THE BLOG
08/30/2007 07:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Katrina Experience in Houston: Stories of Unintended, and Blessed, Consequences

Meet Rick Brennan. Rick is a middle school teacher in Houston, as well as the former head of the Harris County Young Democrats. Rick found himself impacted by Katrina in three major ways: as a public school teacher, as an Astrodome volunteer, and as a homeowner on the Southwest side of Houston, where thousands of New Orleans residents moved to nearby apartment complexes. I interviewed Mr. Brennan on October 2nd, 2006 in Houston, TX. Below is his story of what it was like to be a teacher with "Katrina kids" in the classroom. Please visit www.thekatrinaexperience.net to read his full interview.

* * *



THE HOUSTONIAN

On Becoming a Democrat in Pasadena , Texas

I grew up in Pasadena. My grandfather was an organizer for the Teamsters in Detroit, with Jimmy Hoffa. In our household, "Jimmy Hoffa" was not a dirty word. He did a lot of good for a lot of working people. I'm from a working class family, proudly so, but union labor. I came to understand the world through that point of view.

When I was ten, we lived near a Superfund site. It had been neglected during the Reagan-Bush era. Cancer-clusters were way above average. I lived in a neighborhood where the entire community was destroyed. The school was destroyed. The baseball fields I played on were destroyed. They had to buy out all the properties and plow under all the homes.

When Clinton came in, all these Superfund sites started to get cleaned-up. The people who had done nothing for fifteen years or so under the Reagan-Bush era were now having to pay fines and clean up their act. Clinton and Gore were very strong on Superfund.

Bush reversed all those things. The EPA can be very effective, or very ineffective, depending on who is directing the course of the government. Under the Republicans, nothing was happening. Under the Democrats, a lot was happening. Really showed me the difference, at a point where I was maturing politically and trying to understand what the differences were for my own thinking.

I remember interviewing the editor of the local paper. She was a staunch Republican. But this issue, how Clinton and Gore handled Superfund in her neighborhood, completely transformed her thinking. Somebody who had never really considered the other side, seeing government act differently, completely differently, had made her become not a liberal, but a Democrat. To me, that was very strong proof that the Democrats did things differently, and from my point of view, better than Republicans.



When Katrina Hit

I had just bought a house on the Southwest side of Houston. I had decided I loved teaching, but having a little bit more money is always good. I was going to start with my brother a business to buy depressed real estate, invest money in it, and then try to sell it for a profit. We had decided that about a year ago. We looked at properties. None of them were perfect. Then we decided to look at this one property in Southwest Houston and we were able to get it. We were just starting work on that when Katrina hit.

We were taking wallpaper off the bathroom walls and listening to Democracy Now at the same time. Amy Goodman was interviewing police officers. There were dead bodies on the streets in New Orleans. They were there for ten days, and nobody had picked them up. I remember her going to all these police officers and sticking the microphone in their face, saying: "Could you please pick up this dead body?" They just gave a bureaucratic answer. It was so ridiculous. I remember the act -- the labor -- while listening to that because I was so outraged. My brother and I were talking about all these things while we were fixing up the house.



At Lanier Middle School

We had between 50 and 60 students from New Orleans. I had two in my homeroom class. One was 11, and one was 13, one boy, one girl. Both of them had very harrowing experiences. I didn't really want to ask them about it, because it was fresh on their minds. I knew beforehand that the boy watched his grandmother drown. He was in my classroom within a week of that.

The kids were talking about Katrina in class. Before these two students came in, I had to explain to them: imagine if your grandmother had died, would you want the entire class to be talking about an experience related to that? I tried to put them in his shoes. I explained to them that if you bring up Katrina to him, that's going to remind him of his grandmother drowning. We need to be very careful. Be very friendly, and be very welcoming to our new students -- but to him specifically.

And of course they did do that. He became kind of a class favorite. He was a nice, cute little kid. Very funny. The thing was, he had a terrible speech impediment. He could not communicate well at all.

Was the speech impediment was made worse by the experience? I don't know. I can't say. I do know that when I first met him, he had a terrible stutter; he was in sixth grade, but he spoke like a very young kid. Like he was in third grade or fourth grade. He didn't have a good vocabulary, and it took him all the effort he could just to get a sentence through.

I would talk to him every now and then about his old school. He said he hated going to school in New Orleans. He loved going to school here. I asked why, and he said, well, there are gangs in my school, and the teachers aren't very good, and it's not safe . He kept saying, it's not safe. And so, what do you think about this school? And he goes, I love this school. Because it's safe.

He cried a lot. His mom would go to New Orleans every few weeks to check on the progress of the city and look at their home. I think also to check in with FEMA -- it was all bureaucratic things, but also to check around. I remember every time she would leave, he would assume that she would die. That she wasn't going to come back. He broke down every time she left in my class. I was asking, what's going on, why are you upset, and he would say, because my mom is going to New Orleans. He just did not want to be away from family. He wanted to be with his family as often as he could, and he did not want her to go back there because he just assumed it was a dangerous place.

He was very discreet about [crying]. He would ask to leave the room. He would tell me he needed to leave because he was going to be upset, and I would go outside with him. I would send him to his counselor. He would talk about it a little bit. He was a great kid, a very strong kid. But it was just too much to deal with.

By the end of the year, his speech impediment was hardly noticeable. His writing and his reading ability and his vocabulary had all increased. I think he started off the year below grade level, and he ended the year where he needed to be. I just hope that continues.

I remember at one point we were doing some class art project, and it was just like you would expect when kids go through experiences and they draw things out. It had been later in the year. [The project] wasn't anything related to Katrina. But he drew a picture of him, and his family sitting on a roof, and his grandmother dead in the water. He just drew it real quick and handed it to me. He didn't say anything. I just looked at it, and I thought, I have no idea what's in this kid's head. He's going to live the rest of his life knowing that he was on that roof and his grandmother drowned and he couldn't help her. To know all those types of things would be crippling to someone's psyche. Even though he was very happy, and glad to be where he was, and his family was very close, and he was a good student, still, he has this darkness underneath that he'll be dealing with presumably for as long as he lives.

He does not go to this school any longer. I've lost contact with him, so I don't know where he is now. He was a very great kid. It was good to have him in the classroom for that short amount of time. I just kept thinking, if this kid had not come here, he would have been warehoused in some awful school in New Orleans, where he was getting none of the attention that he needed to get. In fact, he was probably regressing to some extent. In just one year in a new environment, where he was safe, and he felt the ability to learn, that it was safe to learn, he progressed exponentially.

We didn't have any of the problems the other schools did with fights between New Orleans kids and Houston kids. I have a principal friend at Sharpstown High School. They've had a lot of problems there. Mostly gang-related, but a lot of it -- she describes it as the Houston kids not really wanting them in the school. Kind of a territoriality-type thing. That some of the kids from New Orleans, on top of that, were really bad characters, too. So, there was some reason for some of those students to say that I don't really like this kid. That [inflamed] tensions that maybe already existed. Fights broke out. But they dealt with it well. They were able to send some of the kids that were very dangerous to alternative schooling. It seemed like those characters needed to go there because they were dealing drugs, or bringing weapons, or starting fights constantly. So once this very volatile element was removed, it was a lot better.

When you put it in perspective, it's a very few incidents really. In some instances, it was a very few people who were committing a lot of these criminal acts throughout town. I soon found myself directly affected -- with the house we were renovating.

To read the full interview, please visit www.thekatrinaexperience.net.