Proximity to New Orleans and a strong oil presence make the sprawling city of Houston a logical destination for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Many ó fed up with the slow pace of rebuilding in New Orleans ó are making this not just their temporary, but their permanent, home.
Photo: courtesy Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau Proximity to New Orleans and a strong oil presence make the sprawling city of Houston a logical destination for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Many ó fed up with the slow pace of rebuilding in New Orleans ó are making this not just their temporary, but their permanent, home.

One year after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, the region is still very much in the early stages of recovery. C. Roy Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, said in early July that just 225,000 of the pre-storm population of 484,000 were currently living in the city.

Those displaced people didn't just disappear, of course. And although they've found new homes — temporary or permanent — in all areas of the country, the majority have relocated to Houston. A recent Houston Chronicle article quoted a spokesman from the Houston mayor's office as saying that approximately 150,000 evacuees remain in the city. The same article is estimated that up to 200,000 people flocked to Houston in the wake of Katrina. However, numbers from other sources vary and there seems to be no “official” tally.

Making It Permanent Houston is a logical destination for displaced residents for a variety of reasons. Just 350 miles or so separate the two cities, which also share an economic interest in the oil industry. And despite a population of more than 2 million (with a metro-area population around 5 million), there's plenty of room for newcomers; the city covers nearly 8,800 square miles.

While some of those relocating to Houston are surely doing so on a temporary basis, remodeler Michael Strong, of Brothers Strong, says that hardly a day goes by when he doesn't read a story in the newspaper about people who go back to New Orleans, are dissatisfied or discouraged by the seeming lack of progress in the rebuild, and decide to pack up and move to Houston — permanently. “People are disappointed in what hasn't been happening in New Orleans,” he says. “Companies are relocating and people are moving for good.”

Minimal Impact Strong believes that the influx of people won't have an enormous impact on the home building industry. “I don't think you're going to find a builder in town who will have sold an increase of 10% because of Katrina,” he says. Citing an already healthy housing market in that area — Houston is on pace to set another record for housing starts in 2006 —he says “it's just one of those things that helps buffer us from the wild economic and housing swings seen elsewhere in the country.”

Cherry Wolfarth, a Houston realtor, says that although “there has been an incredible influx of people from the New Orleans area, many can't afford to buy homes at this point because they have yet to find steady work,” or because the insurance settlement on their old home wasn't as much as expected.

Sticking Together Strong does, however, think that the effect on remodeling could be a bit more profound. “New Orleans is a much smaller city than Houston,” he says. “But to buy an affordable new home [in Houston], you have to live way out” on the edges of town. “The lack of sense of community” — important to New Orleans residents even before the storm — “will overwhelm people here,” Strong says.

They will, he hypothesizes, look to buy homes nearer to the city's center, so they won't feel alone in their new location. In fact, he says, many rental communities in the city are filled with migrants from New Orleans, and he expects people to continue to stick together as they decide to permanently reside in Houston. He says there is enough existing housing stock in the city to support the newcomers.

Fellow Houston remodeler Dan Bawden, president of Legal Eagle Contractors Co., says he has already seen this in his business, from families who felt cramped in the apartments they rented immediately after the storm. “They want to personalize the homes they buy,” he says. “We've been doing a lot of pre-move–in replacement work.”