Shelter’s small comforts yield bit of optimism
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.”
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.