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San Antonio Remembers Hurricane Katrina Ten Years Later

Brent Boller

  Saturday marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore near the Louisiana/Mississippi border killing more than 1,800 people. 

The city known for cool jazz and hot Cajun cooking became a living nightmare on August 29th, 2005, when following Katrina's landfall, storm surge caused more than 50 levee breaches in New Orleans.  Eighty percent of that city was underwater when Governor Rick Perry called then San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger for help in receiving evacuees.  “He said we’d like to start out by sending you 10,000,” Hardberger said.  “Well, that was kind of a gulp.  That’s a lot of people coming for dinner you hadn’t expected you know.  I said that’s fine, Send them on.  Before it was over we had actually received 35,000 people,” Hardberger said.

One of those evacuees was San Antonio resident Jamella Joseph who lost her aunt and cousins.  They drowned in the New Orleans flooding.  Joseph, who lived near the heart of New Orleans off Canal and Broad streets, in a one-story house, went to a friend's two-story home.  Then the water inundated the first floor.  “So we spent three days sitting on the top watching the water and dead bodies,” Joseph said. 

Finally rescued by boats Joseph and a friend made it to the New Orleans Superdome. "We stayed there for about three days at the Superdome, sitting out there sleeping on the ground,” Joseph said.  “They looted things.”

She was eventually flown to the former Kelly Air Force Base where thousands of San Antonians were on hand to assist with food, clothing and other matters. 

Former Mayor Hardberger remembers going all over town looking for cots but then the Air Force and the Army came through with enough cots for everyone.   Hardberger said the Mexican government even sent more than 1,000 army troops who were well-versed in emergency operations.  "They actually did all of the preparation of the food and the cleaning of the dishes -- three meals a day -- for all of the people that were staying in that area. It was an amazing assistance,” Hardberger recalled.

Credit Katie Cargen
Al Cargen

Many San Antonians assisted through churches and other organizations.  Eighty-five-year-old Al Cargen, a retired Army helicopter pilot, led a team from Saint Matthews United Methodist Church in San Antonio.  "The suggestion was there were two families in a nearby motel and we wanted to adopt them,” Cargen said.  “So, they suggested that I go over and interview them.  I went over there and I found out there were 36 families, so we just adopted the whole group," he said.

Patricia Kennedy and her brother Warren Johnson were among the families Cargen and his team assisted.  And she's forever grateful for that. But she said there's still a stigma attached to the New Orleans evacuees, something she felt again after comments at a recent community revitalization meeting in her current San Antonio neighborhood.  "The last one I went to, now it’s ten years later,” Kennedy said.  “A man said,  'Those people from New Orleans brought all that crime here and we didn't have that crime.'  So, I corrected him.  I said no.  I said there was a study done it was proven that's not so.  Of course, if you have an influx of people, you're going to have some crime.  That's common sense," Kennedy said.

In addition to food, water, clothing and shelter for the evacuees, the education of their children was also a consideration. Patricia Kennedy's brother Warren Johnson’s  daughter was 17 and attending high school in New Orleans when Katrina struck.  Johnson said she finished up at Roosevelt High School in San Antonio.  “They told me the school over here at Roosevelt, they said that was an old school,” Johnson said.  “I said, some of the schools in New Orleans are 200 years old and they don't even renovate them that often, well really don't even renovate them.  They just started renovating since the storm ya know.  That might be a blessing too," he said.

San Antonio resident Bob Howard is a FEMA reservist and in charge of the agency's media efforts during the tenth anniversary of Katrina in New Orleans. He said with respect to the recovery efforts there have been lessons learned.  One of them is go big early because you can always scale back.

"The administrator of FEMA said that those first 72 hours are very important and you can't get that time back,” Howard said.

And lessons were learned in San Antonio too. Former Mayor Hardberger said he learned a lot about emergency management and the need to mobilize quickly to receive disaster evacuees.  As testimony to San Antonio's hard work and compassion during Katrina, Hardberger was very pleased by the words of then President George W. Bush during his visit toward the end of the operation.

"He said, you know, I think you all have the very best program in the whole United States.  So, that makes you feel pretty good," Hardberger said.

“Support for the evacuees was one of the highest points in San Antonio history.”