When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast of America in 2005, it devastated the city of New Orleans and scores of other communities. More than 1800 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless. As shock gripped the area, a co-ordinated rescue effort was launched. Evacuees from New Orleans poured into Houston, Texas, where they were met by an army of full-time and volunteer rescuers. Among them was Scotswoman Elaine Kimberley, then a senior executive with wealth management company Merrill Lynch. Her role was to help the homeless victims of the disaster who had gathered at the Houston Astrodome – to bring some order to a situation she described as ‘pandemonium’. Elaine, who grew up in Irvine, Ayrshire, as Elaine O’Neill, remains proud of how Houston responded to the tragedy. Weeks later she was involved again in the aftermath of the equally destructive Hurricane Rita, and again in 2008 when Hurricane Ike struck. Now in an executive position with the Macquarie Group, the Aberdeen University graduate remains on stand-by for the area’s next natural disaster.
Everyone in our company knows that at some point we will have an extreme weather event in Houston. We have had floods and very bad storms in recent years, but we haven’t had a hurricane come directly through Houston since 2008, when Ike came ashore.
But everyone who has been in Houston for more than five years knows we will get a hurricane. We know that something is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.
When Katrina hit, I was at Merrill Lynch and I was a volunteer with the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department. If anything happened in east Texas and western Louisiana they could call on us to help people when they were in trouble. For Katrina, the big thing was to go to the Houston Astrodome. That was where most of the evacuees from Louisiana came.
Katrina was originally headed for Houston, then it shifted over to the Louisiana/Texas border, and then it went west of New Orleans. So, everyone thought we were free and clear. But with Katrina it wasn’t the storm itself that caused the problem, it was the bayous, they were not strong enough to hold all the water. The flooding at Katrina was caused by the bayous bursting. That was what flooded the city.
When that happened, the emergency units were activated and they tried to identify people that could be moved into Houston. There were a lot of people who died because they couldn’t get out. But those who got to the safe zones and got into the buses, they knew where to go and that was west, because the hurricane was going to turn east.
There were hundreds of thousands of people evacuated from Louisiana – from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other places – they put them on buses, and put them on planes and they flew them to Houston, and some to Austin.
When they activated all the emergency services in Houston, the volunteer fire departments, the paid fire departments, they said ‘anyone who is qualified to come to the Astrodome, we need you to help’.
There were a lot of people who were fine and healthy and just needed rest, but the majority were people who had health problems. I am a certified emergency medical technician and with the fire department, so I went down to the Astrodome to help triage the people who were coming in.
There were so many people that needed help because they didn’t have their medicine with them. We had to identify what medicine they needed. Some didn’t have any clothes, others didn’t have any idea who they were. There were a lot of people who were senior and who were confused, who were totally out of it because of the storm.
Someone in their family or in the neighbourhood had taken them and put them on the bus. They didn’t have anything that they were comfortable with and they were showing up here in distress. Not just because of the storm but because of the fact they had been moved, and they didn’t understand where they were going.
There was a lot of work for the medical people to do, cuts and bruises, people who were diabetic, people who needed wounds re-bandaged, who needed to go to the hospital. But there were also people who just needed someone to hold their hand.
We had all these people in the Astrodome who were being treated by medical staff, and other people with psychological damage. Some of them had psychological damage before the hurricane and they had lost their support. It was hectic and a lot of the emergency services put in hundreds of hours.
I didn’t want to leave but the people in charge of the emergency personnel made you take down-time. I didn’t want to go home knowing there were people needing help, needing homes, needing clothes to wear, needing shoes, and toys for their kids. But in an emergency, the person you have to look out for first is yourself. If you are not up to it, you cannot help anyone else.
When I got to the Astrodome, there were thousands of people, outside it was pandemonium. There were buses and cars coming in, and the parking lots were full of tents. Texas was ready, they had the tents, and they had triage positions. It was loud, very noisy. We had people coming in for two weeks being treated and finding them homes. The medical care we were giving lasted about two weeks. I was doing things intensely for the first four days.
I think one of the most troubling things about Katrina was that we sent volunteer fire departments to New Orleans to help recover dead bodies. Going in, they had people firing guns and trying to kill the rescue crews. There were people in New Orleans who were trying to disrupt the rescue, and they had to get the fire department out of there.
Because I am part of the fire department, I am trained well. If something happens, I react. I put my blue gloves on and then I am in emergency mode. I don’t think about my house, I don’t think about anybody, I just think about what I am going to do. When I take my gloves off and take my shower, then the stress does get to me.
A few weeks after Katrina, Hurricane Rita hit east Texas and we were not prepared. In Rita, people died in their cars, people don’t realise that. In one case someone’s grandmother died in the car, and she was in the car for 12 hours before they could get her. Rita was so bad and people don’t know anything about it.
For me, Katrina was at a distance, it was behind a wall of professionalism, Rita was slap-dab in my face, I was up for three days constantly giving people updates, finding accommodation for people. Then, a few years later came Hurricane Ike, which Houston handled superbly even though it impacted us terribly.