‘You can only spend so much time in a furniture store’

The box trucks that normally deliver furniture from Gallery Furniture plowed through Houston’s flooded highways on Monday, plucking people from the side of the highway and convenience stores and bringing them to shelter — at a furniture store.

The iconic Houston furniture chain opened two of its three locations to people needing shelter from the floodwaters. Hundreds of people slept on sofas, recliners, sleeper sofas and mattresses wrapped in plastic.

“They’ve been through some terrific stress and tragedy, losing a house, losing a car. … We’re gonna help them get back in the game,” said Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack.” The store is providing meals to people, who McIngvale said range in age from infants to the elderly and who are, admittedly, getting a little bored.

“You can only spend so much time in a furniture store,” McIngvale acknowledged. But they “get to sit on a lot of solid wood furniture made in America.” (There’s a bit more to do in McIngvale’s furniture stores. According to its website, one of the locations has a 30,000 square foot aquarium, and the other says it is home to “exotic tropical birds” and “playful monkeys.”)

McIngvale, who also opened the store to people who fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is one of dozens of Texans who have made makeshift shelters to help care for those who have been displaced.

“I’m probably as much of a social worker as I am a capitalist. It gives me a lot of satisfaction,” he said. “It’s a good benefit to these people, get them back on their feet, and in the long term they become customers.”

— Katie Zezima

‘I never imagined I’d have to evacuate the place I evacuated to’

Rooftops and towering business signs were the only visible markers left of downtown La Grange after the brackish waters of the Colorado River came spilling onto a main street on Monday afternoon.

Hundreds of people were evacuated over the weekend after the National Weather Service warned the river would swell to a record 54 feet, the highest in nearly a century for the tiny town about halfway between Austin and Houston.

Kira Peters, 5, and her mother Kearston Flannel, 27, sit with Dexter Hines, 53, and his son Colby Hines, 26, all evacuees from Bay City in the parking lot of a La Grange, Tex., hotel as the Colorado River swells behind them. (Arelis Hernandez/The Washington Post)

La Grange always felt like a safe bet for Dexter Hines, a Bay City resident, who fled to the seat of Fayette County for the past two hurricanes. No one should still be in Bay City where Harvey, now a tropical storm, was on track to come back and trigger flooding that will submerge downtown under 10 feet of water. Officials said residents who stayed did so at their own risk, because there will be no emergency personnel available. And so, given the mandatory evacuation order, Hines did what he normally does and traveled northwest to La Grange.

When he left, Hines did not know his flight would last this long. He let loose his horses on the 38-acre property he owns hoping they would be safer fending on their own. He’s no longer sure he made the right decision. And now, with his safe haven under water, Hines is debating whether it’s time for him to keep moving.

“I never imagined I’d have to evacuate the place I evacuated to,” said Hines, a 53-year-old welder.

Tired of being cooped up in a La Grange-area Hampton Inn, Hines sat with his son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law under the cover of their parked trailer watching the water rise closer to their hotel. They have power but no water, and Austin seems like the next best thing. With the overflowing Colorado River putting several towns and small cities in danger, many evacuees are migrating farther and farther north to evade its destructive path, becoming a class of hurricane nomads unsure of when they’ll return home or whether there’s a home to return to.

“I don’t know what our next move is,” Hines said. “Do we risk it on the roads or stay put?”

— Arelis Hernandez 

Three floods in three years

On Main Street, south of downtown Houston, cars sat abandoned in the soaking roadway on Monday night as newly homeless people packed a strip of hotels.

Linda Thompson sat in the cacophonous lobby of the Staybridge Suites with the cardboard box that was all she could salvage from her house a few miles down the swollen bayou.

Inside were soggy photos, which Thompson was laying out, one by one, on the lobby table and patting dry with a hand towel.

They showed her three boys through the years. The oldest is now 8. All three grew up in the house now submerged in filthy water.

“This is the third flood,” Thompson said, as she dabbed and dried. She’d been at it long enough that some of the guests had noticed and picked up towels to help. Three floods in three years.

The first time, the water only came up to her ankles. During the next flood, it reached her knees, and her family had to be rescued. This time, the water would have more than covered her head had the Thompsons not fled to this hotel before the storm.

“A thousand words for every flood,” Thompson said, patting another photo dry. But she didn’t much want to talk about floods — or all the agonies and tears she knows come next. For now, she would just sit in the lobby drying photos of the three children, who still don’t know that the storm has stolen their home.

“The kids don’t know,” Thompson said. “I’m breaking it to them slowly.”

— Avi Selk

Dry, but waiting on portable toilets 

David McDougle, pastor of First Baptist Church North Houston, said his house was about to take on water when he got a phone call from firefighters asking if he could open the church as a shelter.

The church, he said, is one of the biggest facilities in the area. McDougle and his wife set up the shelter of tables and chairs in the church gymnasium as the National Guard and sheriff’s office ferried people there 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 Monday night.

The shelter had no food aside from what the McDougles brought from their home: all of their groceries and a collection of “random things:” Ramen noodles, canned soups, beef ravioli, hot dogs, chicken patties, a few cans of chili and more. The couple also spent $14 on two cases of water that was quickly doled out to people.

Leroy Moore and his wife ended up at McDougle’s church after being rescued from their single-story home by the National Guard on Sunday night. Moore, a 58-year-old forklift driver, and his wife decided to ride out the storm because their home of 32 years never flooded.

“I’ve been in Houston all my life, and I’ve been in this neighborhood 32 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Moore, who, along with his wife, left with nothing other than the clothes on their backs.

“When it’s a choice to make between things and life, sometimes you’ve just got to let the things go and hang on to life,” he said. “I needed to get out because I believe I’m a little too old to be climbing on the roof; the knees aren’t what they used to be.”

Because of the number of people, the church’s toilets — two in the men’s room and three in the women’s room — quickly backed up. McDougle said he has been plunging the toilets and pulling out toilet paper, but few people want to use them.

“People are holding it because they don’t want to go into the restroom because it’s in bad shape,” he said.

He’s tried to track down portable toilets, but with most major roads still flooded, they’re not expected until Wednesday — at the earliest.

— Katie Zezima

Waiting for a break, but the downpours won’t stop

Zeke Peak exhaled. He evaluated the rising brown water in front of his truck. Then, like a football player preparing for game day, he got hyped.

“Alright, we can do this,” he said early Monday evening. “We’re going.”

He floored the gas pedal on his Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab and the black truck lurched forward — spraying water up above its hood as it parted the flood.

Peak had been up most of the previous night as a single hour saw six inches of water rain down on Katy, a suburb about 25 miles west of downtown Houston. The suburban area of over 300,000 people is located off Interstate 10, near Houston’s “Energy Corridor,” and built on largely what used to be rice paddies.

The trouble is, it is a major point of drainage for Houston’s fast-growing and often sprawling northwest and west sides. It’s also on the backside of the Barker Dam, built to keep rainwater from rushing into the Buffalo Bayou and causing catastrophic flooding to Houston’s downtown. That controlled release of water, however, comes at a price forcing evacuations across Katy as the Barker Reservoir began to spill its banks.

So, Peak spent Monday driving around town to check on neighbors and see if any needed help evacuating.

“Every now and then, we will get a break in it and a bit of a breath,” Peak said of the rain. “But, it seems like about the time you start feeling a little better, you get another torrential downpour, and then it stays raining for a good six to eight hours.”

At about 5 p.m. the call came. Family friends were stranded and needed to evacuate. They knew Peak drove a special truck for his work in the oil industry: Could he come help?

It had been about two hours since his last rescue run. In that time, the streets had flooded.

“You just do what you’ve got to do to keep it out of the house,” Peak said, as he exhaled and put his foot on the gas. “We are just going to keep fighting it as it keeps going through the days.”

— Stephanie Kuzydym 

Louisiana awaits Harvey’s next landfall 

Although Lake Charles, La., and surrounding areas have dealt only with outer rain bands from Harvey, Calcasieu Parish rescue workers had already helped three people from submerged cars and another from a flooded home by early evening on Monday.

“I’ve never seen one like this before,” said Dick Gremillion, who runs the parish’s homeland security and emergency preparedness office. “It started out as nothing, initially, and went to Cat 4 when it came ashore. It’s been unusual because of the duration. Normally, if we get a hurricane or tropical storm, they move 10 miles an hour, and usually, the worst is over after about 12-16 hours. In this case, it’s gone on for days.”

Officials say at least 50 or 60 roads in the area are impassable because of high water. And that’s just from the rain, which, if it keeps coming down, could overwhelm the drainage canals and prompt even more flooding.

“If we get a significant amount of more rain — and they are saying we might get that tonight — that would spur having to get people out of homes,” Gremillion said.

Fortunately, folks here — having seen what happened to Texas — are taking this storm seriously. During a typical storm, Gremillion’s office may give away a couple thousand sandbags. This year, they have given away 20,000.

And the flooded home rescue reminded Gremillion, who has been working in emergency preparedness for 22 years, to check on his own home — which is often overlooked by those working to help others make it through the storm. He made that mistake during Hurricane Rita, only to later discover that his roof had blown off.

This time, he remembered to check — and the house was, as of Monday night, fine.

— Leslie Fain

Checking in 

Pedrito Martinez and his brother-in-law left a San Antonio shelter Monday and headed for the bus stop carrying two blue duffel bags.

The men were among the first to receive a hotel placement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Once they drop off their bags at the Alamo Inn Motel on East Commerce Street and get some food, they’ll come back for Martinez’s wife and disabled mother-in-law.

Neighbors who stayed behind said the family’s home in Corpus Christi has quite a bit of damage but is still livable. The large porch that was once out back now sits on top of the house, but Martinez is hopeful that they will get back there.

In the meantime, FEMA has approved a one-month hotel stay for him and his family, which is a welcome change after several days in a crowded shelter. His mother-in-law has a bad hip and uses a walker to get around.

While Martinez, 50, is glad to be moving on, he said the shelter experience was helpful. Officials from University Health System helped him secure insulin and test strips for his diabetes, and yellow wristbands allow them to ride the bus free.

— Brittney Martin