Inside the convention center, Harvey evacuees cramped but safe

Kris Wartelle, Kristin Askelson, Claire Taylor

HOUSTON — As stranded residents streamed in, the shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center grew more packed by the hour — 9,000 evacuees and counting, nearly double its intended capacity.

The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston was packed with people on Aug. 29, 2017.

Conditions inside the center in the heart of downtown were crowded but organized with the help of hundreds of Red Cross volunteers and city police, many working 24-hour shifts.

Still, as hundreds of evacuees waited in relentless rain outside the convention center, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner admitted the city would need to move fast to prevent cramped from becoming chaotic.

“The doors of the George R. Brown will not close,”  Turner assured Houston residents Tuesday. “However, I certainly understand that if you have too many people in a space too long, it creates additional problems.”

The city would open multiple mega shelters for displaced residents, possibly by the end of the day, he said.

The situation bore an eerie similarity to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 when the city sent thousands of residents to the Superdome. The stadium, intended as a last resort evacuation center, soon sank into chaos with limited power, overtaxed plumbing, insufficient food and a shredded roof. 

Houston is not the Superdome, government officials stressed Tuesday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the ground and in the convention center from day one, FEMA spokesperson David Gervino said.

“So many people have stepped up, from every day citizens, to first responders, to state and local officials and other government partners, both state and federal,” Gervino said. “We’ve pre-positioned a wealth of assets. We had other teams deployed here before the first rain drops hit the ground. This is a very different response."

Barbara Sandoval with her dogs, Bella, left, and Teddy inside the George R. Brown Convention Center on Aug. 29, 2017.

Tom McCasland, director of Housing and Community Development for the city, said he hoped to open another shelter close by later in the day. "(But) our doors remain open. At no point, have we closed the doors here. We are sheltering people with pets and urgent medical emergencies and we continue to shelter people as they come in.”

While officials said they would not turn anyone away, they could not guarantee everyone would get a bed or a cot.

Evacuees entering the Houston convention center were searched for weapons, firearms or alcohol. Red Cross officials registered evacuees before giving them meals, blankets and dry clothing.

Doctors were on site, along with a pharmaceutical area and emergency room. Those with flood-damaged homes were urged to register with FEMA.  Soon, the convention center would have showers.

Volunteers were also quick to assess needs.

“Right now, we have an urgent need for wheelchairs, said Tyler Moyer, program marketing manager for the Red Cross. “We are asking the people of Houston who can help, if you can check Goodwill or the Salvation Army to help get the much need supplies to these people here. We just heard that there is great need for extra-large clothing, as well as shoes socks and other plus-size clothing items.”

Another small group of volunteers, the Texas Center for the Missing and the Houston Police Department’s missing persons division worked to reconnect families separated as they fled the floods.

“We found somebody! We found somebody!” Beth Alberts, CEO of the Texas Center for the Missing, shouted at one point Tuesday morning.

A relative had contacted officials, looking for a man lost in the chaos of evacuations, Alberts said.

“We found he’s registered here,” she said. “He’s here. He can let his family know.”

For those inside, there was a mix of relief and frustration. 

Isaiah Arellano, 18,  huddled with a group of adults and children along the wall in a hallway of the convention center.

He has been at the shelter since Monday after water entered his house. He walked through waist-high water to reach a safe place where he was transported to the shelter.

“Last night I slept on the hard floor and used a towel as a pillow,” he said, pointing to cardboard that’s his bed. “They said there are no cots. Since last night we’ve been asking for a crib for the baby and we still don’t have one.”

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Yuth Chhut , 98, sleeps on chairs in the George R. Brown Convention Center on Aug. 29, 2017.

Marck Acosta of Houston reclined on cardboard and pillows, his 6-month-old daughter, Aubrey, nursing a bottle of milk next to him.

“Long, cold, crazy days,” he said, describing the days since the remnants of Hurricane Harvey started dropping in excess of 30 inches of rain on Houston.

The family, he said, was picked up by buses and taken to the convention center Monday.

“Within an hour, they gave us dry clothes,” Acosta said. “They gave us everything we need.”

He was grateful for everything. Asked about sleeping on cardboard, Acosta said, “It’s not the best, but it’s passable. It’s better than being outside.”