People seek shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Wednesday. (John Taggart/For The Washington Post)

The water was rising, the rescue truck was coming, and now Dale Crumbaugh had five minutes to decide: What to bring?

He was 75 years old. Medicine, he thought. He began stuffing it all in a blue satchel. His inhaler with three shots left. Pills for blood pressure. Pills for diabetes. The sleep apnea machine.

He looked out the window and saw a man in a swimsuit wading toward him.

He grabbed his vial of nitroglycerin pills, in case he had a heart attack. His pocket knife, in case he had to cut himself loose from something. His cellphone.

The swimsuit man was at his door, yelling for him to come out.

He had been reading three novels a week since his wife died. He put a paperback in the satchel, hooked the satchel to his walker, and waded into the water.

In house after house, day after day, and even now as new flooding forces more evacuations across swaths of Southeast Texas, the question came, and usually it came suddenly: What to bring? What do you bring when water is flooding in, when a boat is waiting, when you don’t know whether you’re about to have to swim for your life, much less come home again?

Texas evacuees at shelters describe the few items that they were able to save from their flooded homes. (Zoeann Murphy,Jorge Ribas,Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

A week after Hurricane Harvey blew into Texas, the answer could be found in shelters spread across Houston, in little piles next to cots and air mattresses, in zip-top bags and garbage bags and still-damp leather purses and canvas backpacks, and on a table in a dining hall where Dale Crumbaugh put the only thing he had left, the blue satchel full of medicine.

“There were so many things, I couldn’t think of one thing. I think I was in a dream it wouldn’t happen,” he said, sitting at a place called the Klein Multi-Purpose Center, a vast beige school building north of Houston that had become a shelter for more than 300 displaced people. Now the cellphone he saved rang.

“Yep,” he said to his stepson in California, who was asking about what was lost to the water. “Lot of tchotchkes your mom had. Yep. That cubby of stuff she had that was all feathery? Yeah. . . .”

Across the shelter, people who had arrived wet and dripping were taking such inventories. Someone brought a Bible. Many brought insurance papers in plastic bags, cellphones and toothbrushes. A young woman who had been on a secret rendezvous with her boyfriend when the hurricane hit arrived with flip-flops and perfume in a purse wrapped in two garbage bags. Another woman had thought about bringing her diamond bracelet but took it off at the last moment, deciding, “It’s just a bunch of rocks someone said had value.” She put her dog in a cooler and floated her out into the water toward a rescue boat.

As a boat waited at their front door, Darlene Marshall’s husband grabbed her high-heeled sandals and stuffed them in a laundry bag along with his work boots. “I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” said Marshall, whose husband was now trying to make his way back to their flooded house.

She was standing next to their air mattress, where there was a laundry bag with the shoes and a pink floral purse she had stuffed full and dropped into a scented white garbage bag that she had not yet thrown away. Now she looked inside her purse.

“Two iPads, my wallet, my phone, chargers. Benadryl, because he was already sick,” she said, looking at her son, 11-year-old Bear, on his smaller air mattress. “I thought about bringing a Trump sign because they said he was coming here, but he didn’t. So, I guess I didn’t need that.”

In her final minutes before the boat arrived at her apartment, Nikki Davis had yelled at her four kids, “Nothing fancy!” and filled two zip-top bags with a bottle of lotion, toothpaste, toothbrushes, her children’s birth certificates and her marriage license. At the last possible moment, she thought about the two boarding passes for a Carnival cruise she and her husband had finally saved enough money to buy. She zipped them in.

“I know, it seems strange,” she said of the passes, on which were depicted a ship sailing through blue waters.

“My mind was everywhere,” said her husband, Joseph, who had only brought his vape and a vape charger, which were now in his shirt pocket.


Personal belongings are stacked higher up in a Houston home on Thursday. (Tannen Maury/Epa-Efe)

The water overwhelmed. Susan Carnes found herself doing things that now seemed absurd. As the water was rising, she put towels under the front door. As it rose higher, she put a cake on a higher counter. Finally, with boats circling her neighborhood, she and her husband realized it was time to go.

In the last minutes, she swept the contents of an upstairs bathroom counter — soap, shampoo, toothpaste — into a trash bag that her husband then wrapped in a trench coat. As her mind flashed forward to the future, she tossed in some lipstick — “because if I have nothing left, at least I can put some lipstick on,” she said — and then her mind focused on the small boat motoring up to her door. She thought about her still-stranded neighbors, and the man who was literally swimming toward her, and she decided she would bring nothing else.

“I didn’t want to take up room for humanity with things,” she said now, still sleepless and dazed, sitting in the dining room of the Klein center wearing red-orange lipstick and donated clothes. A large-screen television blared nonstop news of the flood, and she began remembering what she had forgotten.

“I left my wedding ring in a little box on the counter in the bathroom,” she said. Then she remembered what she was always thinking about before the hurricane, and had somehow forgotten in the rush to get out: that she had breast cancer. “I was supposed to be having surgery today,” she said.

Nearby, Carol Casto sat next to her air mattress, where she had no belongings other than her dachshund, Sophie, asleep in a crate. The water came so fast and the boat so suddenly that she had “less than 30 seconds” to decide what to bring. She had grabbed her purse and stuffed it with the dog’s medication, her own medication, her wallet, cellphone and car keys — all of which, including Sophie, soon floated away when the boat that had rescued them capsized in the surging waves.

Casto had climbed up on a roof then and waited for an hour, holding nothing at all but her own arms because she was shivering.

“I could barely see anyone because of the trees,” she said, remembering how alone she felt in that moment. “I could barely hear anything because of the water.”

A boat came, and a truck came, and a volunteer from somewhere had saved Sophie, and now what Casto had was the donated clothes she was wearing, and the donated mattress she had been sleeping on, and the donated blankets that had covered her for the last four nights.

“You need anything?” a volunteer asked her now, and the answer was that she needed everything.