Massive flooding in the region is expected to continue for several days in aftermath of Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane that barreled into Texas late Friday, just northeast of Corpus Christi. At least five deaths were reported in the relentless rains and flooding that has followed in Houston and a wide swath of cities in the region.
Kese Smith, a spokesman for the City of Houston, said more than 1,500 people had taken shelter in the convention center Sunday night. The 1.9 million-square-foot facility has enough room for 4,000 people. Three smaller shelters around the city had also opened their doors to storm victims.
Smith said the shelters were prepared to take on more evacuees as authorities rescued people from the rising floodwaters.
“At this point, a concern about capacity isn’t the case. The concern is that people who need a high water rescue can get one,” Smith told The Washington Post.
The evacuees were registered and admitted to the center where they waited in lines for towels and blankets or fresh clothes. Volunteers served snacks and hot food or administered first aid. Hundreds sat, wrapped in towels, looking wearily forward, filling two dozen rows of plastic folding chairs.
They planned to sleep in cots in the convention center for one or more nights. Then they will have to find somewhere else to go. Most of their homes won’t be habitable.
Joan Groth, 61, and her husband William said they climbed into their attic around 4 a.m. as water rose above waist height in their southwest Houston home. They’d flooded twice before in the last two years but never like this. The water rose until the first floor ceiling.
“I wasn’t scared the first couple of times it happened,” she said. “This time I was really scared.”
If the water reached the attic, she knew she would be in trouble. But it didn’t, and the Groths caught a rescue boat late Sunday morning.
They arrived downtown in the back of a dump truck with about a dozen neighbors, most of whom also saw their homes flood in the last two severe storms.
“This is the third time we lost our house,” said Freda Wadler as she walked from the truck.
When her family realized their first floor would be underwater, they waded across the street to a neighbor’s two-story home, where a National Guard rescue boat found them Sunday afternoon.
Water covered about eight blocks on the edge of Houston’s downtown, entering the ground floors of the Wortham Center, a downtown theater, and the historic Lancaster Hotel, where staff were still posted to ward off looters. A Chase Bank branch was submerged in flowing water that reached almost to its roof.
Wadler’s 21-year-old daughter, Ariel, said all her remaining possessions were in the purse she carried, mostly clothes and hygiene products.
“I can’t even feel anything, that’s why I’m not crying,” she said.
Despite the rush of evacuees, the scene at the convention center was well organized Sunday night. Trucks carried cots, towels, food and other donations to the shelter throughout the day. Police officers stood guard inside. Red Cross volunteers said they expected to have enough bedding to sleep everyone in the facility. The convention center itself had not flooded or sustained any serious damage.
It was a far cry from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when roughly 30,000 evacuees crammed into the Superdome in New Orleans after the city opened it as an emergency shelter. Within days, trash piled up, toilets overflowed and supplies of food and other necessities started running low. The people inside were told not to leave the hot, crowded stadium because of the rising floodwaters outside. Conditions eventually became so squalid that many of the evacuees were taken by bus to the Astrodome in Houston.
Ricky Harris, 32, arrived downtown in a dump truck with a group from Houston’s Fifth Ward. When he figured the storm would be disastrous, he drove toward the house of his 91-year-old grandmother Clara, parked at the edge of the flood and walked 45 minutes through knee-high water to help her get out. He took her hand and walked her back out where the trucks were picking up.
Police came to Oscar Santo’s apartment complex near Buffalo Bayou in East Houston as water entered the first floor. They told residents to evacuate, then walked Santos and his wife Susana to a bus awaiting them.
“The bayou is still rising, that’s why we’re here,” he said.
The city’s homeless also flocked to the convention center. Many were caught in the pounding rain Saturday night then, with bus and train service suspended, walked across town to the shelter.
Gordon Miles, 51, had only been in Houston nine days when he saw the black misty cloud bursting with lightning and rolling his way.
“Scared the hell out of me when I saw it coming,” he said. “Everybody left but me, I didn’t know where to go.”
He camped under a highway bridge, but as water rose in the streets around him, he positioned in the corner of a fence where he could prevent himself from washing away.
The next morning, he walked two hours to the shelter.
Dondria Hardy Duke was also caught outside in the storm, and she said she walked around all night, unable to find shelter.
“I was in the storm, up to my knees, fighting the snakes,” she said.