When the hospital evacuated, a staffer told her: “We’ll take you to a safe place – the Superdome.”
After a week without power or running water, she was shuttled onto a bus to Houston, where she stayed - and now faces the trauma of another historic flood.
As images of Harvey’s destructive power are broadcast worldwide, the obvious comparisons to Katrina are everywhere.
I can’t sum it up any better than Barber did: “Besides not having all the dead babies and dead bodies out there, this is like Katrina all over again.”
Katrina took 1,833 lives, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Harvey’s grim toll is not yet taken, but current estimates reach as high as 30 deaths or suspected deaths.
The divergent death tolls illuminate key differences between the two biblical floods and their responses from emergency management officials.
What people forget about Katrina – and many never fully understood – is that the catastrophe stemmed from fatal flaws in a levee system constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Three key canals failed at water heights that were within their design specifications. The water did not come over the tops of the levees - it scoured out the earth underneath walls that were not planted deeply enough.
The explosive failures made the water rise in minutes – not hours or days – with a force that knocked houses into streets and drowned their inhabitants. Others who escaped died later of exhaustion or sickness.
No one had anticipated Katrina’s levee failures or planned for them.
In sharp contrast, government and nonprofit officials in Texas could see the threat of Harvey clearly – and had the benefit of 12 years of lesson-learning from Katrina.
Before dumping torrential rains on Houston, Harvey’s high winds ripped through the small beach town of Rockport, Texas, demolishing hundreds of buildings but causing relatively little flooding.
Houston was spared the winds but got a historic measure of rain – which meteorologists had predicted many days before the storm hit, allowing emergency and law enforcement officials to mobilize assets for search, rescue and shelter well in advance.
The lack of wind damage - and downed power lines – created an eerie glow of electric lights reflecting off floodwaters. As I rode in a military rescue vehicle Monday night, I could see someone watching television in flooded home.
‘LITTLE WET RAT’
I can’t tell you how comforting it was to hear Raeann Barber talk on Tuesday, in an unmistakable accent from St. Bernard Parish, a swampy rural area adjacent to the Ninth Ward.
As a rising tide threatened her Southeast Houston apartment, Barber recalled the seizure she suffered as Katrina targeted the Louisiana coast. She has learned that high emotions - like panic from a hurricane - can trigger her epilepsy.
So she focused on pleasant thoughts as Harvey roared toward Texas - envisioning the ocean, rainbows, anything to avoid another seizure. It worked.
She soon had water at her knees and sought refuge in a neighbour’s second-story apartment and waited for boats.
“I was a stuck little wet rat,” she told me.
It was hardly Barber’s first brush with death. She once sold drugs and carried a gun. The head-on collision at 21 put her in a nursing home for four years, until shortly before Katrina.
“God must really love me,” she said, sitting on her cot in the storm shelter. “I survived selling drugs; I survived Katrina; and now I survived Harvey ... He really must have a purpose for me.”
The scene around us at George R. Brown Convention Center could not have contrasted more with the nightmarish images seared in my memory from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
It also marked a huge improvement over the shelter I saw last weekend in a school in Rockport, where a 29-year-old aspiring screenwriter had taken on the management of a facility with no power, running water or supplies.
In downtown Houston on Tuesday, nearly 10,000 refugees occupied a shelter initially planned for 5,000. They had lights, air-conditioning, working bathrooms, ample food, water and medicine, and constant attention from hundreds of volunteers.
The outpouring of care for Houston’s flood victims owes in part to the emergency community’s deep study of Katrina’s failures, said David Schoenick, a Red Cross volunteer specializing in public and government relations.
The Red Cross made three fundamental changes since then: allowing refugees to bring pets into shelters, because many refused to be rescued without them during Katrina; an intense focus on coordination with government, a key failure in 2005; and a database to efficiently identify and deploy volunteers near any disaster.
The “shelter” at the New Orleans convention centre had not been planned at all. It filled up spontaneously after the Superdome - where Barber had stayed - had become overwhelmed.
The centre had no power or running water; the bathrooms were horrific. Most people had little food, water or hope as they waited days for the cavalry to arrive in the form of the National Guard and buses to Houston.
Cellphones were down; smartphones hadn’t been invented; no one had seen TV; Facebook was a college network; Twitter was a bird call. So when our reporting crew came to the convention centre to hand out a few skinny newspapers, they were as popular as food.
I saw four dead bodies in a rear storage room. One sat in a wheelchair, under a blanket. Another lay covered on the floor, with a visible trail of blood seeping from the body. I had seen other bodies, bloated in the water, on Ninth Ward boat trips.
Yet every hurricane I have covered offered exquisite beauty amid death and devastation. It lies in the titanic clash between the power of nature and the human will to resist it.
From Katrina, a singular memory stands out: the sight of Anita Roach, a convention centre refugee and the choir director at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church.
Amid suffering surrounding her, she raised her arms and belted out a gospel standard that had comforted her through homelessness, the death of a son and the flood that nearly killed her and her husband.
A rising chorus joined her in the transcendent hymn:
When the storm of life is raging
Stand by me, stand by me
When this world is tossing me
Like a ship on the raging sea
Thou who rulest the winds and water
Stand by me, stand by me
Reporting by Brian Thevenot; Editing by Tiffany Wu