The family from Pasadena, Tex., shuddered as roiling floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey poured into their apartment complex’s parking lot, bobbing the cars like fish in a pond.
Fearing for their two small children, they lent their second-floor unit to their downstairs neighbors and fled with a garbage bag full of clothes to a shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
They huddled in a corner, dazed and scared, until two perfect strangers offered to take them in.
Anne Whitlock and Michael Skelly had been ferrying hurricane victims to the shelter from a nearby hospital. They knew the convention center was filling rapidly, and they were certain their own home, a 110-year-old converted firehouse in Houston’s East End, would be safe from the rising waters.
So they brought home the family — a woman who had emigrated from Mexico, her two daughters, her brother and a family friend — and Skelly posted a message on Facebook urging others to take people in. And so began a chain of help, one Houston family assisting another, as the nation’s fourth-largest city grapples with the impact of an epic and devastating storm.
“There’s no way that the city can come up with shelter for all those people,” said Skelly, a 55-year-old wind energy executive. “All across the city, people are offering up their homes . . . bringing their friends, or friends of friends of friends, or new friends, or whoever.”
One of Skelly’s work colleagues saw his post and promptly decided to take in a father from Iraq and his four children. Then Skelly and Whitlock’s son Oliver, 23, called. He had been making another run from the hospital and discovered that a disabled woman and her elderly mother were going to have to wait in the rain as the line at the convention center shelter curled out the door.
Whitlock told her son to bring the two women to the firehouse, where they could eat and relax. She arranged for them to sleep in a nearby home that she and her husband own and rent to a tenant, Tom McCasland, who happens to be Houston’s director of housing and community development.
“I tagged him on Facebook saying, ‘Hey, you don’t even know about this, Tom, but you’ve got two visitors,’ ” said Whitlock, 56, who runs a nonprofit that seeks to reinvigorate neighborhoods without pushing out longtime residents. “He has not slept in four days, he’s so overwhelmed.”
Becky Bain, 58, and her mother Miriam, 82, said they were grateful for a quiet place to stay after fleeing the rising floodwaters in a dump truck.
“We’ve already folded the laundry that was in his dryer and cleaned up a little around for him,” Bain said. “He’s got a beautiful home, and I’m just so incredibly grateful. . . . It’s a very emotional time.”
Whitlock and Skelly are known in Houston as a risk-taking power couple devoted to public service, including his failed bid for Congress in 2008. They met in Washington, D.C., in 1988 after both served in the Peace Corps. They married, had three children and bounced around to different countries and states before settling in Houston, where he made a small fortune at a wind energy company he co-founded.
Skelly now runs Clean Line Energy Partners, which builds long-haul transmission lines for renewable energy. The couple moved in 2015 from a wealthy neighborhood to the old firehouse, located in a poorer part of the city heavily populated by immigrants. They have purchased six abandoned Victorian houses, moved them to their street and preserved them.
And, since epic rains and winds began pummeling their city, they have taken in strangers.
“We opened our doors . . . and they opened their doors to us,” said Rafael, 33, a factory worker who is part of the family that Skelly and Whitlock brought home from the shelter. He asked that his last name not be used, because he is in the United States illegally. His two nieces, a 6-month-old and a dimpled 3-year-old, were born in the United States.
Air mattresses were pulled from the attic so everyone would have a place to sleep. The evacuated adults pitched in to cook meals, help with cleanup and walk Whitlock and Skelly’s dog. The owner of a nearby restaurant, which had closed because of the storm, got wind of the couple’s efforts and donated tortillas, chorizo and other foods.
Skelly and Whitlock said they were inspired by former Houston Mayor Bill White, who was in charge of the city when Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana 12 years ago. Thousands of people were homeless, and many cities did not want them. But Houston did — and now thousands of Katrina survivors call the city their home.
“Everybody is pressed into service in some way,” Whitlock said. “That’s pretty much the story across the city.”
Stories of goodwill were easy to find across the region, as about 10,000 people filled the convention center shelter and city, and county officials opened additional enormous structures to house more evacuees.
Abbey Kaler, her husband and their newborn left their home in West Houston before the storm to stay with her parents in the suburb of Kingwood. When that area flooded Tuesday morning, she sent out a plea on Facebook, asking whether anyone could take in her family, her parents and their four dogs.
A friend rescued them in an inflatable raft, after Kaler wrapped 3-week-old Emily in a bedsheet and duct-taped her to her body for safety. They ended up in the home of longtime family friends, who were out of town but invited them to stay.
Neighbors “brought diapers and wipes for Emily . . . formula, bottles,” Kahler said. “I’ve never even met these people.”
In the Heights neighborhood, north of Rice University, John Hoye learned that friends who had just brought their baby home from the neonatal intensive care unit were without power because of the hurricane. He invited them to stay at his home, along with his wife, their 2-year-old and his in-laws, who had evacuated, as well.
Hoye, 41, then turned his attention to a new effort he was calling Heights Heroes, in which he is trying to organize squads of volunteers to salvage belongings and make repairs at flooded homes.
“It’s a chain reaction where people are like, ‘Let’s get it done!’ ” he said. “It’s about having some good memories. You’re never going to forget rebuilding your life.”