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Interview with: Michael Moore
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: August 9, 2007
DG: It is August 9, 2007. We are in the office of Michael Moore who holds the title of Chief of Staff for the mayor of the City of Houston and also in attendance is Jill Jewett, Frank Michelle, Paul Tucker. My name is Dave Goldstein. In your official capacity, when did you first realize that Katrina was going to be something that the city would have to deal with in an official capacity?
MM: You could not help by seeing what was going on in New Orleans by the media coverage and the disaster it was. The evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi were already coming to the city. People who could get out, people who left before the storm, they were already here, you know, thousands and thousands of them. But the day before when they were finally getting into the Superdome and Convention Center, you just knew they were coming here. We are the largest major city closest to New Orleans. It only made sense. That would be the day before. And then, that night, phone call from governor to governor, I think it was. It triggered official help, meaning opening up shelters, the Astrodome complex, Red Cross shelters, and actually, setting up to be able to take in all the bus loads of people that were going to be arriving from New Orleans.
DG: As best you can, can you give me the chronology of when you first realized you had a major issue on your hands and just take me through? We will skip around if you need to, we will go back as you need to, but just tell me how it happened.
MM: I do not know who first I got a phone call from. I think it might have been Frank Michelle, communications director. It was either Frank or a friend of mine who ran Reliant, Shea Gwen, picked up the phone and said, "Hey, we've got thousands of evacuees coming to the Astrodome complex, Reliant Center." So, we started meeting. That was in the middle of the night. This was first thing in the morning. So, we immediately started meeting on what we need to do. The mayor talked to the judge, county judge. Mayor Bill White talked to Judge Eckels . . . you know, "whatever we need to do." The emergency management folks started preparing. But I do not think anybody was prepared for what was going to start hitting the next afternoon and evening with the number of busses and the number of people that were coming, and the condition people were in.
DG: Who was involved in those earliest discussions?
MM: There is a local emergency management structure between the county and the city that every time there is a hurricane or some natural disaster, it automatically goes into effect. And the county has their responsibility, the city has their responsibility. So, these are emergency management professionals. The fire department, police department, county emergency office, city emergency office. They started making plans, talking to Red Cross and others to prepare the Reliant Center because that was really the first shelter the people were going to be opening after Reliant Center. People forget about . . . you had the Astrodome and the George R. Brown to take in evacuees but there were hundreds . . . I am not going to say hundreds . . . there were a lot of faith-based shelters and Red Cross shelters all over the city that were housing evacuees. It wasn't just . . . you know, you had 29,000 at maximum at the Astrodome and somewhere around 6,000 at George R. Brown, but there were thousands of evacuees at all these small shelters.
That first night when the evacuees came in, it was pretty wild down there at the Astrodome. One miscalculation that people made was hey, look, we got the Superdome, we have thousands of people in there, let's just put them in the Astrodome. It just doesn't work. You cannot sit somebody in a chair for more than a couple of hours. You sit in a chair at a baseball game, you have got to stand up and walk around and you get to leave. But you cannot put somebody in a chair and say, O.K., you are going to spend the night there. People die sitting in chairs. So, the evacuees busses started slowly showing up at the Astrodome. The Red Cross was out there putting out cots and stuff, and fire marshals are out there checking, O.K., how many can this actually fit? And they said, in the beginning that, wait a minute, the Astrodome can only fit 8,000. "What do you mean it can only fit 8,000?" Everybody thought it could fit a whole lot more. "You've got a calculation of" . . . I have forgotten exactly the square footage, "but it is 5 x 4 or something that a human being can actually . . . well, you can only put so many people on the ground in the Astrodome and then you have got some of the concourse you could put people on. So, there was very early on in the evening, the fire marshal limited it to 8,000, and we still had busses coming in. The only person that can overrule the fire marshal in the city of Houston is the mayor. And so, I am sitting there with the fire marshal who is a great guy. You know, he is doing his job. He is like saying, I am just telling you we can only do 8,000 here, and I am standing in the middle of the concourse at Reliant Center. I pick up the phone call. "Mayor? We have got busses coming in and we've got we don't know how many thousands of people. The fire marshal is saying only 8,000. But you are the only one who can overrule him." And he goes, "What do you think?" I said, "We at least have to go about 15,000." So, we went about 12,000. I go, "Fire marshal, do you need to hear this from the mayor?" He said, "No, fine. We will go with the 12,000." So, we went up to 12,000.
DG: What time was that?
MM: It was, I would say, 6, 7, 8 o'clock. 6, 7. And then, really soon after that . . . O.K., so then we were told that, O.K., we can probably fit the folks that are coming tonight in the Astrodome. So, we were all putting out cots. It looked like things were under control. We had enough people. We had enough volunteers. Things were going to settle down. We were told that there weren't more busses coming. So, I left the Astrodome about 10:30, 11, 11:30, something like that. I was going to go home, get a couple of hours sleep and then come back. I get a phone call from Tim Fleck at the Houston Chronicle. He goes, "They have closed the gates. They are turning busses away and people are jumping out of the windows of the busses." And Channel 13 goes live with it. They were turning away busses. I go, "Wait a minute. That is not possible." I call Patrick Trayhan who was still out there and he goes, "Yes, busses have stopped at the perimeter because they do not have any more room," and stuff. And I go, "Whoa, we can't do that," and immediately started heading back out there. It was actually a good thing that the TV station went up on the air and said, "They have stopped ______ because we really needed the volunteers in the middle of the night." I will get back to that here in a second.
So, we went back out there. I had an emergency meeting with the Reliant folks and the emergency folks out there and they ended up opening Reliant Arena to house more people. So, they opened the gates back up, busses started coming in, Red Cross started bringing in cots. We were out there, we were throwing out cots while they were setting up the . . . you know, you screen people and they come in. We had to make sure there weren't guns or knives getting into the shelter which, hey, if I was stuck in the middle of a city with lawlessness, I would have my own gun with me, too. I mean, I am not blaming somebody that brought a gun but we did not want it to get in the shelter. So, we had to set up all the screening process for the folks that came off the busses. We were in there throwing cots out and by the time we got a cot, there was somebody sitting in it. I mean, we were working . . . we were trying to get 5 minutes ahead, just to keep 5 minutes ahead of the number of evacuees that were coming in. And, you know, we started working trying to get 30 minutes, or 1 hour or 2 hours, and finally, the next day, we started . . . we were not getting good Intelligence of what was coming from Louisiana. They were just putting people on a bus and saying, "Getting on interstate 10 and head to Houston and find the Astrodome." There was no phone call saying, you have got 10 busses that left at 8 o'clock at night. You have got another 10 that left at 11. Nothing like that. There was no intelligence whatsoever. And we kept asking for it.
If you walked around Reliant Center and the Astrodome, picture these two big complexes that hold sporting events and concerts and stuff wringed by busses in the middle of the night and all you saw was headlights and red lights, parking lots, just rings of busses, people waiting to get off to go through screening to get into a place to sleep and food and medical attention. It was a pretty wild night that night. Folks were coming off those busses and they were in pretty bad shape. They had seen a lot. Bad conditions where they came from. We tried to do our best to calm them down and make sure they knew that, O.K., we are going to take care of you and that things were going to get better.
??: And we can mobilize the __________.
MM: There were lots of great ideas from a lot of different people. And I don't know who thought about this one -- bringing the ministers, African American ministers, other denomination ministers out to greet the busses. A minister has a certain . . . either a minister or a priest . . . has a certain kind of calming effect when you start talking about faith and you are going to be fine and stuff like that. So, I don't know who thought of it but it was a great idea having the ministers meet the busses when they got there.
Medical attention. I cannot say enough about the Harris County medical folks, our medical folks, Dr. Purse and his team, the Harris County folks and the Medical Center. They set up a world class medical center at the Reliant Arena and at the Astrodome - basically, mobile hospitals, with top staff, top professionals from . . . you cannot find any better professionals throughout the world, screening people that came in. Some of the people that came in off the busses, this was the best medical attention they had ever seen. People were diagnosed . . . "You are taking what?" . . . were rediagnosed about their ailments that somebody had prescribed something for them in New Orleans, or that they did not have their medication. And how do you give somebody medication that does not have an address, does not have a driver's license, does not have any money? We had to work out that: how do we get somebody medication? They did an incredible job of taking care of them. There were a lot of seniors, a lot of elderly, a lot of disabled, and they just did an amazing job stabilizing people that needed care.
DG: I am sure there were a lot of heroes. It sounds like a step took place though before then where the idea about having the ministers and how the doctors were mobilized. What was the organizational mechanism that mobilized all those resources for that moment?
MM: I do not know the exact name for it but there is a structure. There is an emergency management structure for the county when, say, a natural disaster happens or a hurricane comes through. Well, that same mechanism got set up. It was the unified command? That automatically got set up and they are the decision makers. They are the ones who try to go out and get resources and talk to the Red Cross and mobilize different, mobilize the medical center and the ________ professionals, and basically try to look down the road at what we are going to need and what we are going to need to set up. That structure is there for any natural disaster. Disaster did not hit here. There was no disaster here. But we set up the same structure as if a hurricane had hit Houston.
DG: Those people who showed up in those first busses, had they been traumatized to a certain degree?
MM: The first bus, the last bus.
DG: Any people, any stories, any particular individuals stick out in your mind?
MM: There were so many faces in the first night and it was about, you know, every time you saw somebody that looked like they might be in trouble, you tried to just spend a couple of seconds with them and say, "Hey look, you are going to be O.K. You are going to be taken care of. We are going to feed you, clothe you, get you a place to sleep." There was one older senior lady that I walked by that was sitting in her wheelchair and you could tell she was in pain because she could not find -- it was a brother or son, grandchildren or something like that. She was just mumbling how she could not find her relative. And you tried to sit there for a second with her and say, "Look, things are going to go O.K. As soon as we get things settled down, we will try to find your relatives." And over the next couple of weeks, there were a lot of people reunited with their family.
DG: None of this falls naturally under your job description as Chief of Staff. What was some of your personal experience during this time? How did you spend those first couple of nights?
MM: Being next to the mayor and being somebody he looks to, to get things done. Me, I was in a unique position because we really do have a tight, close team at the city of Houston -- the department directors, the senior staff, the employees. I was able to be on the ground and be his eyes and ears and to be able to mobilize whatever was needed. Just a couple of examples. In the middle of the night, the trash just started piling up around the Reliant Center and outside. Well, you know, you have got to clean the place up. It makes people feel better, it is not a depressing place, it is a beautiful place out there, it is a good facility. Well, the folks at Reliant Center were taxed, they were already spent.
So, we got the Parks Department just to come and clean up. The janitors at the Astrodome and the Reliant Center, the ones that regularly worked there, well, they work for a football game or a baseball game or a concert. They do not work 24/7. So, they were spent. And so, I would pick up the phone and call the mayor and I go, "Do I have your authority to" and he would go,
"Yes, get it done." I called _______ at Building Services and I said "Isa, I need every extra janitor you have got to start rotating bases, cleaning the Astrodome facility," because, again, it was a 24/7 shelter and the facility was only supposed to service 3 to 4 hours for a game or a concert. So, our guys went out there and did an amazing job of keeping that place sanitary because otherwise, there would have been all kinds of health outbreaks in a shelter with that many people piled on top of each other. So, I was like his eyes and ears in being able to help mobilize the assets of the city and help communicate. We were using the Frank and Patrick Communications folks in the city, working with them. Being able to work with HPD. If HPD needed more resources, you know, I would relay it back to the mayor and the mayor would call the governor. The governor would try to get some National Guard down here or get more DPS involved because, you know, again, we just did not have that shelter, we had other shelters. It took a lot of manpower to secure that facility, the other shelters, and also to do your regular patrol of the city for the police department. There were things like that.
I am trying to think of other specific examples. People would come up with problems they had and how do we solve this problem? I was kind of the go-to guy for the city to help solve the problems that came up on every 5 or 10 minutes. If I did not know how to solve the problem, I would go to somebody that might be able to solve it.
DG: What was the mayor's personal involvement? How did he manage the crisis? How was he fulfilling his role as mayor of the city?
MM: Very hands-on. He jumped right in with both feet. He immediately set up communications and they were already close but communications with the judge, worked as a team, made sure that all of the city departments were fully mobilized to do everything we could, make sure we were having communications with the media, communications with the nonprofit groups, make sure that we knew that look, we are all in this - there is not this thousand people from the federal government, come here tomorrow and handle the situation at hand. This was our problem. We were going to be the shining light in the country. We were not going to let anything fall. If somebody was in need, we were going to help them, and show some of that Houston hospitality.
DG: I want to get back to the chronology. At some point, you are running as fast as you can to get ahead of the people, then it becomes more of a maintenance issue in providing services. Can you talk about that phase of the response?
MM: When you are able to think ahead and you get some time, you think of basic human needs and how to normalize people's lives, and they are common. Everybody knows them. Daycare for kids. Communications with their families. Basic needs like a shower and a haircut, going to the beauty parlor for some. Watching kids play and smile. Let me go back to the beauty parlor stuff. It was amazing to see all the beauticians come in and set up shop within the Reliant Center and the Astrodome and start giving free hairdos. It was great. I mean, just think of being able to take a shower and get clean clothes on and having your hair done in a shelter. The other thing with the kids - we started setting up play areas for the kids and got them clothes and got them toys and basketballs, that were supervised with people that knew what they were doing, that knew how to supervise kids and play and stuff, and when you saw kids playing, throwing balls, if the kids were O.K., the parents were O.K. Just to see those kids smile and play, you knew things were getting better. Able to get the parents and guardians time to go, O.K., what am I going to do? I lost my house. I am in a city that they might not have ever been before. How do I figure out how to pick up my life again? They did not have to think about 3 or 4 hours during the day that the kids were in daycare. We immediately started contacting HISD to start setting up schools, setting up classes for the kids to go to. So, again, we can normalize people's lives.
I already talked about the medical care. The post office came in and set up a post office. Banks started coming in. The mayor personally talked to these drug store companies and they came in and they brought their mobile drugstores to be able to fill prescriptions. Anything that you think you really need in your normal life, your normal day to survive and that would make you feel like a person again, we tried to do. On Sunday, bringing in ministers of different denominations to be able to hold mass for the masses. We had a lot of celebrities coming through here. One of the very first ones, and we actually sought him out because he is one of those people that everybody smiles and he is a calming factor, was Bill Cosby. I could care less about anyone else that came in here but he was the one that we actually sought out and said, "Get Bill Cosby down here." Mattress Mack and his wife, back to the child care, set up an amazing, outside of the Dome, a place where kids could go play basketball and video games and jumping in those balloon things that kids jump in, and a playground for kids that Jim McIngvale and Linda McIngvale set up which was really neat.
DG: It seemed that there was a moment when we realized they were not coming here for a couple of days and going home, that they were going to be here for a very long time. From the city's perspective, did that create some new problems, some new issues, did it change your organization or the way you responded?
MM: You have an emergency group that is Unified Command that is set up to do the initial disaster, and then you are supposed to have other people coming behind it to fill in on, O.K., what is next? FEMA shows up. What is next? Well, Bob never, the mayor has never, the judge never had 250,000, 300,000 new guests in their city before or knew what to do with them when they are here, when you know they are not going to be able to go back for a very long time, and people who know anything about what water can do to a house when it sits there for a number of days and the plumbing and the electricity and the city infrastructure and stuff, they knew that New Orleans, parts of it, were not going to be habitable for years and years and years to come. So, we basically had to set up a housing department to figure out how we are going to get all the folks out of the all the shelters and put them into a place where they can start rebuilding their lives. It was not going to be trailers. It was not going to be shelters and it was not going to be trailers. They have still got trailer camps up in Florida and other places on the Coast that people live in from hurricanes years and years ago. It is just not going to happen here. FEMA was not capable, the federal government was not capable of actually putting this together. Yes, they funded it but the county and the city had a joint housing taskforce that was put together by a bunch of great folks. John Walsh, Guy Rankin from the county. We knew we had a lot of apartment stock here. Some of it needed to be upgraded, you know, housing standards, but we ended up at the height having housed over 40,000 units, apartment units. Now, that could be 1 person, 2 people or 3 people. Mostly, there were different numbers but about 3.2 people per housing unit. Do the math. It is over 120,000 folks that we housed in the Katrina/Rita housing taskforce. At one point in time, there were 60,000 hotel rooms full in the city with evacuees. 60,000. Every single hotel was full in the area. I will go back to the apartments here in a second. Actually, I probably should go back to it now.
When we first started identifying apartment complexes, we had to identify senior complexes for assisted living, we had to have multiple combinations from two bedrooms to one bedroom. Nobody had ever done this before. We set up a whole housing department that people would get vouchers and we would give them a list or we would drive them around or we would show them, give them a list, here are apartments that will accept your voucher, and they would choose where they wanted to go live. Remind me to go back to the FEMA idea that they wanted to do.
When we first started doing this, when we first started putting these apartments together, our first goal was to get the seniors off the floor of the Astrodome and the mothers with children, single mothers with children. Guy Rankin, from the county, was in charge of basically organizing that which was no easy feat because you just got all these people out of a horrible situation in the Superdome, you put them on the floor and they started feeling a little comfortable, they started setting up neighborhoods within the Reliant and Astrodome complex because they knew their neighbors were there or they knew somebody that was a couple of streets over and they would start neighborhoods. And a lot of people were alone. There were a lot of seniors that did not have any family members there or other people that did not have family members there. And then, you would go, "O.K., come with me. Get on the bus. We are going to take you to another place." "I don't really think so," a lot of people said. There were these girls from . . . what were they called, the Girls from Utah, the Girls from Colorado . . . these great volunteers that just flew in on the drop of a hat that were helping us organize the seniors to get them on these little 20 person airport-type shuttles to take them to their apartment that we had arranged with their trash bags, because that is all they had and it was what was given to them at the shelters.
Guy Rankin got me to follow the second 20 passenger van to the seniors living complex. I said, "No, I have got too much work to do." He said, "No, you have to. You have to go do it." So, I followed it out there and watched these seniors that had just gone through hell get off the van and walk into the assisted living complex. I mean, these were folks that were on walkers, they are 60, 70 years old, some had diabetes, they have got other ailments, and they walk into this brand new complex almost with a swimming pool that has wheelchair access and really nice people that are there to take care of them and walk them into a brand new apartment with a dishwasher and a washing machine. A lot of them had never had a dishwasher or a washing machine before in their entire lives, and to see them . . . they would ask, "How long are we here for? Are we here for one week?" We were going, "You are here for the time being. You are here for as long as you want." And to watch them cry and to watch the amazement, it was an amazing feeling. So, it was time to head back and work with all the people on the housing taskforce to get everybody out of the shelters and get them into apartments which I said, we housed over 40,000 units here in the city.
DG: What was the FEMA solution?
MM: They sent two cruise ships down to Galveston, rented them for I do not know how many millions and millions of dollars. Somebody did a report on it. And they wanted to get the evacuees off the floor to get on a bus to go down to Galveston to get on a boat docked at a pier and live there for I do not know how long. You know, if I had just been through a hurricane and been stuck and surrounded by water for I do not know how many days and then I just got sort of settled, I do not think I am going to get on a bus and go down to the end of the dock and get on a cruise ship, when I probably have never been on one in my entire life. We told them it was not going to work. They insisted on trying. They tried for 3 different times on 3 different days to get people to go to the cruise ship. I think they got a total of 20 to go down there. It was just amazing. I was looking at the local FEMA guys and they are sitting there going, "We've got orders." And I am like going, you are not going to get any help here. But the folks on the ground, they tried it. We told them from the very beginning it was not going to work. They ended up sending the cruise ships to New Orleans to house recovery workers down there. But it was amazing.
DG: In between those first busses and everybody being resettled, the realities of living in the Astrodome and the Reliant Center, were there any special problems as people started staying there and days turned into weeks and months in terms of disease, in terms of sanitation, in terms of people getting along?
MM: There was a little scare there _______ and the doctors and the medical folks, great that they . . . like I say, we have the most amazing medical staff, medical community in the country. They diagnosed the Norwalk virus which was in the Astrodome which was that cruise ship virus. It is diarrhea. It can be very painful, especially if you are a senior. Some kids had caught it and they were worrying about it going through the entire population. They mainly isolated the kids and gave them medicine and stuff. That was about the same time that we had all the janitors cleaning on a 24 hour basis, cleaning the Astrodome and Reliant, and putting hand sanitizer everywhere, and monitoring the situation, making sure things were clean, making sure people had new towels and new clothing. They built showers in Reliant Center. They built showers at the George R. Brown. But it was great that the medical community, they diagnosed this right off the bat and we did something about it. Otherwise, you know, you would have a very bad situation going through a large population.
Feeding that many people out there. But you also had to feed all the other shelters, too. I mean, if a church takes in 100 people, there is only an amount of time that they are going to start feeling strain. So, we had to start supplying the shelters out there through the Houston Food Bank and others with supplies. It was a whole logistical . . . I remember one story . . . we had run out of cots in the city and a Red Cross worker comes up and he goes, "O.K., we just got 10,000 cots that just landed at Intercontinental and they are being loaded on an 18-wheeler." Well, I called HPD and I think it is the first 18-wheeler that got a police escort that was loaded with cots ever. We got a police escort to where the cots were needed because we were working on a really short timeframe.
DG: Were there times in the process when the needs outstripped your ability to respond?
MM: No. It was just a matter of timing and being able to anticipate the need. If we would have known exactly -- a couple of hours -- if we would have known the amount of folks that were coming, evacuees, in a timely manner, we would have been able to prepare, but it was like, O.K., every single bus in the entire state of Louisiana was heading for Houston. It was bus after bus after bus after bus. There was no Intelligence. So, we did not know the magnitude of people that were coming here. Again, we had already had tens of thousands evacuees already here, that drove here on their own. On the busses, if we would have had the Intelligence, even somebody sitting at the border and counting, O.K., just 2 more busses passed by at 9 o'clock, we could know they were heading here and then we could prepare ahead. So, it was more of timing. We had the resources. It was a full community effort, meaning, not only the county and the city but the faith-based community, the corporations, non-profits, and every citizen in the city, all worked together to do whatever we could for the evacuees. There were people that showed up at the George R. Brown and the Astrodome that were just volunteers that did not work for the city, did not work for the county, did not work for our government - just showed up and volunteered for the entire time. So, we had the manpower, we had the resources, and we had the leadership to get anything done. It was more of, O.K., tell us what is going to happen, give us the number of people that are coming and we will solve the problem, and that is why we were successful because we took it on. We did not ask what we needed to do. We just did what we knew what needed to be done. Does that make sense? [end of side 1]
DG: When you start listing names, there is a possibility that you will leave somebody out that you did not want to leave out, so I am not going to ask you to name a comprehensive list but for the purposes of this resource, are there some people who maybe did not have it as their job description to respond, who really stand out in your mind during this period, going above and beyond, maybe by fulfilling a role different than the one that they did every other day or maybe in terms of their volunteer spirit? You mentioned a couple of women from Utah but within our city, were there people who really stick out in your mind?
MM: There are hundreds. There really are. You know, when you have got department directors unloading baggage from underneath a bus along with a fire fighter and a police officer, along with the chief of staff to the mayor, with volunteers that you had never met before, you know that it is a full-fledged effort. It is neat to see that. It is neat to see that the followers become leaders. It is neat to see people I have never met before, within a few hours, them knowing me and I knowing them and trusting each other to get what might seem to me an amazing . . . something that is almost impossible to do and get it done. So, I can see the pictures of their faces, of who they are. It really was one big team. And I am just not saying that. It really was. It was an amazing feat.
MM: Andy? ________. Oh, Andy called me the other day. We still talk.
DG: Let me ask you so the question will be on the tape. You mentioned the faith community several times. You made reference to a person at Second Baptist that you had a special story about. What was that story about?
MM: This is more of . . . just took a guy who I became friends with. He called me the other day. Andy. He took over the whole warehouse which means we are talking about 18-wheelers coming from Canada, coming in here bringing in supplies, or a boat from Costa Rica bringing supplies for evacuees and being able to work with the Food Bank and being able to get these supplies out to shelters and to the Dome or to faith-based communities and to organize all of it, he is one of the hundreds.
Colonel Noriega. I just got back from Afghanistan and the mayor said, "Hey, I need you to go set up a shelter over at the George R. Brown." O.K., you know, just off a plane, been overseas.
DG: This interview is being conducted for the Houston Oral History Project. Twenty years from now, people listen to this. What do you want them to know about the city of Houston at this time of crisis, at this time of need and the way that they responded?
MM: Houston is an amazing place and I just do not say that lightly because I have been a lot of places in the world. It is the fourth largest city in the United States but neighborhoods do not feel like that. It is made up of a lot of neighbors and when we see somebody in need, we try to help them help themselves. And to see the people come out of there, to see the number of volunteers that came from all backgrounds, to see a lot of people that came from backgrounds to help people that did not look like them, was amazing. And to see in the George R. Brown one day, it was full of Pakistani volunteers. They are in the cafeteria line feeding evacuees, handing out clothes, manning the volunteer tables. At Second Baptist, had hundreds of volunteers on a daily basis. You had all the African American ministers and their faith-based communities coming in and actually pulling a bus up and saying, "I have a church over here for a community of this many people in the parish. We can take 40 people to come. It is going to be better than what you have got here," and to actually watch them get on the bus and go take them to their community, to their neighborhood and take care of them and house them. There were a lot of instances where people went ahead and set up apartments for people and started paying for the apartment to get the people set up before a voucher program was actually set up, for a housing voucher program. So, you know, this city did rise to the occasion and it was neat to see it as a shining star when the country was watching the horrible event happen. I was proud to be a part of it.
DG: What do you think your enduring memory of that period will be? It is still fairly fresh. It has not been that long - a couple of years. But what do you think will really last when you are telling your grandkids about this?
MM: It will be hard to describe, it really will be, but, you know, it might have been hundreds and hundreds of miles away but it is neighbor helping neighbor. New Orleans is a neighbor of Houston. Even tragedy that you saw going on through the media, some of it was hyped but there were still a lot of tragic things going on, and to see this city stand up and take care of basically a whole city or the large part of the city and take care of them the way we did, with dignity, you know, that was kind of a creed we had, is to take care with dignity and respect and get them back on their feet. I think we did an amazing job. I do not know if I can describe that. I guess I probably can 20 years from now.
DG: That may be how long it takes. Is there anything anybody wanted to ask? I mean, we do not have to be done but I sort of covered the story ark.
MM: It was all over the map.
MM: Yes, you would walk . . . we did one move from . . . it was always you were juggling resources and on a daily basis, you know where you are and you can think days out. We thought days out and we started moving everybody out of the Astrodome and the Reliant Arena to Reliant Center which was much bigger and they were building, once we got it set up, with showers in the facilities. And this person that had not been out of the Arena since she got there, she was a young African American lady by herself. She was a bank teller in New Orleans and she had already made contact with her company who said, "As soon as you get settled and have a place, we will have a job for you here in Houston." She was standing in line with her plastic bag and I did not know this - she was standing in line with her plastic bag and nervous with a tear coming down her eyes, with all these people in line they were getting ready to move over to the Reliant Center and I just sat there and talked to her. She told me this in this little period, her story. Bank teller. Single. And that she was nervous and where were they taking me? I sat there for a second. I go, "It is much better. Just came from there. It is brand new. It is a newer building. They have got showers. They have got a lot more room. The lighting is better. It is a much better place in here and that is only temporary because we are going to set you up in that apartment you are talking about." I am sure she is working right now in this company. But just, you would have these little brief . . . when you are running and running around trying to take care of the masses, driving back from the George R. Brown to the Astrodome to a meeting with the mayor and the judge . . . you get these little moments. And I made sure, and I told everybody they need to do this, because you can separate yourself from the people that need . . . you can sit up in an office and move around all these resources, but you actually had to take the time to go down and talk to the people in need to really get a grip on what is happening in their lives and what is happening to them. So, I made sure every single day, I went over and talked to some of the evacuees just to connect.
I was walking out of the George R. Brown one night. We had this group set up. Reliant Energy folks came in and helped us organize the computers and the furniture processing because once you get an apartment, then you have got to get them furniture to sleep on. We were not able to do this every single time but we did not want anybody sleeping on the floor in these apartments. So, I had been up days and days and days and days, hardly any sleep. I am getting ready to walk out of that office that was shutting down for the night and somebody hands me this phone number with a guy's name on it, his phone number and his name. He was sleeping on the floor with his daughter and his girlfriend. He had found an apartment, he had found a job, he had found an apartment on his own but he was sleeping on the floor. And I am like looking at this thing and I am going, man, I am tired. I cannot make another phone call. But this guy is sleeping on the floor with his daughter. And I tracked down . . . it usually takes me one phone call but this one took me four or five to find somebody to go get cots and sheets and some food and put it in a car and call this guy up and take it out to him. And I called the guy up and I go, "Dwight, this is Michael Moore, the mayor's chief of staff." He goes, "The what?" And I go, "Dwight, this is the mayor's chief of staff. I hear you are sleeping on your floor. I heard you found a job and an apartment. You are sleeping on the floor." He goes, "Yes, that is right. How did you get my number?" "Somebody handed it to me." And I go, "Dwight, give me your address and somebody is going to be calling you and is going to bring you some cots and stuff, so you, your daughter and girlfriend do not have to sleep on the floor." That night, the guy was not sleeping on the floor. The daughter wasn't. And that is the kind of attitude that everybody took in Houston.
DG: For all the hard work, for all the sleepless nights, there must have been a sense of tremendous pride in being a part of that kind of historic response. I do not want to put words in your mouth but can you define here at City Hall how that sense of pride was felt by all the people that were involved?
MM: Yes. We do not dwell on a lot. It is kind of like who we are. It was such a massive undertaking by the entire city and we came through it with flying colors, that we know what we did and everybody here knows what we did. It is kind of like we are proud. We know who did what -- from the person that volunteered one day to the person who was there every single day -- and it is a neat feeling. It is neat to be part of it.
DG: So many people talk about that time in terms of how it changed them. How did it change us as a city, in terms of our self-image, in terms of the way we view ourselves, in terms of the way the rest of the country views us? How do you think this will change Houston in self-image or the way that people look at us?
MM: I have friends from California and New York and stuff who would call and say . . . reading the editorials in the New York Times and stuff like that. It was really neat. They would call and go, "I know you are in the middle . . . because I know who you are . . . I know you are in the middle of this." The voice mail message goes, "You are amazing." Just someone from LA, from Boston, who lives in LA, to call me up and say, "You are doing an amazing job down there. I know you are in the middle of it," was really neat.
DG: Maybe another time. Another city has got a disaster coming and they call you up and say, "It is going to be our turn to be Houston this time. What is the secret? What should we do? What should we make sure to do? What should we make sure not to do? Give me the secret ingredient to a successful response so we can do as good a job as Houston did." What did you learn?
MM: Put the right people in the right place, know your resources, know your limitations, don't rely on somebody else, the calvary coming, until they are there. Hope the federal government, FEMA, has learned. We will see. It seems like they have got too many midlevel bureaucrats coming up with new rules and regulations that someone else has to follow but, in normal life, they really do not make any sense. But you are going to have to rely on yourself and a lot of your neighbors. And I am not just saying "neighbor" as somebody on the street next to you, but it might be the county or the city. Don't hesitate to pick up the phone and call. Pick up the phone and call somebody that might have the resources to come and help. You know, I know if we get hit or a national disaster is here, we are probably, because of what we went through and knowing the resources you have to muster, I cannot . . . New York is up there but there is no more prepared city for a major natural disaster than Houston, Texas.
DG: This is my last question. It is 10 years from now and I am an 8th grader working on a book report about Katrina. What do you want me to know about that? I could not have lived through it. I was too young. What do you want me to know about my city during that time of crisis?
MM: That with all the mishaps and all the false starts that happened in New Orleans with the response and stuff, we were a part of it, that Houston was a part of it, but that we came through with shining colors and helped our neighbor.
MM: I have one story about Dr. Perse at the end. Dr. Perse, after this all settled down, after Katrina had gone through and Rita had gone through, I finally sat down and I was drinking, I do not know how many cups of coffee and Gatorade, started smoking again because the Red Cross made me start smoking. I was outside the Astrodome and these three rec officers walked out. I had quit smoking for years. And they all started lighting . . . we are having a meeting outside of the Astrodome and they all started passing around a pack of cigarettes, and I go, "Give me one." I am like sitting there going, "Ya'll suck! I am going to be smoking cigarettes for the next couple of months now ______ started doing it." So, after the two hurricanes came through, Dr. Perse, ______ head of EMS . . . I finally got to sit down so the weight of the no sleep and eating wrong and coffee and cigarettes . . . I do not smoke now. I quit. I ran a marathon since . . . I go, "You need to check me out because like my heart is not beating right or something like that." He sets me down and he pulls out his stethoscope and checks my blood pressure, checks my heart and goes, "Are you feeling O.K. right now?" He is getting ready to call an ambulance. And I am like going, "Doctor, you are really scaring me." And he goes, "No." And he starts feeling my head, behind my stuff and my neck. I go, "Doctor, you are really, really scaring me." He thought I was about to have a heart attack right then and there. And then he looks at his stethoscope and he goes, "Oh, sorry. My meter is just broken."