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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Campus

A victim of her namesake, UH student survives Katrina and Harvey


Katrina C. Grace is well acquainted with the catastrophic connotations of her name. In 2005, she and her family lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. On the 12th anniversary of the wreckage, the Graces were dealt a haunting reminder by Hurricane Harvey. The family, like many victims, has not fully recovered.

“When I meet people and they make a joke about my name, about how much devastation I’ve caused, I have to stop for a second,” Grace said. “I have to stop and make a cognitive decision to not let it phase me. Like yeah, I totally flooded my house and ruined my own life. Funny.”

Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 800,000 homes, killed at least 1,836 people and forced 1.5 million people to evacuate. Causing approximately $81 billion in property damages, it is the most costly hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States.

Despite this high cost, the financial impact is not nearly as damaging or as long-lasting as the emotional impact. Grace’s story makes it apparent that the emotional trauma that accompanies a natural disaster is one many storm survivors never recover from.

Grace is a first generation American and daughter to a single mother from Hong Kong. She is a graduate student in the College of Pharmacy at UH. 

Not just another evacuation

New Orleans is no stranger to hurricanes, nor is Grace a stranger to evacuating from them. Her childhood was regularly punctuated by trips to Houston when the storm watch decreed that the city was fated for disaster.

New Orleans has an approximately forty percent chance of experiencing landfall from a tropical storm or hurricane per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

This evacuation from the potential of disaster was her normal, a desensitizing phenomena that provided more of a small vacation than any indication that one day she wouldn’t have a home to come back to.

That day came in August 2005 when, at 14 years old, Grace unknowingly saw her childhood home intact for the last time. When Hurricane Katrina was forecast, the Graces packed up and traveled to Houston to ride out the storm. The prophetic warnings of the storm and mandatory evacuations made the situation seem more dire than usual.

Soon after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, it was clear to everyone that New Orleans was under major duress, politically, socially and physically. 

“At 14, you just don’t grasp how bad it really was,” Grace said.

Her mother enrolled the two siblings in school in Houston soon after their arrival. They had gone from evacuated residents to refugees of the disaster in a matter of hours. 

“We had evacuated to Houston, not because we had family here, but we knew people here. That’s just what you did during hurricanes, you evacuated,” Grace said. “Our host family had gone to our church and the first night, they had 16 kids and 12 adults living there.”

Houston was their new home, a decision made out of necessity, not purpose.

“My brother, Kenneth, he was a junior in high school and sixteen years old at the time. He just cried and cried for nights,” Grace said. “Dealing with a new school, SATs, college admissions — it was so much for a kid that had lost everything.”

“Evacuating to Houston right before the start of my junior year in high school, I found my life flipped upside down with that uncertainty,” said Kenneth Grace.

The aftermath and recovery

The wreckage from Katrina destroyed not only the furniture and fixtures, but also left the home itself inhabitable. |Courtesy of Katrina C. Grace.

The family’s one-story home was underwater, all of their possessions irreparably damaged by the floodwaters.

The cost of the damage incurred to their possessions was primarily composed of furniture and electronics, including the family’s four pianos.

The sentimental damage of the catastrophe hit Grace’s mother the hardest.

Carmen Yip, a professional piano teacher, watched everything she’d worked toward building in America drift away from her, along with her beloved instruments.

The grandest of the set was one that she had imported from her home in Hong Kong, the one she’d practiced her very first song on.

The grand piano that Carmen Yip had imported from Hong Kong lay unusable in their New Orleans home. |Courtesy of Katrina C. Grace

Despite being inundated, physically and emotionally, Yip stayed tirelessly optimistic and remains strongly tethered to her faith, which she thinks got her and her family out of both disasters.

“I am alive. I got out alive,” Yip said. “If that isn’t God, I don’t know what is.”

Despite her confidence that the family would bounce back, there were still several obstacles in their path.

Victims of natural disasters experience significant financial setback and FEMA aid rarely comes fast enough.

During recovery from Hurricane Katrina, FEMA attempted to hand out debit cards to expedite the process of awarding aid because the system of inspecting homes before giving aid was becoming inefficient.

The Graces had financial trouble relocating due to the nature of Yip’s job. Grace said she still doesn’t understand how her mother kept things so lighthearted around them while dealing with so much.

Finances were not the family’s only problem.

After Katrina, prejudice against Houston’s newly relocated residents afflicted the city, spreading the rampant stereotype that victims of Katrina were thieves. In the wake of the natural disaster, a new social disaster developed. Grace can recount many times in school when students avoided her, wouldn’t leave possessions near her or mocked her name.

Six relocated students were grouped together by the school district, unintentionally placing a target on the students. For Grace, it felt like they were treated like lowly criminals by most of the students and even a few staff.

“We all get hell for it, the Katrina kids. There was one African American girl and she got it worst, but we all paid,” Grace said. “It was dumb, like yes, a church gave me these clothes but we’re not going to steal your stuff.” 

Despite all these hindrances, the Graces recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

A bad anniversary gift

Twelve years later, on the anniversary of Katrina, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on their new home in Katy.

“Fast forward 12 years, my family has to relive this nightmare again. My first reaction was anger. Going through the two most damaging hurricanes in American history was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around,” Kenneth said.

Carmen Yip weathered the storm alone, with Grace at UH and her brother in college in New York. The family convinced themselves that this storm could not be nearly as bad as Katrina.

Grace was stranded in Calhoun Lofts with a friend of hers for six days. She had prepared for Harvey by stocking up on food and water. Despite this preparedness, the apartment began experiencing shortages a few days into the storm. “The Nook and Jimmy Johns started handing out food a few days in,” said Grace, which helped the two and other students stay fed.

For her mother, the situation was very different. She’d lost everything before and understood exactly what she wanted to save.

“When you’ve been through it once, not much can stop you,” Yip said.

When the water began seeping into the house, Yip immediately went to work padding the two pianos in the living room with any protective material she could find. As the water poured in, Yip attempted to scoop it out.

“When it started getting dark, she got terrified and gave up,” Grace said. “She cut the power to the house and decided she had to leave.”

The neighborhood had been closed off due to dangerous flood levels, but members of the Houston community didn’t let that stop them. Around 11:00 p.m. on the first night of Hurricane Harvey, a boat piloted by concerned citizens came through the area and rescued Yip from her second natural disaster.

In the aftermath of the storm, the Houston community came together to rebuild houses and people’s lives. The citizens of Houston saved Yip’s life and gave the Graces a sense of comfort and relief. “We will forever be grateful to this amazing city,” Kenneth said.

FEMA aid trickled in slowly. By the time FEMA arrived in the Graces’ neighborhood, aid was being distributed without inspection because “it was obvious what had happened here,” Grace said.

One of the few family photos Katrina has from her childhood was found during their first trip to their New Orleans home. |Courtesy of Katrina C. Grace

Grace and her family have tried their best to move on. After hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, Katrina Grace sought therapy to help her cope with the emotional trauma caused by the storms.

Grace recounted how counseling after both storms did help alleviate some of the tensions, but the emotional impact of the disasters never fully left her.

Grace doesn’t have many pictures from her childhood. Her memories and possessions floated away in the floodwaters as if they’d never existed. Her mother lost the pianos she had so desperately tried to save.

Despite all this, the Graces consider themselves blessed, but hope this is a trial they never face again.

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