Toni McElroy is a native Houstonian, living and working in the city her whole life. Throughout her time in Houston, she witnessed many tropical storms and hurricane-related disasters. McElroy discusses her experience at a hospital in Houston when Tropical Storm Allison hit. She details the flooding and lack of power. For Hurricane Katrina, McElroy served as a volunteer at a community organizing group that helped meet the needs of residents, evacuees, and survivors.
McElroy discussed the politics behind the scenes – how government agencies were not responsive enough for the needs of those afflicted by Katrina. When Hurricane Harvey hit, McElroy lived in an area unaffected by the storm, making it surreal for her to watch the news and see media revealing the areas heavily flooded and damaged. Upon reflecting on Harvey, McElroy discusses the lack of coordinated evacuation and a certain lack of preparation. She concludes her interview thinking of how cities and individuals can learn from Harvey and other hurricanes on preparing for times of disaster more adequately.
Interviewee: Toni McElroy
Interview Date: October 4, 2019
Interview Location: WALIPP Senior Center
Interviewer: Kaleb Clark
INTERVIEWER: Today is October 4, 2019. I am Kaleb Clark, and I’m here with Ms. Toni McElroy at the WALIPP Senior Residence to talk about Hurricane Harvey for the University of Houston Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey.
KC: To start us off, could you please state your full name and tell us a little bit about yourself?
TM: My name is Toni McElroy. I’m a native Houstonian. I’ve lived and worked within, oh my gosh, maybe six miles of this area all of my life. So this part of town is my home.
KC: Working within six miles of this town, what kind of things have you done or experienced in terms of occupation and work and volunteering?
TM: I was employed [0:01:00] by the City of Houston for 26 years. I retired from them. And I did some community organizing as a volunteer and also, for a short time, as paid staff.
KC: Living here for quite a while, you have more than likely had lots of experience with tropical storms and other hurricane-related natural disasters.
KC: What is the earliest tropical storm or hurricane you can remember?
KC: Carla. Can you tell us about your experience in Carla?
TM: Sure, that was a very frightening storm. It seemed like it was mostly in Galveston, but it affected Houston, too. And the one thing I remember is Dan Rathers latching himself to a tree. It was the craziest thing we’d ever seen. But Carla was frightening [0:02:00], and it was the very first storm that I have any recollection of.
KC: Do you remember how old you were during Hurricane Carla?
TM: No, I’m afraid I don’t. I just remember about not having lights and things of that nature and, you know, the flooding.
KC: What was the next storm you could remember?
TM: Well, there were a lot of them, but the next major thing was Hurricane Alicia. I was working downtown, and the day after the hurricane hit, my dad was taking me to work. And there were so many streets that were blocked off because all of these high-rises downtown had their windows blown out.
KC: By the intense winds?
TM: By the winds, yes. There was just — downtown was just a sea of broken glass everywhere [0:03:00]. So it was quite an adventure getting back to work.
KC: The storm after that, do you remember?
TM: Well, there — I lived through all of them, but the next really traumatic one was actually Tropical Storm Alicia — no, Allison. Forgive me. Allison. Alicia was a hurricane. Allison was a tropical storm, correct? And, oh gosh, that one was really bad. A lot of people were impacted by it. I happened to be at a hospital with a sick relative. And they lost power. The nursing staff was really — they were stressed. They were [0:04:00] trying to keep people alive that were on ventilators by manually — I didn’t personally see it, but I could hear the stories as I roamed the hall. Because we had no lights. We had no — you know, no power. There was no water. We were on the 21st floor, and a Boy Scout — I think U of H students came. And they carried patients down the stairs. They made a chain and carried patients down the stairs. It was the most incredible thing. The hospital ended up looking like a war zone, because there was debris and — everywhere. But it’s very difficult being, you know, under those circumstances. It made me a scavenger looking for things like bedding and towels and running water.
I also remember looking [0:05:00] out the window and saying, “Oh, I don’t remember that bayou there.” And it wasn’t a bayou. It was a road I was looking at. It was that much water — that much flooding. It was — it was terrible. You don’t want to be sick under, you know, those circumstances. There were relatives who didn’t have power. They didn’t have water. There was a lot of devastation. And that happened to be the week, I believe, a committee was here to see if Houston should get the Olympics. But you know, that didn’t go the city’s way, did it? That was — yeah, that was something else. It really was something else.
And of course, there’s Katrina. I was a volunteer with a community-organizing [0:06:00] group with helping get Katrina residents, evacuees, and survivors their — having their needs met. And that was very challenging. We worked for over a year on various projects, getting the housing extended, going to Washington, D.C. on a bus to ask for — ask Congress to extend, you know, the benefits, to ask for more funding. Because every time they kept putting a cap on — you know, we’re going to pay for your housing for six weeks but no more. Or we’re going to do this. And it was very difficult. Some of the survivors felt that FEMA wasn’t [0:07:00] taking care of — they weren’t responding to their needs. And they said, “We’re being ignored. We’re asking for this and that.” And they were [unclear, 0:07:11], “So we want to go to the FEMA office and make a little noise.” So we — I said, “Okay, this is your — you know, this is what you want.” And so I went down, and we did a little protest at the FEMA office and caught them quite by surprise. The head of the office met with us a week later, and he said he was transferred. But folks felt like government agencies, particularly FEMA, was not responsive to their needs [0:08:00] and didn’t — and they just — they really weren’t. If there’s a study done of the FEMA response for Katrina compared to what we see now, it’s — it’s a vast difference.
KC: Was it more lacking during Katrina than it was recently?
TM: It was very much lacking. It was, “You’ll take what we’re going to give you” lacking. We did things like organizing trips back home to New Orleans for survivors who wanted to vote in their local elections. We organized workshops to bring various agencies together to provide services for Katrina survivors. And there was a lot of — there were a lot of needs. Many people from [0:09:00] — there were some people from some neighborhoods who had not really been outside of their world in New Orleans. And they had a tough time with staying — adjusting to life here. There were a lot of various needs that you might not think about but life-skill kind of needs to make the adjustment successfully to Houston and, I’m sure, in other parts of the country.
So that was work for over — I’d say over a year on various things with the — you know, working to get needs met — housing, to get funding, workshops with the city and county and other agencies to, you know [0:10:00] — and NGOs to try to address a lot of big needs of these survivors. It was challenging. It was really challenging. And it was, in many ways, very draining. Because our experiences were so different in Houston from any of the people that needed help. That’s a whole other book in itself.
KC: When Harvey hit us, I personally heard comparisons saying that it was like our Katrina. Where Katrina ravaged New Orleans and sent people from Louisiana to us, Harvey kind of wracked our city and sent us into kind of panic. What was your experience with Harvey in comparison to your experience with Katrina?
TM: It was [0:11:00] — I was safe. I was surprised to find how many people were not. I had electricity, and there were many people who did not. And with Ike and things like that, we were out of — without power for a quite a while. I know people were out of power for like three weeks. But Harvey was surprising that the areas that flooded — the lack of — seems like a coordinated evacuation — and watching it on television seemed surreal. It didn’t seem like it could be here, because when the weather forecast kept saying, “We’re going to get 25 inches of rain from this. It’s going to be a big rain event,” I thought [0:12:00], “25 inches of rain? Whoever heard of something like that?” It was surprising. So the — I was very safe. It was very just hard to see what was happening to other people — to other areas, so I wasn’t personally impacted. I knew others who were. In many ways, Houston got things right. Many ways we were caught off-guard.
KC: You mentioned a lack of a coordinated evacuation. Would you care to elaborate on that?
TM: I’m not part of any program or any group that did anything, but watching people on television and seeing the fact that the Cajun Navy came in and did so many rescues, that’s — it just — it seems, in retrospect, that [0:13:00] some evacuation might have been prudent, but I have no way of knowing. I’m not a part of any of that. But you would just think by the nature of —
KC: You think because we were told there would be so much rain that more people would have left the city?
TM: I think so. But when you review what happened with Rita, that was such a terrible, terrible experience. And I had a good friend who died right after she evacuated. And so you know, it’s — I would not — I would find it difficult if I were in charge to make that call, but somebody has to make it. Everybody evacuated in Rita. No one evacuated in Harvey, so I don’t — I don’t know. I mean [0:14:00], I don’t want to second guess, but it just seems the extent of the flooding and the desperate people that you saw on television and the need for people to come from out of state to help — I don’t know. I’ll let those pundits who are, you know, more versed in this make the call. It is possible.
KC: One more question, when Hurricane Imelda [sic, 0:14:36] hit, I imagine that you might have been impacted by that, too. Can you speak on your experience with the most recent hurricane?
TM: Yeah, Imelda, again, sort of snuck on us. Even though they talked about it, I believe we were pretty unscathed [0:15:00]. And I was glad. It was, again, surprising to see where it hit. I mean, the maps of the floodplains, they’ve got to be redrawn, I’m sure. You know, because you flooded here, and good grief, Meyerland and —
KC: Places that have never flooded before.
TM: Yeah, places that never flooded before — communities. So how many 500-year storms can you have in a series of, what, 10 years, 20 years? I don’t know. It might be an interesting area to go into — is the disaster planning and all that is involved. But as citizens, perhaps we need some education so that we can minimize the damage and the kind of — I don’t know what you might call [0:16:00] it. And it’s not hysteria. I don’t think people were hysterical, but they — it seems like you could see many people felt helpless. And so what do we do as a city and a county to help all of our citizens know what to do and how to do it and be prepared. I mean, do we do classes? Do we do workshops? Do we come to every community center and every church throughout the city and county to help folks so that we minimize our disaster? You know? I don’t know. We’re having a lot of them. But there’s got to be something we can do. We can’t control mother nature, but we can be somewhat prepared. We can be somewhat [0:17:00] — I don’t know. Like I said, it’s for the pundits who know all this stuff. I’m just thinking as we’re talking and wondering.
KC: Thank you. Thank you for your time.
TM: Oh, glad.
KC: If you’d like to say anything more, feel free to.
TM: Thank you for doing this. It’s important that all voices get heard. And so often, we are maybe left out. By telling our stories, hopefully, people will make sure to include us in the planning. And that can only be good for everyone.
KC: Absolutely. Thank you.
UNKNOWN 1: Was there anything more you’d like to say about your experience with Hurricane Harvey?
TM: Yeah, now, I think about it — as I [0:18:00] reflect on what we’ve been talking about, considering all that Houston — you know, the city, the county, and the State of Texas did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we shouldn’t have been caught so flatfooted with Harvey. So what were the lessons that we learned from Katrina and helping those survivors? We’re just lucky that Houstonians didn’t end up having to migrate to other areas because of all the devastation. So what are the lessons that we learned from Katrina? What are the lessons that we’ve learned from Harvey? Where are we going to help our citizens and residents from this [0:19:00] point on? It’s worth thinking about.
UNKNOWN 1: It most certainly is. Thank you, Ms. Toni.
TM: Thank you. [0:19:09]