Austinites who fled Hurricane Katrina know what Harvey evacuees face

Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina forced Chris Savittiere to evacuate from New Orleans and eventually build a new life in Austin, he watches the people of Houston and surrounding areas face streets that have turned into rivers and the prospect of an uncertain future.

“It’s kind of like deja vu, except we’re not directly involved in it,” Savittiere said.

Not directly, but certainly indirectly. Savittiere’s brother, David, who also evacuated from New Orleans around the time of Katrina, is trapped in his house in the community of Cypress in Northwest Houston. David Savittiere’s house has thus far been spared, but much of his neighborhood is underwater.

Chris Savittiere, a designer and tailor who moved to Austin a few months after Katrina, following a brief detour to Seattle, knows what it takes to build a new life in an unknown city. But, right now, he says the people of Houston and other traumatized areas are still likely in a state of shock, dealing with basic needs of personal survival and safety. The work of putting the pieces back together is still shrouded somewhere in the middle distance.

“I don’t think that the impact has still fully hit,” Savittiere said. “The sad part and the hard part is what happens a week from now when the reality starts to sit in that you can’t go back. The displacement is what really saddens me for what is going on in Houston right now. The hard work comes when the sun comes out and you have to figure out what to do next.”

Christine Moline and her husband, Terrence, also evacuated to Austin from New Orleans during Katrina, and she said she thinks advances in technology over the past 12 years will significantly help victims of the Texas floods. When she and Terrence fled New Orleans, they could email friends and family, but when they arrived in Texas, they still had to search for nonprofits and make phone calls. The explosion of social media allows more immediate access to a wealth of resources.

But Christine Moline, who runs management consultancy Dashboard Priorities, advises people to not rely solely on technology as they gather information and plan future steps. She recommends they keep a notebook and log conversations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies.

“That will be invaluable,” Moline said.

The Molines had just closed on their first house in New Orleans the week before Katrina, so she said she was already in business mode by the time the storm arrived. She leaned into that once arriving in Austin.

“I worked through that shock to rebuild almost immediately,” said Christine Moline, who added that it is important that storm victims try to keep things in perspective. “Everything that is material can be replaced. If you got out with your life, then everything else can be replaced. It may be a hard lesson, especially if you are in shock.”

While each story of escape, survival and rebuilding looks different, the Molines and Chris Savittiere have a commonality: the warm welcome and support they received after arriving in Austin.

Savittiere said the empathy and help of community members are paramount in giving the displaced solid ground from which to start anew.

“Find those people who need help,” he said. “Reach out to them. Every bit of empathy and understanding you can offer goes a long way to helping people rebuild their lives. Anything you can do to help someone in your community who is facing that, it can go a lot farther than you think.”

Still, it’s hard for him to give advice to the newly stranded, who are likely overwhelmed and scared.

“Stay close to your family. Stay close to your friends,” Savittiere said. “I would say be patient. I would say work hard. I don’t know, man. What advice do you give to someone who’s lost everything? You have to start all the way over.”

Moline echoes Savittiere’s call for empathy and support from Austinites and those who will shelter and possibly serve as new neighbors for many affected by the floods.

“Think about what you would need and what you would want if you were in the same position,” Moline said. “It’s easy to text money to a nonprofit and then pull the covers over yourself and go back to sleep.”

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