A tale of two hurricane cities, Houston and New Orleans

Both cities are vulnerable to flood disasters but local and federal officials learned from mistakes made before and during Hurricane Katrina.
5:24 | 08/31/17

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Transcript for A tale of two hurricane cities, Houston and New Orleans
Stephanopoulos. Hurricane Harvey continues on its dangerous path. It made landfall in southwest Louisiana early this morning. Of course, 12 years ago, hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans, and Houston opened its arms to the survivors. ABC's Steve osunsami reports from New Orleans tonight on the link these sister cities share. Reporter: By reputation, these two great cities couldn't be further from each other New Orleans, the country's party town. And Houston home to the big oil that powers America. But tonight, families from both places are praying for each over, bound by tragedy and compassion. We're watching our brothers and sisters go through the same thing we went through -- the images are almost identical. Reporter: It was 12 years ago when another storm with a nice name hit hard in the big easy. More than 1,800 people died during Katrina. Nearly a quarter million new orleanians left for Houston. When Katrina hit, Houston opened up their arms to us in a big, big way. Reporter: Now with the soggy shoe on the other foot -- the leaders of Louisiana are ready to return the favor. During Katrina, you had a mass exodus from this state over there and now you guys are preparing for possibly the reverse? We want to be good neighbors and they will be very well taken care of. Reporter: Both cities are uniquely vulnerable to water-borne disasters. Most of New Orleans sits below sea level, and they depend on this -- a combination of levees and pumps to keep the city dry. You do the best you can under very difficult circumstances. Reporter: 350 miles west, Houston's skyline is decorated with seven of the ten tallest buildings in Texas. But no matter how high they build, there's no escaping the danger of floods on the ground floor. Experts say the city's recent explosive growth has only increased the risk. Every region that a disaster like this hits, has its own particular topography, its own particular challenges. Reporter: Houston is a flat city on a coastal plain built mostly on swampland. The acres of prairie grass that once saved the city from the rains have since been paved over by urban progress. We have the system of bayous D various little rivlets in Houston itself that causes big problems. Reporter: Those bayous drain slowly, meaning flood waters could still be here next week. Within days we're going to be talking about this very long term recovery project that's going to take 10 to 15 years easily. Reporter: New Orleans has come a long way since Katrina, when chaos and confusion defined the city. The Katrina experience was an eye opener. An amazing display of incompetence by the federal government. Show something! Reporter: Michael Brown, who was leading the government disaster relief effort, became the symbol of federal failure, and for many, the face off administration that didn't seem to care if a city with a black majority drowned. Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. Reporter: It seems if there's one lesson Louisiana learned from Katrina, it's that preparation is key. We're prepositioned with personnel, with assets, high water vehicles and vessels, boats around the state of Louisiana. We think we're in pretty good shape, but you never know what mother nature is going to throw at you. Reporter: Another lesson, you can't just rely on the government to save you. And that sense of self-reliance has inspired an army of volunteers now affectionately known as the cajun Navy. This week, they hauled boats of every size to Houston, and continue to rescue soaked survivors. We show up just as well as you showed up. This is the only way it works. Its crowd sourced, its grass roots, it's a top down nightmare to manage, but at the same time, as people are coming in with requests, we're handling it the best way we can. Reporter: And in the middle of it all, how do they keep things running? There's an app for that. Is that live? This is how we operate. We get these people talking with a free app that can work realtime. It's not going to work during a hurricane. It works. Reporter: They are saving lives as the mayor of new Orleans is keeping his eye on the skies and on the city's pumps. The pumping system right now is a bit under capacity, and we're working through that as we speak. We think we have made good choices in the last couple of days. Reporter: After everything that has happened to this city, there are still about a dozen pumps that are not working. The good news, so far the worst of Harvey is moving away from New Orleans, and officials hope they won't be repeating the most painful part of their city's history. We're thankful we're in the under the pressure that Houston is seeing because the same thing would have happened here. And Steve, it appears that New Orleans has been mostly spirited and we saw the cajun Navy. How else are people of new Orleans reaching out no help? Reporter: At the top of that la list is housing, and air bnb is all over this. Connecting homeowners here with homeowners in Houston in need. There are also a number of relief funds that are out there, and if you pay to one through Facebook, they will match up to $1 million. One thing we learned in 2005 when we were here during Katrina, is about donating food. So many people want to do that, but it may be better to donate money to a food bank in Texas so they don't have to move the food. It's a much more efficient way of helping more people, George. It's direct. Steve, thanks very much.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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