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September 19, 2005
Contact: Ron Barber
(Giffords transition team)

Guest Opinion: Houston’s Humble Haven; If Nothing Else, We Should Learn From Tragedy

By Gabrielle Giffords
Tucson Citizen Op-Ed

HOUSTON - U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay recently visited Reliant Park to glimpse what the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were experiencing.I was in Houston volunteering to help the thousands who had survived the storm.

DeLay stopped to chat with a few young kids resting on cots. “Now tell me the truth, boys,” he said, “is this kind of fun?”

It was reported that the boys looked confused by his question. Maybe Congressman DeLay didn’t realize that these kids weren’t tourists or there for a camping trip.

Coincidentally, I had a recent experience in south Texas as a tourist in Galveston. The day couldn’t have been more different.

It was one of those summer weekends where you just get in the car and drive off without knowing where you’ll wind up. And where I found myself was a place that was the richest city in Texas until it became the site of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

In September 1900, Galveston was hit by a storm with winds exceeding 120 mph and a tidal surge that nearly wiped out the sea strand.

An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 people were killed in the deadliest flood on U.S. soil, where little warning or notice prepared residents and tourists to seek higher ground.

Many of the rotting dead were burned on the seashore in mass funeral pyres.

Two weeks ago, I found myself again on Interstate 45, this time driving north and thinking about hurricanes and memories.

I was heading to the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, a shelter that was opened as an overflow for the evacuees who couldn’t fit into the Astrodome or the Reliant Center.

They needed volunteers, and lots of them, and I wanted to play a role in helping clean the wreckage of our modern Galveston.

I couldn’t do anything about the bodies stacking up in hospitals and homes, but I could try to help those who were still alive.

The Houston trade show hall had become an overnight city of the poor, a Hooverville for the Bush era.

Each cot and mattress was neatly covered with sheets, blankets, pillows and a Bible. Hot food and drinks became available with handsanitizing solution to prevent the spread of disease.

Clothes and toys were organized on tables. Medical stations appeared in tents as in a “M*A*S*H” rerun, with doctors and nurses tending to the long lines of the elderly and sick.

A mental-health station was erected, where social workers talked quietly with the severely stressed.

A play area with movies, toys and books hugged a corner wall. A post office was set up to establish an address for people to start receiving mail. Transportation was organized for people who had none with schedules for public buses and shuttles.

Many people already were looking for jobs in Houston, perhaps a sign to themselves that they never would be returning home. A missing-persons station was mobbed. A small table located conveniently nearby offered “Prayer Assistance.”

A volunteer from the Red Cross sat me at a computer terminal. I was at the terminus of a long line of people straggling in by bus and by car from the horrors of the Superdome and the anarchy of the New Orleans streets.

I had no way to predict what I would experience over the next few days. With little or no training, we greeted the same evacuees we had seen on the news just days before and told them what they could expect in their new surroundings.

What did I see in those faces? Most of them were just plain tired, their eyes opaque. Others were more emotive. I saw sadness, anger and regret flushed with gratitude and joy.

Families of all sizes, ages and background one by one made their way through what was to become over the course of the following days a mess of our own, a bureaucratic one this time.

We took their vital information and entered it into an enormous data base. Their names became a river of words. Each represented a personal disaster - a wrecked home, a missing brother, a dead child, a job or career that would never come back.

After I took the names, they were led away to the cots. There were 18,000 of them by the time we were finished.

Each day when I returned, I looked for familiar faces in the sea of evacuees; I only once saw one - a homeless man named Buford. He had been living on the streets before; now he was more homeless than ever. The others I had met I never saw again.

I have no idea what will happen to these people. I have no idea if our federal government has learned anything from its failure to protect those citizens who were most in danger from a catastrophic event.

Galveston, New Orleans, Biloxi and their tragedies all seem remote and distant from those of us who live far from the Southern waters and the terrifying storms they produce.

But we can and should learn from their experiences when sifting through the evidence of what went wrong.

Arizona state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords is a Tucson Democrat.

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