Shel­ter’s small com­forts yield bit of op­ti­mism

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drea Ball and Tony Plo­het­ski aball@statesman.com tplo­het­ski@statesman.com

For Priscilla Her­nan­dez and her eight HOUS­TON — chil­dren, the worst is over.

Just days ear­lier, the fam­ily from north­ern Hous­ton barely sur­vived an ill-fated at­tempt to es­cape their trailer by wad­ing through waist-high wa­ter in the mid­dle of one of the worst storms to hit this city. Now they are safe.

Sit­ting at a large round ta­ble at the Ge­orge R. Brown Con­ven­tion Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, it was time to re­group, com­fort each other and ad­just to a new nor­mal.

“They saved you from the flood and gave you a towel and gave you food and ev­ery­thing you need, right?” 9-year-old Alicia asked her brother.

“They gave me this ap­ple,” 5-year-old Ray­mond an­swered, hold­ing the red fruit in his out­stretched hand.

Life at the con­ven­tion cen­ter seemed a world away from the wa­ter res­cues still tak­ing place across the re­gion Wed­nes­day. Here, there were no des­per­ate ef­forts to stay alive. In­stead, there was food, TV, baby food, cots, blan­kets, com­put­ers and a hint of

op­ti­mism that maybe things will even­tu­ally be OK.

“This place has been a god­send,” said Cae­sar Pena, stand­ing out­side the build­ing where he has lived since Satur­day. “This is the first time I’ve been out­side to get some fresh air.”

It was the first time the sun had come out in days.

More than 5,000 peo­ple now call this mam­moth build­ing home, and more were lined up to get in Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. Out­side, dogs on leashes or in crates barked at passers-by. Some peo­ple dragged cloth­ing and bed sheets in clear plas­tic bags along the ground. Oth­ers piled garbage bags, card­board boxes and suit­cases stuffed with their be­long­ings at the curb while wait­ing to leave the fa­cil­ity.

Is­abel Gon­za­les, 18, had ar­rived at the shel­ter sev­eral days ear­lier after her neigh­bor­hood flooded Sun­day. By Wed­nes­day, she was def­i­nitely ready to go. Stand­ing out­side the con­ven­tion cen­ter with a group of 15 fam­ily mem­bers, Gon­za­les hov­ered over her 5-mon­thold daugh­ter, who slept in a crib, and waited for rel­a­tives to pick her up to take her to a ho­tel.

De­spite her ea­ger­ness to leave, she said she was grate­ful to the vol­un­teers and ap­pre­ci­ated the hot pasta meals that kept her go­ing.

“They didn’t have to help us, but they chose to,” she said. “We have got­ten a lot of good help.”

Vir­ginia Humphrey, a 76-year-old re­tired cos­me­tol­o­gist, was also ready to go. On Wed­nes­day, she stood with her hus­band await­ing fam­ily mem­bers to give them a ride to a Hous­ton sub­urb.

Her home, she said, was de­stroyed. “It’s gone. It was 6 feet when we left. But we are blessed in spite of this.” She gave thanks for her good health, ex­cept for some slight knee pain.

Her­nan­dez, her mother and her chil­dren had ar­rived at the con­ven­tion cen­ter Wed­nes­day after what they de­scribed as a life and death sit­u­a­tion that al­most went hor­ri­bly wrong.

It was Satur­day night and the rain was com­ing down in sheets. Their trailer be­gan to flood, and when the wa­ter reached their waists, they de­cided to try to es­cape. The fam­ily — with chil­dren ages 5 to 15 — clasped hands and be­gan to wade through the wa­ter, but it was too strong for the little ones, Her­nan­dez said. They hadn’t even made it out of the trailer park be­fore they turned around and went home.

By then, the wa­ter in­side their home was even higher. They called 911, but res­cuers were swamped with other call­ers. Ray­mond was scared to death.

“He was ask­ing, ‘Are we go­ing to die?’” Her­nan­dez said.

His older brother, Juan, made jokes to ease the ten­sion.

“I didn’t want to worry any of my sib­lings, so I acted calm,” said Juan, 15.

They begged for help on Face­book. A stranger who saw their plea ar­rived with a boat and res­cued them.

On Mon­day, they saw their home. The floors had buck­led, the ceil­ing had a hole in it, and the fur­ni­ture was ru­ined.

What she’ll miss most about her old life, Her­nan­dez said, is a place to call home.

“We had some­where for sure to stay,” she said. “That’s what I’ll miss.”

Not every­one at lo­cal shel­ters had to be there. Many came to vol­un­teer.

Steve Hu­ber of Hous­ton, a sem­i­nary stu­dent at St. Thomas Univer­sity who is be­com­ing a Catholic priest, ar­rived at the con­ven­tion cen­ter to help out.

“We heard the call for help,” he said. “One of the big things we try to in­still in stu­dents is be­ing in the ser­vice when there is a need. We want to do what we can to help in­stead of sit­ting around do­ing noth­ing all day.”

Out­side Lake­wood Church — whose pas­tor, Joel Os­teen, had faced harsh na­tional crit­i­cism for his re­sponse to the dis­as­ter — an army of vol­un­teers ac­cepted items from cars lined up more than two dozen deep, stretch­ing around a cor­ner and onto a high­way ser­vice road.

The church had a well-co­or­di­nated ef­fort to col­lect and dis­trib­ute items that in­cluded cloth­ing and toi­letries.

“We were lucky enough not to have flooded, and we wanted to con­trib­ute what we could,” said Tara Sheets, who ar­rived at the church, the near­est drop-off point near their home, with her hus­band and their baby.

Jason Lan­gel­lier, a mixed mar­tial arts fighter from Hous­ton who was vol­un­teer­ing for the op­er­a­tion, said, “I’m just do­ing my part but with all the neg­a­tiv­ity sent this way, I de­cided it was the place to come to.”

He was four hours into his shift.

“I’m just proud,” he said. “Just see­ing so many peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races, re­li­gion — none of that matters. It touches you to see all of this.”

BAR­BARA DAVID­SON / NEW YORK TIMES

A fel­low fire­fighter is helped back onto a boat Wed­nes­day after he knocked on a door to fol­low up on a miss­ing per­sons re­port in a flooded neigh­bor­hood of The Wood­lands, north of Hous­ton.

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