New Orleans Looks to Houston, and Sees Itself

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Homes under water near the 17th Street Canal after the collapse of its levee in 2005.

Credit
Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — Several of Nance Harding’s clients were acting oddly last week. Ms. Harding, a psychotherapist in New Orleans, noticed that some were quick to cry, others were irritable and easily startled; some were drinking more heavily than usual.

These were clients who had gone through Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, and she was picking up the signals of a localized form of post-traumatic stress syndrome — or, as she calls it, “Katrina brain.”

It is a condition, she said, that ramps up each June with the return of hurricane season and spikes with the anniversary of Katrina on Aug. 29. And this year, there is Hurricane Harvey.

Ms. Harding said she finds it easy to recognize the symptoms because “I have it,” though not from Katrina. She was 9 years old and living in Galveston when Hurricane Carla hit. “I’ve walked in water up to my chest,” she said.

The Harvey news had her “irritable and slightly paranoid” without knowing why, she said, until she heard a reference to Carla. “I was immediately back there, in that scene,” she said. “It was like watching a movie screen.”

As the nation watches the paralysis on the Gulf Coast, there is one city uniquely positioned to feel Houston’s pain: New Orleans. With Harvey producing horrific scenes reminiscent of those following Katrina and the levee breaches that flooded the city, New Orleanians watched with a mixture of horror and empathy. These two cities are connected by much more than a six-hour drive on Interstate 10. Katrina bound them together, as Houston received as many as 250,000 refugees from the city in the weeks after the storm; some 100,000 remain today. It is a strange sensation for many in this city, seeing Houston — a dozen years ago this week the sanctuary — now underwater.

New Orleans will be getting a taste of Harvey, as well; the slow-moving storm threatens to dump as much as 10 inches of rain on the New Orleans area.

Houston’s plight “is almost like a flashback,” said Charles ‘Action’ Jackson, 55, a D.J. “I feel most so because Houston was one of the first places that opened their doors for New Orleans.” He was preparing for an annual ceremony and parade marking the anniversary of the Katrina levee breaches. (It was postponed from Tuesday to Sunday because of this week’s rains.) During Katrina, he had slept alone on his roof for two nights, dangling his feet into the attic so he would wake up if the water rose. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he said.

And so there has been an outpouring of love from the Bayou State to the Bayou City since Harvey came to town. The Louisiana Cajun Navy, a volunteer group that performs water rescues in times of flooding, sent a flotilla to Houston. Dirty Coast, a company that makes T-shirts with a New Orleans insider feel, created a Texas/New Orleans shirt they are selling as a fund-raiser for the Houston Food Bank. Blake Haney, the founder of Dirty Coast, said this new storm tightens the bond: “There’s an all-too-real personal experience that Houstonians can share with people who were living here in 2005.”

And now, New Orleans is preparing for its own rains.

“I’m recommending that everyone stay home tomorrow,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Monday, as he asked people to stay off the streets and park their cars on higher ground. Public schools are closed, and the fire department has started handing out sandbags. Round-the-clock teams are slowly fixing the drainage pumps and turbines that failed badly earlier this month. The mayor put a new team in charge of the city’s torpid sewerage and water board, but it has a lot of work before it.

Noting the Katrina anniversary, Mr. Landrieu added, “How much more uneasy could you feel right now in the city of New Orleans?”

Dena L. Moore, a mental health therapist who works in New Orleans and Lafayette, said that she, too, is seeing significant tension in her clientele — especially in Lafayette, which is closer to the new storm. The sight of the Houston disaster hits these people hard, she said.

“It’s a trigger,” Dr. Moore said. “It lights up that survival part of the brain.”

She said she hears a great deal of concern and empathy for Houston’s storm sufferers. Because so many New Orleans residents sustained severe damage to their own homes, “there’s a resonance with the people of Houston,” she said.

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The Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Leneka Coles helping evacuate residents from the West Lake Forest neighborhood of Katy, Tex.

Credit
Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

“It’s not just, ‘oh, those poor people,’” she added. “It comes at a much, much deeper level.”

Michael White, a professor, jazz composer and clarinetist in New Orleans, said that seeing images from Harvey “brings back a nightmare that’s always on the fringe of your consciousness anyway.” He fled to Houston before Katrina, a trip that took 32 hours.

Dr. White would end up keeping an apartment for two years there, the only time in his 62 years he had lived outside of New Orleans. He played a jazz funeral for a Houston woman, where he learned of friends who had died in the flooding. He saw on the internet that his old neighborhood in New Orleans was underwater and realized that his 5,000 CDs, 4,000 books and 60 clarinets were destroyed, along with his house.

“You had the feeling that Houston was higher and safer and inland from Galveston, that that kind of thing would never happen there,” he said on Monday, looking warily out from a second-floor window at Xavier University and seeing the New Orleans streets filling with rainwater.

Some people watching the spectacle of disaster in Houston find the comparison between their experiences troubling. Denise Salvant, a resident of New Orleans East whose house was extensively damaged in Katrina, recalled the horrors she went through — first, riding out the storm in heavily damaged Memorial Hospital with her mother, who was in a coma and who had to be airlifted to a facility in Baton Rouge. She sought refuge in the hellish conditions in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center where, she recalled, “I was praying to die.” The people of New Orleans were treated like animals, she said; commentators said “we needed to be washed off the map,” and the police shot civilians.

So today, when she watches film footage from Houston, she said, she is relieved to see people brought to safety. But she also sees an efficient rescue process, and people stepping out of boats with smiles on their faces. “They are getting help, and they are getting shelter, they are getting food, they are getting love. And we were just — there,” she remembered with a shudder.

Now Houstonians will be forced to absorb the awful wisdom that New Orleans was forced to learn. Chief among those lessons was that the awful stuff is just getting started. In Ms. Salvant’s neighborhood in New Orleans East, in the Lower Ninth Ward and in many other parts of the region, the recovery is anything but finished.

“It is the very beginning,” said Dr. White, talking of the ongoing and exhausting nightmares of insurance and bureaucracy, but also of the psychic toll. “For a lot of people, they have no idea what they’re about to go through.”

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