For the past 34 years, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has taken the pulse of Houston in a systematic effort to measure the way area residents are responding to the biggest challenges facing the region.
The 2006 survey came at an especially eventful time for the city. Conducted just six months after tens of thousands of evacuees arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, its findings provided valuable insight into Houstonians’ unplanned role as Good Samaritans to those coming from New Orleans.
Now ten years after the hurricane, this is a good time to reexamine what we thought we knew about the city’s responses to the storm victims. Here are four common beliefs about the Katrina experience that the survey findings call into question:
1. Houstonians generally regretted their role in accepting the Katrina evacuees.
The data show that, after an initial glow, Houstonians were soon experiencing “compassion fatigue” in the wake of the storm. In the February 2006 survey, 74 percent concurred with the suggestion that “helping the evacuees has put a considerable strain on the Houston community” and 66 percent agreed that “a major increase in violent crime has occurred in Houston because of the evacuees.”
Almost half (49 percent) said the impact of the evacuees was on balance a “bad thing” for the city. One year later, that number had grown to 65 percent and it increased further to 70 percent in 2008.
Yet Houstonians do not seem to have regretted the experience overall. Mindful of these ambivalent attitudes, we asked a new question in 2008: If a storm like Katrina happened again, should the Houston community respond with more assistance, less assistance, or the same amount as was offered in 2005?
Just 28 percent of the survey respondents said the city should offer less assistance. Despite their misgivings, 46 percent called for the same level of help, and 25 percent said the community should do even more. Although Houstonians had grown increasingly unhappy about having to accommodate so many newcomers, they knew helping them was the right thing to do.
2. The Katrina evacuees have had an indelible impact on Houston.
There was a palpable rise in racial tensions in the wake of the Katrina experience. The surveys ask area residents every year how they would assess "the relations among ethnic groups in the Houston area" -- excellent, good, fair, or poor. The numbers giving positive evaluations (excellent or good) dropped dramatically between the 2005 survey (when 46 percent that year gave positive ratings) and 2006, six months after Katrina, when the proportion saying excellent or good fell to 38 percent. The ratings were still negative the following year (at 37 percent), but then began to improve, with 44 percent giving positive ratings in 2008 and 48 percent in this year’s (2015) survey.
In 2009, we asked once again if the overall impact of the Katrina evacuees on Houston was a good thing or a bad thing or had no clear effect on the city. These evaluations also improved. About 57 percent now said the Katrina experience was generally bad for the city, down from 70 percent the year earlier, and 14 percent said it was a “good thing,” up from 7 percent in 2008. The remaining 29 percent thought the overall impact of the Katrina evacuees had no clear effect on the city overall.
That ambiguous conclusion seems basically right. The sociological and demographic impact of the evacuees themselves was unlikely to be significant in the long run. Although 150,000 people arrived here overnight, they came into an eight-county metropolitan area (at that time) with more than 5 million people in a geographical space larger than the entire state of New Jersey. As a result, the evacuees, despite the many who came with serious economic and psychological problems, were fairly quickly and relatively easily absorbed into this sprawling and diverse metropolis.
3. Virtually all of the evacuees were poor and black.
An estimated 150,000 people evacuated from Louisiana into the Houston region as a result of Hurricane Katrina. More than 90 percent of the evacuees who moved into the area shelters were black. And those in the shelters tended to garner the most media attention in the weeks following the storm. Many failed to realize that an estimated 15,000 evacuees of Vietnamese descent also fled Louisiana for Houston.
With little attention from the media, these newcomers found their way not to the official shelters in the Astrodome or the George R. Brown Convention Center but to the “Hong Kong Mall” in the middle of the Houston Chinatown that spreads for miles along the Bellaire Strip. There, the 60,000 Vietnamese families in Houston quietly absorbed them. A remarkable 23 percent of all the Asian-American respondents in the 2006 survey said they had Katrina evacuees staying in their home, compared to 5 percent of all Houstonians.
4. Overall, the Katrina evacuees have had a negative impact on Houston.
We know that those who evacuated from New Orleans into the Houston shelters were disproportionately lower-income and unlikely to have health insurance. Those demographic factors clearly contributed to the concerns area residents had about their new neighbors.
Yet Houstonians responded with an unprecedented outpouring of volunteer activity. Virtually overnight, with city and county working seamlessly together, Houston established the largest shelter program in American history. Some 60,000 area residents came out to help, giving unexpected evidence of civic engagement in a city where measures of community connectedness (“social capital”) are generally quite low. In January 2006, The Dallas Morning News, despite time-honored rivalries, named Houston “The Texan of the Year.”
In the 2006 survey, an almost unanimous 97 percent agreed that “the Houston community really came together to help the evacuees.” Fully 85 percent said they volunteered their time or provided money, food or other items to offer assistance, and more than half reported that they had personally interacted with an evacuee.
The outpouring of generosity that Houstonians showed in the wake of Katrina is impressive: Few cities, if any, have been asked to provide the degree of collective altruism the Katrina events demanded. What does all this mean for Houston in the long run? We don’t know. But the remarkable experience ten years ago of an entire urban community coming together to help people in need seems likely to have a lasting positive impact.