Soon after Hurricane Katrina, Connie Uddo was sitting with a friend in an iHop in Kingwood, Texas, where she was living after she was forced to evacuate New Orleans in 2005. She had just learned that she and her two children wouldn't be able to return to their home to salvage their belongings and start rebuilding their lives.
“My husband tells me,‘I don’t think I am going to be able to get us home. Keep the kids in school and find an apartment,’” she told TODAY. “I just lost it.”
As Uddo cried, two women came over and began comforting her.
“They literally sat at our table and just ministered to us and prayed with us and hugged us and comforted us,” she said.
When Uddo went to pay for her bill, she was overwhelmed with gratitude after learning another stranger had already covered it.
“That’s what Houston gave to me. They gave me strangers seeing me crying at the table who came up to me and loved on me,” she said. “This is human kindness.”
Uddo eventually returned to Louisiana and helped rebuild her neighborhood, Lakeview, which was one of the hardest hit areas after Katrina. She founded several nonprofits, including NOLA Tree Project — which is reforesting New Orleans after the devastating storm — and St. Paul’s Homecoming Center — which started as a welcome center at her house.
After seeing the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, Uddo quickly packed up her recovery van, which is equipped for gutting and mucking houses, and drove straight to Houston just a few days after the storm hit.
“I knew I had to go,” Uddo said.
In the past, Uddo has organized as many as 200 volunteers at a time to help people demolish homes and hopes to bring more to Texas post-Harvey. She is also trying to help Houstonians avoid mistakes that many experienced in New Orleans during the recovery by warning them about contractors who try to defraud them by citing outlandish prices for tasks like black mold removal.
But, more importantly, she is sharing her message of hope with survivors.
“We can tell you ‘We’ve been through this and you’re going to be okay. You are going to be better than okay. You are going to find you are going to be stronger, more resilient,’” she said.
Uddo is not the only New Orleans resident who remembers Katrina and the kindness of Houston. Henry Heaton was just 15-years-old when his family was evacuated in 2005. At the time, Heaton's family owned a ranch house near one of the breached canals. After the storm, the property was entirely underwater.
“My family had some friends in Houston and they found them a temporary home,” he told TODAY. “Friends who took them and made them feel at home.”
When Heaton returned to New Orleans, he met Uddo’s daughter, Stephanie, and they became close. When Uddo was looking for volunteers for this weekend's trip, he signed up immediately.
“My heart went out to Houston because I know exactly what was going on,” he said. “New Orleans wouldn’t be what it is without all the volunteers who got on a plane and went down there.”
He, too, remembers seeing his waterlogged home for the first time and not being able to stay long because it felt too overwhelming. He also remembers how small but kind gestures made a huge difference.
“A hug goes a very long way,” he said. “Talking to someone who has been in your place and saw what you have been through, it will help.”
For others, being able to give people a meal or a bottle of water feels powerful. Ryan Fitzmorris and his brothers, Jim and John, who are all survivors of Hurricane Katrina, remember how Houstonians provided so much support to New Orleans as it was being rebuilt.
“I got to do something,” he told TODAY. “I have two beautiful sons and if I was in this situation I want someone to help me.”
Fitzmorris, who has since moved back to New Orleans and now owns a recovery business, recently started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy supplies for Houston. Over Labor Day weekend, he filled a 26-foot truck with food, water, diapers, and wipes, along with specialty requests like bug spray, citronella candles and chainsaws, and took it to Port Arthur.
He's currently accepting donations to fill the truck again to take to Rockport on Sunday, Sept. 10.
“It is overwhelming. All I did was step up,” he said. “I think it’s more than just kind of going there and dropping off the valuables. It is letting them know you are not by yourself.”