Rick Brennan – The Houstonian

Rick BrennanRick Brennan, 31, is a middle-school teacher in Houston, Texas. He is also the former president of the Harris County Young Democrats. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Rick and his brother purchased a fixer-upper house in Southwest Houston, with plans to renovate and sell. They could have not have anticipated that SW Houston would soon house so many of Katrina’s evacuees. Katrina affected Rick’s life not only as a teacher and as an activist/volunteer, but as a homeowner as well. This interview took place on October 2nd, 2006, in Houston, TX.

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.

The Young Democrats’ Response

Everyone started to come into Houston. I was president of the [Harris County] Young Democrats. I thought, well we have to do something. We have a good network here of activists and do-gooders. We organized with the Black Dems to get a nationwide relief fund set up at the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters. There’s a nationwide network of Young Democrats’ clubs, so we put out the word, and it went out everywhere.

We got hundreds and hundreds of boxes. We concentrated on the young people, the kids, what they might need. People sent in school supplies and games because it was so mindnumbingly boring in the Astrodome. A terrible situation.

We did it by truckload. We had many, many, many truckloads. In fact, on one Saturday we rented a flatbed truck, and we would fill it up and send it over. It would come back, and we’d fill it up. We did that a few times on a Saturday afternoon. It’s amazing the amount of love that was poured from all the different clubs around the country. It felt good to go up to the headquarters and pick up the boxes and send them over.

The Reliant Center/Astrodome Volunteer Experience

About 15 Young Democrats went down there as a group. We spent a whole Saturday. I went down subsequently.

You had to go through a training session. They explained the devastation that these people had gone through. They wanted everyone to be very sensitive about that. This is essentially their home at this moment. They asked that we be very respectful of their space, because there was very little of it. Those are things that I don’t know I would have thought of. It was helpful. It really put me in the mindset of: these people are in desperate need of help and they literally have nothing except for what they have with them right now. I knew that, but to be there and to be surrounded by thousands of people that are in utter desperation…it was a good thing they orientated everyone.

They would have [volunteers] sitting in rows. They would ask for volunteers for whatever they needed. You would just go, if you wanted to do it, given the order that you were sitting.

They asked us to pick up trash around the complex. Which is OK; that was necessary because there was a lot of refuse around. After a while I decided that I was waiting more than I was doing anything. I walked around and found people that looked like they knew what they were talking about. I got in good with them, and started to help them.

I worked in the medical facility. I transported people in wheelchairs from one part of the complex to the other, taking them to the airlines. Continental was giving free plane tickets. A lot of people didn’t have their license to prove who they were. It was kind of uplifting to see how people just believed them. I remember this woman, she didn’t have her driver’s license, and she didn’t have any proof of who she was. She told the person: why would I say I’m somebody else? This is who I am. Eventually they just typed her name in, and that’s how it was. They made it easier for her that way.

She was in her late-sixties. Maybe seventies. She was a grandmother, and she was going to stay with her grandkids, I believe, in North Carolina. I talked to her a little bit as I was pushing her through the complex. She told me that she was on the roof of her home for three or four days. Boats went by and didn’t stop. Helicopters went by and didn’t stop. She was very angry by that. She was sunburned all over her, because she was out in the elements for so long. She had taken a bus. I think the bus had broken down at a certain point. Every step along the way the story got worse. The story never got better.

She told me about the conditions in the Reliant Center. She hated sleeping there because she thought it was dangerous. So many people were there. It was always loud. People were fighting and cursing, she said. I don’t know how prevalent it was. But for somebody in her condition, given what had happened to her, at her age, it’s really hard to imagine her staying in that facility as long as she was. They got her out of there pretty quickly. She was only there for the first few days. But she already had to endure four or five days of being in these conditions. She was just, exhausted. In every way.

At the Astrodome

The Astrodome had always been a big thing for me. I really loved baseball as a kid. I loved to go to the Astrodome and watch baseball and see all my favorite players.

And to see the Astrodome now…I remember walking up the ramp. I had walked up that ramp many times before to go see a game. Given what I had seen at the Reliant Center, I had to kind of prepare myself; I thought that this was going to be the worst of the worst.

It was surreal to see it. I couldn’t believe it was America. I couldn’t believe this was the best we could do. I just stood there and looked at it for ten or fifteen minutes. I could not believe what was going on. Just packs of people everywhere. There was no emotion on these peoples’ faces. They were the walking dead. They were happy the volunteers were there and they were very thankful. They were certainly not rude, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying there was almost no conversation going on. People were laying there, in shock, and trying to keep their families together. Most of them, or a lot of them, didn’t know where their family members were.

I remember on the news they kept saying: it’s always good news when they find a family and they ring a bell. They were ringing a bell in the Astrodome. They had a clip of the bell ringing, and they showed somebody who had just found their family who was exuberant. I never saw that happen. I was there all day, and I never heard that bell go off. On the news they kept saying, well it’s bad, but when they hear that bell, they all cheer. I didn’t see any good news going on. There was nothing positive to report there.

There were a lot of mentally-ill people that were now four, five, six days without medicine. This one person started to have a fit. He started to get hysterical. He started to punch at people. He started to scream and they had to restrain him. They brought an ambulance in and sent him to a psychiatric ward somewhere in the city. He was standing right next to me when this whole thing happened. I had never seen that before. I guess my reaction was complete shock, because certainly nothing like that had ever happened to me in such close proximity. But everyone there treated it as if it was common. They very calmly treated the guy, got him on to an ambulance, then on to the next problem. Just another in a series of problems.

Right after that, there was a fight between two young teenagers. They started a fight right there. So I got a chance to listen to the police talk to these two people. I thought the police handled it very well. They were trying to talk to them as people. You need to look around to what’s happening here. What you’re doing right now is making this situation so much worse, and your family needs you to be strong now. I’d never heard of a police officer talking to kids like that before. Usually it’s not so wise.

Everyone was at their max of stress. I thought I was seeing people at their breaking point. Everywhere. They were so furious with FEMA. They hated FEMA. They didn’t believe anything people were saying to them. I understand the need for bureaucracy to have documentation, but it seemed ridiculous in this situation to have the level of bureaucracy that there was. You had to go to different floors of the facility to get certain things done. You had to go to different sides of the complex to get certain things done. They had these people going back and forth, back and forth, and sometimes they would go to the other side, and be told that that not’s the place to go, go back to where you were, and they’d lose their place in line. It was awful. So they were furious at the bureaucracy. I think the government’s response was putting people over the edge.

I did get stationed, at one point, to stand near the FEMA help center (or whatever you want to call it). We were supposed to help people who couldn’t walk get through the lines. They just were openly hostile to FEMA. [FEMA] would come out and say one thing, then somebody would say: you told us something else yesterday. When people complained, they didn’t complain that they lost their house, or anything of that nature. They would complain about how they were being treated by their own government. That was another thing that really hit home to me: how that was the thing that made them angry, almost kind of a betrayal. They paid their taxes. They’re citizens. And when they need their government, the government’s not there. It’s not helping to the extent that it should have been helping.

What did my family think of my volunteering at the Astrodome? They asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know what the Astrodome looked like; I guess the pictures on the news were pretty strong pictures. Again, being from Houston, and seeing Astros games there, and going to the rodeo there, and seeing the Oilers games there—then you see there’s the biggest evacuee camp in the country, it’s hard to take that in. Understand that a week ago, everything was fine. Now this whole part of the country is being transformed. It was very difficult to understand the magnitude of what was happening. My family would ask about it, and I would tell them about what I saw.

I think they assumed that it was a dangerous place. The news talked about fights, and things like that. But the people there were not dangerous. They were just sad. They had nothing. So, I don’t see how they could have posed a danger to anyone really. They just needed some help.

This is conjecture, but I think race has a lot to play in this. Because it was 98% African-American, I would say, and that could affect peoples’ outlook on the whole situation. If you couple that with reports that there’s gunfire, or that people were buying alcohol with their money, and that gangs are here now that weren’t here before, people might be scared of going to the Astrodome or to the Reliant Center. But even if that was true, there were still more volunteers than they actually—not that I’d say they needed, but at a certain point they asked volunteers not to come anymore. Even though [race] might have played a factor in peoples’ decisions, or their outlook on what was happening, so many people were there to help.

I felt good about the city overall in our response to what happened, because other cities did not open their arms to these people. At all. Dallas, I remember, was kind of hard-hearted with their treatment of evacuees. They did not want them to stay. They were not welcoming and did not do much to keep the people who did get sent there temporarily. Houston was the opposite. Now, there’s been growing pains and there’s a lot of finger-pointing. That’s to be expected I guess; the city’s been transformed, possibly forever by this event.

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.

The House

The house had been abandoned for a while, prior to our purchase. A lot of times, when homes are abandoned, people squat in them. This house was in the Southwest part of town. It was Beechnut and I-59. Beechnut and Tanglewild specifically. A lot of the apartment complexes in that area, and they were giving housing vouchers to Katrina evacuees.

When we took on this investment, we knew there a lot of things that could go wrong. Structurally, the house could be in very bad shape. That sort of thing. We did not anticipate that a hundred and fifty thousand people from New Orleans would be brought into Houston and that a few of them who were bad characters would be concentrated exactly where our house was. That’s exactly what happened. To the extent I think the Guardian Angels from Brooklyn came down and marched down Beechnut where our house was to draw attention to what they called the “lawlessness” of that part of town at that point in time.

Within two to three months after Katrina, crime started to spike, I suppose. I mean it depends on who you ask. The Chief of Police says that crime in that area was going up before Katrina. But the facts don’t matter to everyone. So these Guardian Angels—maybe they were just down here to toot their own horns, I don’t know. But when you are investing in a house and the street that your house is on is being mentioned in the paper every other week because there’s another murder or the Guardian Angels are here, or there’s gang violence or increased drug activity, that’s very bad. We were becoming increasingly worried about the ability to sell this house.

We were getting robbed about every other month. My brother lived in the house with his girlfriend. We had a situation where my brother’s girlfriend’s car was being broken into. She didn’t even know it—this person was breaking into the car while she was getting into the car to go to work. She was in her morning routine and got to the car and through the rear view mirror she saw the trunk was open. She jumped out of the car. This guy was going through all the stuff in her truck. She ran into the house and got my brother.

My brother got in his car and started to drive around the neighborhood. He saw someone that looked like the description that she gave him and so he drove up beside him. Did you just try to rob my girlfriend? And the guy says no, that was not me that was my friend. That’s what he said. And he ran in the other direction.

So my brother chased him into an apartment complex. He was in his pajamas and was not thinking about the danger involved. Then he realized this is not a good situation. He went home and called the police.

The police got there and they drove around the neighborhood for like half an hour or so. They came back with a suspect. In the back of the car, handcuffed. They asked my brother to come over and said, is this the guy? My brother looked at the guy immediately and said no, that is not him. It was somebody that was wearing a suit. He was wearing a tie. And he was handcuffed. As soon as my brother said no that’s not him he just yelled thank you, thank you, I told them it’s not me, thank you. So the police had to let him go.

To me, [the robbery] was an unusual moment because in a way it confirmed the stereotype on both sides. We had someone robbing us—that kind of confirmed all the stereotypical things about what people were saying what was happening in that part of town. Then we called the police and it was obviously a case of racial profiling where they picked up the first African-American man they could. No matter what he looked like or what he was dressed like. They just arrested him. They let him go. But think if you’re the guy walking to work that day and you’re wearing a nice set of clothes and all of a sudden the police come up and ask you, did you rob a house? Why are they asking him that? Because he’s black. That’s the only reason. And they put him in handcuffs. That would have been a humiliating experience. If my brother had not been well aware of whom it was, who knows, maybe somebody would say, I think that’s him. In that case, a very long journey for this person to clear his name or maybe he is never able to clear his name. Who knows.

So, that was one of our first experiences with the house. It happened every other month or so. The garage was broken into. His truck was broken into again. Someone who parked in front of our house was broken into again. It didn’t seem possible to us that this could be five or six different people. These weren’t random events because nobody else around us was getting robbed. We were the only house getting robbed. Again, I thought it traced back to the fact that this house was abandoned for quite a while and maybe people were just comfortable staying there. I don’t know.

To make a long story short, we were going to have to sell this house; I was thinking it was unsafe for my family to live there. My brother felt the same way about living there with his girlfriend.

Then his van got stolen. It just so happened that we were doing all this renovation work and we had sheetrock in the back of the van. They took the sheetrock out of the van, put it on the side of the house and took the van. But in the process, a parking citation was left at the site. It had the man’s name, his address—it wasn’t his new address. It was New Orleans-based. But it had the person’s name and all of that. It was perfect. It was just folded and dropped right on the driveway.

We called the police and gave them that information. We thought if the police can’t catch this guy now, how could you ever catch anyone? I mean, this is his name, this is everything you would need.

They did catch him within two days. When they caught him he was in the van and there was all this drug paraphanalia in the van. He and another guy were just driving around that neighborhood all day everyday. They robbed people, sold the stuff, and then were smoking crack in the back of the van. There were crack pipes in there and everything.

When they called my brother up to get his van the guy was actually in the van. It was the same person from the first incident that my brother had encountered. They had this face-to-face encounter and it was the same guy. So this guy was robbing us, or my brother, five or six times over the year.

You know, again, you can’t anticipate that sort of thing happening. When people mention the Katrina effect on Houston I try to see this as an isolated incident. That’s one person. I wouldn’t want to besmirch every person here because of that one person. But on the other hand, there are some bad characters here from New Orleans wreaking havoc on the city. Unfortunately they’re giving the many a very bad name. It’s making it difficult for the acclimation process to happen smoothly.

I’m selling the house this month. To my brother. He’s going to keep it. He wants to sell it, but he wants to stay there for a few years because now he loves it. Before, they wanted to move. If you’re getting robbed every month, then you go home you’re wondering, is my window broken? Is my stuff still there? I don’t know if you’ve ever been robbed but when somebody comes into your home, you never feel like that’s your home again. A little bit different. It’s scary to be there. So once that situation was taken care of because we could kind of assume that this one person was responsible for all of these things, they feel a lot safer

The city will be different. Maybe forever. Because there is a demographic shift. It’s a cultural diffusion that would never have happened otherwise and I don’t know what you do now. You have demagogues in politics that say ship ëem back. That was actually said by [Congressman] John Culburtson. I thought that was racist, very racist, to use that phrase, especially “ship them back.” Just not very sensitive to the situation.

But how do you do that? They’re citizens. How do you advocate rounding up citizens? You can’t do that. They’re Americans. They need a place to stay and they need a place to build, and hopefully the city will be the place they do that. I think it would be a better city if we could all come together and make this work out.

I think the city was progressive in the sense that they realized the people that were here had nothing. They had no support system. They had no transportation. In Houston this is such a big deal. The public transportation system here is decent but slow. You really need a car. Most [evacuees] are here because they did not have a car. [The city] realized we can’t change what’s happened so we have to make sure that these people have the best experience here that they can. Free rent for a year. Free utilities for a year. Job fairs. I know that there’s been mixed results of all these sorts of things, but it’s more than any other city did by far. It’s either do that, or deal with the negative social effects of not dealing with it correctly which will be far worse and could cost more and tear the city apart. You have to do the right thing. And I think they did.

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