HOUSTON — Lanny Dumbaulb and Elvira Wolf were the first Harvey evacuees to wake in the worship hall of Calvary Community Church, before the volunteers had even made coffee, before it was even dawn.
It had become their routine: the new friends, a classical composer and a German grandmother, sat at a table and whispered to each other amid a sea of inflatable mattresses and tote bags filled with what people had frantically grabbed before water seeped into their houses. Wolf told Dumbaulb she was yearning for a tomato. He told her the volunteers would bring her one; they were nice like that.
Juan “J.P.” Perez woke next, wandering to the table, saying that an acquaintance had promised to lend him a car so that he and his wife could drive to their subdivision and see whether their own car was still submerged up to the door handles.
At 6:32 a.m., one of the kenneled dogs started barking, which woke his owner. That woke the Hindi-speaking family next to her, which woke all the kids who spent their days kicking rubber balls to one another between the portable beds. The church’s pastor said a prayer.
Along the back wall, Andrea Aragon and Jordan Vital, under their donated blankets and wearing their donated clothes, tried to ignore the noise and sleep as long as they could, knowing that Aragon, two months pregnant, needed rest. And knowing that flooding and looting had taken everything they had. And knowing that when they eventually woke up that day — nine days after Harvey had first touched ground — they would still be in a shelter.
‘God doesn’t like ugly’
Every day, the Texas Department of Public Safety publishes a situation report listing the shelters still holding evacuees. There were 32,202 people on the list that Tuesday morning — 1,462 in rows of military cots at Houston’s convention center downtown, 696 at a suburban high school.
At Calvary Community, the shelter had been operating for seven days, ever since Jeff McGee, the church’s senior pastor, had done the math, realized that the official Red Cross facilities might not have capacity in northwest Houston, and put out a call for supplies and volunteers. Now there were 72 evacuees in his worship hall, hundreds of travel-size shampoos in his prayer room, and a pile of pillows and quilts so high they’d reached the top “S” on a massive vertical “Jesus” banner.
Aragon and Vital had walked 17 miles across town to get here, and Vital, 26, who had never stopped marveling that he met his girlfriend on Instagram when he messaged her that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, made sure they stayed hydrated and took breaks.
“God doesn’t like ugly,” Aragon’s mother often said, so Aragon, 20, had reminded herself to stay positive while they walked and while the water filled the apartment they had just moved into three weeks before. And when, a few days later, looters had taken the television, PlayStation and vanity for which they had spent two years saving.
“My mother says, if you could get it once, you can get it again. And that we need to be grateful for what we have,” she reminded Vital once they had woken up at Calvary Community.
Car: flooded. Jobs: gone. The shop where Aragon had done eyelash extensions told her they needed to reopen, but she couldn’t get to work. The couple tried to be grateful for the blue office chairs they had arranged in a square around their inflatable mattress, creating the semblance of walls in the shelter. They tried to be grateful for an outlet to charge their iPhones.
“I’m going to look for a vacuum,” Vital said. He returned with one a few minutes later and carefully cleaned under the chairs while Aragon folded the used clothing they had been given.
“How far are you along?” asked a fellow evacuee, a motherly looking woman who had heard Aragon was pregnant. “Taking your prenatal vitamins?”
“I don’t have them,” Aragon said. Lost in the flood. “But there’s some Ensures by the food table. I’ve been drinking those.”
She took a shower in the single available stall. Vital went out for KFC because Aragon had been craving chicken.
On the other side of the chair barrier, a stranger was crying over news about her house. Aragon and Vital bowed their heads. Aragon had been pregnant before, twice. Two miscarriages. She knew miscarriages could be caused by stress.
“Bless us, oh Lord,” she said. “For the gifts we are about to receive.”
‘A pretty prison’
The shelter was shelter, but the time in it was loose. It slipped by, divided not into hours but into distractions: Teenagers stayed in their beds, watching Hulu on their laptops. A few people went to the Spanish-language service in the upstairs chapel even though they didn’t speak Spanish. Juan Perez’s wife, Joan Potter, had taken to freshening up her air mattress with a new throw every day and posting the results on Facebook: “I redecorated my boudoir.” There was never anything new to look at.
“I’m so bored,” Wolf, 83, sighed to Dumbaulb.
“You could take a nap, Omi,” said Dumbaulb, 67, using the German word for “grandmother.” He looked at his iPad, hoping to hear from his daughter who was trying to help him find a place
There was nothing to do here but try to get out.
A woman named Ginger Holcomb found housing in San Antonio, where she had never been but where she could bring her dogs. A couple named Stephanie and Nash Ubale were thinking of selling their house and moving out of the city, too. Their home had been flooded in the same week they had held a funeral for their newborn twins. “Did you lose everything?” people had been asking. “We lost everything and more,” they had been responding.
The Calvary shelter was scheduled to close in three days’ time, though the pastor was trying to make sure everyone had a place to go. The national news that they saw seemed to have already turned its attention to Hurricane Irma and to be talking less about the people still stuck in the Texas shelters. Vital recharged his phone again and again, depleting his batteries with call after call to apartments, hotels and friends.
Wolf had grown up in Nazi Berlin — Jewish but passing as Christian. When she was 6 or 7 years old, the German chancellor had come to visit her school and Wolf, as the prettiest student, had been chosen to greet him. That is how she found herself presenting flowers to Adolf Hitler.
“This is nothing,” she told people when they asked how she was managing shelter life. “This is a pretty prison,” she said. It was nobody’s fault they were there but the rain. Nobody could let them out but the weather.
‘That must be the secret’
Midafternoon, Potter decided she couldn’t stand being idle anymore. The ESL teacher wanted to get her nails done at the closest open Walmart. She wanted to drive up and down the highway nearest the shelter and stop at every available hotel looking for a room. McGee, the pastor, was doubtful she would have success; people had been calling hotels all day.
“I know, but I want them to see me in person,” she had insisted, so she and Perez got in their borrowed car and went to the Comfort Inn two miles down the road.
“Just checking — do you have any space?” she asked the clerk, who told her no but that she could check back in an hour in case something opened up.
“Are you all sold out?” she asked at the Best Western, whose clerk looked pained and apologetic.
“Do y’all—” she started at La Quinta, but the woman behind the desk was shaking her head before Potter could finish the sentence.
“They said they’re booked until September 20th,” Potter told Perez as she came out of the Hampton Inn.
He stepped out of the car for a cigarette to calm his nerves. “Let’s just get back,” he said. “I’m getting hungry and irritated.”
The night before, Potter had woken to hear her husband talking in his sleep for the first time in their 23-year marriage. He was screaming “Help me! Help me!” into the darkness of the shelter. When he woke up, he said he didn’t remember. “Let’s go to one more,” she said. “One more hotel.”
At the Country Inn, when Potter came out of the lobby, she made a double-V victory sign. “Excellent news. We can 100 percent for sure get a room on Monday. Maybe even Saturday.”
Monday was six days away, Perez pointed out, and they had to be out of the shelter by Friday.
“They have a breakfast area,” she told him. “The rooms are clean.”
They went back to the shelter. They told the other evacuees sitting around a table about their room at the Country Inn.
“You have to drive, to do it in person,” she said, explaining how they had lucked out.
Dumbaulb’s car was underwater somewhere. “I guess that must be the secret,” he said. “I’m amazed, and I’m jealous, and I’m happy.” The table was quiet.
‘I will fear no evil’
“I wish I could listen to German music,” Wolf said to Dumbaulb. The worship hall, filled with air mattresses this morning, was now only half full. Teams of volunteers deflated the mattresses left behind by the people who had been lucky enough to leave.
Dumbaulb took out his iPad and showed Wolf how a person could search for almost anything on YouTube. Wolf leaned her chin on her fists and listened to Marlene Dietrich sing something slow and haunting in her native tongue.
“There’s nothing worse than not knowing where you’re going to be in three days’ time,” he said. “This feels right. Doesn’t it? For this space right now — this sad Marlene Dietrich song?”
Over along the far wall, Aragon had changed for bed into a borrowed orange T-shirt with palm trees on the front. She climbed onto her air mattress and put in her ear buds to watch an old episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” on her iPhone. After a couple of minutes, McGee took his position in the middle of the raised platform to offer the evening prayer.
“We as Christians often take great comfort in the 23rd Psalm,” he said and began to recite it: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
Aragon watched her phone as the lights dimmed around her, and someone coughed and another dog barked, and it was one more night in the shelter again.