Monday August 28, 2017

'The nightmares have come back,' says Katrina survivor fleeing Houston floods

Vehicles are abandoned along flooded Dairy Ashford Drive in Houston, Texas, on Monday.

Vehicles are abandoned along flooded Dairy Ashford Drive in Houston, Texas, on Monday. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

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When word first came that Hurricane Harvey was headed for Texas, Houston resident Christine Valerio said many of her neighbours didn't take it seriously.

But Valerio knew better. She'd been through this before when she fled New Orleans in the wake of 2005's deadly Hurricane Katrina. 

"Ever since they were saying it was coming, that's all I had been thinking about — praying again, telling people to take it seriously," Valerio told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. "I knew that this was not something to play with, that this was not a laughing moment."

Twelve years ago, more than 250,000 New Orleans evacuees arrived in Houston. Of those, an estimated 100,000 stayed permanently, according to the Guardian

Valerio is one of them, and her memories of Katrina were fresh in her mind as she fled her home for the second time on Saturday.

"I don't know if we can handle another uprooting like this, another start all over from scratch," she said. "It hurts to go through this again. It hurts to relive those images. The nightmares have come back."

'Going through Katrina, it hurts to say that this is worse. It's 10 times worse.' - Houston resident Christine Valerio

There was no official evacuation order in place when Valerio and her family left their home, but the waters were rising and the rain was battering the windows of her one-floor apartment near the city's Greenspoint neighbourhood.

So she made the choice to leave with her husband and seven-year-old daughter and head for higher ground at her mother's house in Humble, a suburb north of the city. 

family picture

Christine Valerio, second from the left, and her extended family, pictured here in 2015, are hunkered up at her mother's home in Humble, Texas. (Christine Valerio)

"I have a little girl. I just — I couldn't let her experience or see the things that I saw. I had to get me and my family out of there," she said. "We had to go."

And it appears she left in the nick of time.

"If we wouldn't have left when we did, we would never have been able to make it to my mom's because every way to get to her would have been covered in water," she said.

As she was driving, she said the waters were rising along the banks of the highway, threatening to cut them off.

She put her little girl in a life jacket, and turned to her husband, a strong swimmer, and said. "If we go into water, save our daughter. Just let me go."

KATRINA

Evacuees are boarded onto buses in New Orleans on Sept. 6, 2005. An estimated 100,000 Katrina evacuees made Houston their new home. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

It made her remember a man in New Orleans during Katrina who called her crying, saying he had to choose which of his two daughters to save when they all got caught up in a powerful current. 

"And you know, these are decisions I know mothers and fathers are making right now," she said. 

Some 30,000 residents of the nation's fourth-largest city were expected to be left temporarily homeless by Harvey, which became the most powerful hurricane to strike Texas in more than 50 years when it came ashore on Friday near Corpus Christi, about 354 km south of Houston.

STORM-HARVEY/

Interstate highway 45 is completely submerged from the effects of Harvey. Christine Valerio said she made it out just in the nick of time. (Richard Carson/Reuters)

Death estimates vary, but at least two people have been confirmed killed by the storm.

Police and Coast Guard teams have rescued at least 2,000 people so far, plucking many from rooftops by helicopter, as they urged the hundreds believed to be marooned in flooded houses to hang towels or sheets outside to alert rescuers.

Thousands of members of the National Guard, as well as state and local police were rushing in helicopters, boats and trucks to rescue people before waters rise again, with another 38-64 cm of rain expected in the coming days.

"Right now, the only word you can say is catastrophic. This is unlike anything that anybody has ever seen," Valerio said.  "Going through Katrina, it hurts to say that this is worse. It's 10 times worse."

Valerio had nothing but praise for local officials and for her neighbours, who she said have banded together in the wake of the deadly floods.

But she said she doesn't expect much from U.S. President Donald Trump.

"When I saw the video of the reporter asking him, 'Do you have anything to say to the people in Texas?' and he put up his thumb and said, 'Good luck,' that hurt. That hurt us all. And honestly, I don't expect much," she said.

"All we can do is be a good neighbour. With all of this race-baiting, all of this hateful stuff going on in the United States right now, the one thing that I am happy about is that they're saying that in Texas right now, colour does not matter. Your religion does not matter. Your preference does not matter. Your life matters.

"And I pray that we keep this mind set and realize that we can't keep fighting one another. At the end of the day, there's only one race, and that's the human race."

With files from Reuters. For more on this story, listen to our interview with Christine Valerio: