HOUSTON — When help finally came, the floodwater was so high that the rescue boat motored right up to the balcony of Stephanie Browning’s second-floor apartment.
Browning, her boyfriend, his two young sons, their two dogs and eight neighbors clambered into the boat. It brought them to a huge city dump truck, which eventually deposited them, soaked but safe, at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which has been turned into a cavernous shelter for Harvey evacuees.
“It was really scary — you’re in the boat, and you don’t see roads, you see tops of trees,” said Browning, 41, sitting on a cot with her family amid thousands of identical cots in the nearly 2 million-square-foot downtown shelter.
From Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Dallas, thousands of people whose lives have been upended by Harvey are living in shelters that range from this hall, one of the nation’s largest convention centers, to churches, gyms, tiny recreation centers — even a furniture store.
Officials say more than 30,000 people may be forced from their homes by Harvey, and many whose homes have been severely damaged or destroyed by deadly winds and astonishing floodwater may need shelter for weeks or months to come.
By Monday afternoon, about 3,200 people were at the convention center, and a steady stream of newcomers was arriving in buses, in trucks, in cars and on foot.
“People are finding their way here and coming on in and getting registered,” said Lloyd Ziel, a Red Cross official. The shelter’s capacity is about 5,000, he said.
As the rescued streamed in, hundreds of volunteers sorted through huge piles of donated clothing, shoes, pet food and other supplies that were being dropped off by donors in huge plastic bags. The Red Cross supplied blankets, towels, toiletries, water and big tables of food. Dozens of people gathered around a large-screen TV to watch hurricane news.
Elderly people in wheelchairs and walkers sat quietly or slept, while scores of children played with some of the hundreds of rescued dogs. A father-son pair dressed in Batman costumes walked through the crowd, bringing smiles to faces of people who looked otherwise dazed, tired and wet from the slashing rains still hammering Houston on Monday.
“I’m so cold,” said Irma Lutes, 71, who tried to warm up under two white Red Cross blankets in the air-conditioned hall. “But I’m happy to be here.”
Fast-rising waters had forced Lutes, her husband and their son out of their Houston home and into their son’s pickup, where volunteers in a boat rescued them a couple of hours later. The rescuers took them to a main highway where they boarded a bus that brought them and their two large dogs to the convention center.
Lutes said she felt lucky that she had flood insurance for their house. But she said it was hard to be in a shelter at her age. She said she has diabetes and severe arthritis and chronic pain in her hip. All of it felt worse as she sat in a shelter.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen next,” she said.
David McDougle, youth pastor of First Baptist Church North Houston, said his house was about to flood when he got a phone call from firefighters asking if he could open the church as a shelter.
McDougle and his wife set up tables and chairs in the gym, and the National Guard and sheriff’s office began arriving with people in enormous six-wheeled vehicles. McDougle told authorities the gym can safely hold about 150 people, but truckloads of people kept arriving until there were between 300 and 350 people Sunday night.
The McDougles provided water, ramen noodles, canned soups, beef ravioli, hot dogs, chicken patties, a few cans of chili and more.
Monday morning, the floodwater receded, and about 100 people left.
“A lot of people were leaving because we didn’t have food and stuff, and we were trying to get them to stay because it’s safer here, but they decided to venture out on their own,” he said.
Donations have been flowing in since: hot dogs and tortillas from Walmart, clothing and a truckload of blankets. Church food pantry volunteers made potato soup, and they handed out toiletries that had been intended for a church mission trip.
Alex Vazquez, 22, was called up for service as a member of the Texas National Guard and said he is ready to help his fellow Texans. But he can’t get to his command post because of flooding.
Instead, he and his family — his parents and two siblings — walked to the First Baptist Church shelter in the middle of the night after their single-story home took on almost a foot of water. The walk usually takes five minutes, but it took more than an hour as the family trudged through waist-deep floodwater.
Vazquez said his supervisor told him to come to the post — about 30 miles away — when he can.
He never thought he’d be deployed to his home town.
“I was thinking it was going to happen to another city, to our neighboring state Louisiana, which gets hit pretty hard. But my home town — didn’t see that one coming,” he said.
In Austin, Red Cross spokeswoman Bristel Minsker said 300 Harvey evacuees are living in shelters. More than 45 evacuated people had taken shelter at a recreation center in Smithville, a town of 4,000 people about 50 miles southeast of Austin. Local residents have been donating meals and supplies to help them out.
Floyd Henderson said he had been awakened early Sunday by his two teenage daughters and hopped out of bed into knee-deep water. Harvey’s rain and runoff swamped the Colorado River and flooded his neighborhood.
The 44-year-old mechanic began to panic. “I can’t swim,” he said. “I was freaking out.”
He, his wife, Yvonne, and their daughters waded through the dark waters to the garage and climbed into his half-submerged Cadillac. The car started, and they were able to drive to safety through the darkness and deep water.
Henderson returned to his street Monday and saw his furniture and Xbox game system floating in the murky water.
“I don’t know when we can return,” he said.
Johnny Garcia and his family were fleeing the flooding in their home town of Bay City when they arrived at the Smithville shelter on Monday. Garcia didn’t want to leave his home, but, he said, “My wife kept nagging me, and I gave in. It’s been 35 years of marriage, and thank God, I listened to her this time,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a flood like this. It came quick,” he said. “We were prepared, but this is unprecedented.”
In San Antonio, Jude McFarland and his family have been staying at a shelter on San Antonio’s Southside since Wednesday, when they left their home in Corpus Christi ahead of Hurricane Harvey.
When evacuees aren’t watching football on the two TVs set up in the shelter, they try to catch a glimpse of their abandoned homes on the news. McFarland’s friends were unable to get a look into the family’s first-floor apartment, but he expects the worst.
This is the McFarlands’ second experience as refugees. They escaped rising floodwater in their New Orleans home during Hurricane Katrina, and their daughter was born shortly after.
The couple and their newborn bounced from shelter to shelter in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, then spent a few years in a FEMA trailer. Finally, subsidized housing opened up in Corpus Christi, and the family moved there in 2008.
“I thought we were okay, and now we have to start all over again,” McFarland said.