Ex-Harris County leaders return to Astrodome for Katrina anniversary

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Ten years ago this week, Mayor Bill White was busy running the fourth largest city in the country. Judge Robert Eckels had his hands full with Harris County. Both thought of the Astrodome as the place where the hometown baseball team once played.

Neither had any idea that the Astrodome's lasting legacy, may not be baseball.

"This was their finest moment," said former Judge Eckels. "It was fitting that this was their last major event in this facility."

Eckels and White agreed to open up about their memories of Katrina to Eyewitness News. We met inside the Astrodome, where there is no longer regular air conditioning. The air inside, a bit stuffy, perhaps not too different than when the Dome opened its doors to thousands of evacuees a decade ago.

When Hurricane Katrina crushed down on New Orleans, tens of thousands of residents began to flee. Within days, it became clear that the buses were headed to Houston.

"I don't think we knew how big it was going to get," said Eckels. "There were about 60,000 people who came through the Dome itself, and 250,000 who came to Houston in total."

As county judge and mayor, neither Eckels nor White ever thought about turning away our Louisiana neighbors. But where to put everyone?

The federal government initially suggested cruise ships.

"It got a little testy," recounts White. "At one point I told the FEMA guy that he was going to have to deal with HPD, if he wanted to separate citizens and put them on a boat." White added that many evacuees just escaped mass flooding, and the last thing they wanted to do is be surrounded by water.

Almost overnight, the Astrodome became a mega shelter. Soon, Reliant Center (now NRG Center) and even the George R. Brown convention hall would also be used. Every moment, a problem needed to be solved.

"I didn't know how many Americans depended on their medications daily, and didn't have their prescriptions," said White.

Makeshift pharmacies opened, volunteers distributed meals, the Dome even had its own postal ZIP code for a while.

"This was before Smart Phones," reminded Eckels. "On a wall back here was a big bulletin board, and it had notes, because people couldn't search any other way."

But the focus, Mayor White says, was always to get evacuees out of the shelters quickly.

"There was a sense of urgency, that folks should be integrated into the normal life of the community rather than segregated into shelters," he said.

Within a month, most evacuees were in local apartments. Houston prided itself in not using long-term mass shelters nor trailers. People were in homes. Over the past decade, some became permanent Houstonians, others moved back to Louisiana. All are grateful for the Astrodome, Houston and our residents for opening their hearts.
Copyright © 2019 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.