Coffee and cots greet displaced Texans at shelters, now home to thousands of evacuees

Evacuees fill up cots at the George Brown Convention Centre that has been turned into a shelter run by the American Red Cross to house victims of the high water from Hurricane Harvey.
Evacuees fill up cots at the George Brown Convention Centre that has been turned into a shelter run by the American Red Cross to house victims of the high water from Hurricane Harvey. PHOTO: AFP

HOUSTON (NYTIMES) - The rescued are almost always wet when they arrive - slick, shuffling and staggering after hours in the rain. They are met with blankets and a security check, dry clothes and green cots.

And then there is a feeling of relief that, for the moment, they have left the floodwaters behind.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, hundreds of Texans were wrapped in blankets in the George R. Brown Convention Centre in Houston. They were sprawled on cots inside the gymnasium of the shuttered Abraham Kazen Middle School in San Antonio. Across a vast region, they were huddled inside churches, senior centres and hotels.

"It's the first time that I've lost everything," said Ms Kapua Kauo, 41, a home health care worker, inside the Houston convention centre that, before the disaster, had planned to host a gun show and a contemporary art fair in the months ahead. She was stressing the positive. "I still have my life, my husband," she said.

But the relief of being on dry land was mixed with concern over what was to come for many displaced Texans.

At the San Antonio school, Ms Michelle McGowen said she could live with the likelihood that her home was lost. But she was desperate to know one thing: Were Uncle Jon and Uncle Paul still alive?

Stubborn and in frail health, the two men had decided to anchor down with dogs and each other in their coastal Texas town of Aransas Pass. She, her two sons and their father boarded buses and fled inland before the storm last Thursday, landing on cots in the gymnasium of the closed middle school that is now home to hundreds of evacuees who fled the soaking destruction of Hurricane Harvey.

"I'm terrified," Ms McGowen said, as she sat on the concrete benches outside one of three emergency shelters in San Antonio that, as of Sunday night, were housing roughly 1,000 evacuees. A day earlier, she said, someone stole her phone, cutting her off from the rest of her family. "I have no way of even getting a hold of them."

In normal times, Ms McGowen said she and her extended family would call one another every two hours to chat. The last time she talked to her Uncle Jon, the hurricane was bearing down, and he had told her that the wind was stripping away the doors and windows of the mobile home where she homeschooled her sons, Connor, nine, and Bobby Lewis, 11.

"We live 4 feet below sea level," Ms McGowen said. "I know I don't have a house."

Dozens of shelters have been set up across Texas, and officials estimate that Harvey will ultimately force some 30,000 people into shelters.

As they set up cots and organised supplies, many in Houston remembered the unsanitary conditions, flooding and terrifying rumours of violent crime inside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But on Monday, their concerns were often less about immediate safety and more about navigating the jarring, frenzied world of bright lights, meal lines and a noise level that rumbles throughout the sprawling centre.

"I had like 64 missed calls, 39 text messages, two FaceTimes," Ms Terrisha Phillips, 20, said as she charged her iPhone, after a night in which she managed a surprisingly robust six hours of sleep.

Hotel prices, she said, were too steep, and her car had been swallowed up by the floodwaters.

"I have no choice but to stay here," she said in the lobby, where the neon lights of a closed Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen stood in stark contrast to the folding tables and mounting piles of donations that Boy Scouts from Troop 55 helped haul in.

The Red Cross, which was overseeing the shelter, said its staff and volunteers were caring for hundreds of people at the convention centre alone. Volunteers roamed the main corridor, passing a lost-and-found section, television cameras and a medical station stocked with oxygen tanks.

"Being prepared for the event, that's really the most important part," said Mr Reno Wilkins, a Houston official who was at the convention centre on Monday.

Mr Wilkins, who worked in emergency management in New Jersey, said a sense of safety was vital to maintaining order in a stressful environment that could quickly turn turbulent. Dozens of Houston police officers roamed the centre floor.

"We've learnt from some of the other major disasters like Katrina, you know, these are the things that we need to make sure we have in place to protect the people," he said.

By Monday afternoon, an uncertain camaraderie seemed to have taken hold here, but some evacuees wondered whether it would hold up as their ordeal dragged on. Part of the trouble, Mr John Rose Jr. suggested, was that an "every man for himself" mindset can emerge at places like the convention centre.

"You can tell that by when they get in the line to get food and to get coffee," Mr Rose said as he sat in a chair, still dressed in waders. They "just walk on up in front of you. Same thing going to the restroom."

Among the people who filled the shelter, there seemed to be few tears, even as they confronted the reality of all they had lost and considered the reckoning ahead. But on Monday, few seemed to dwell on those thoughts. They could not, they said. Not yet, not here, not with all of these strangers swirling around.

"If I would have stayed in the house, trying to protect everything, I wouldn't be here," Ms Phillips said, her voice swerving between softness and a matter-of-fact tone. "I just let everything go."