A ‘crazy difficult’ scene at the Houston convention center as thousands of flood victims jostle for shelter

Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske reports on the thousands of evacuees at Houston’s convention center as they struggle to cope with Tropical Storm Harvey.


Victims were arriving empty-handed: soaked, scraped and in search of missing relatives after narrowly escaping death. One man arrived after a tree fell on his house, killing his dog.

Only seven months ago, the gleaming George R. Brown Convention Center hosted visitors from around the country for Super Bowl LI festivities. But that was before the ruinous deluge of Tropical Storm Harvey, before 40-plus inches of rain in four days sent thousands of people fleeing their homes and turned the 1.8-million-square-foot convention center into a massive emergency shelter.

On Tuesday, a gathering space built for 5,000 people was packed with nearly 10,000, languishing on rows of green cots, hushing unruly children, peering dully at large video screens for news of the storm — waiting for word of when, if ever, the endless rain would stop.

Sources: FEMA, Mapzen, OpenStreetMap, population image Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)
(Ally Levine / @latimesgraphics)

The convention center was already full at midday, and so many new victims had showed up that a line of dozens was forming out in the rain.

“This is a crazy difficult moment,” MaryJane Mudd, a local spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said as she darted through the crowd in red vest and rain boots.

They had military-style meals ready to eat, blankets, baby formula and diapers, but were facing shortages of hot food, cots and wheelchairs. “We have enough basics to get people off the street. We won’t turn anybody away,” Mudd said. “But there’s not enough. We’re over capacity. We planned for weeks, but even then, this is rough.”

The crowd was a cross section of Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city and by many measures its most diverse. There were women in head scarves, families chatting in Spanish, veterans toting military duffel bags and neatly coiffed elderly women wheeling carefully packed suitcases.

Most of those arriving, Mudd said, show up with “a combination of fear and anguish.”

“I wonder why,” one man repeated as he lay on his cot.

Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske speaks to people who evacuated their homes and are staying at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston as they struggle to cope with Tropical Storm Harvey.


By late morning, the halls buzzed with a low hum of voices and activity.

Survivors searched for federal assistance coordinators; volunteers circulated offering fresh fruit and collecting trash. A man passing out stickers in a Spider-Man suit immediately attracted a circle of squealing children, soon joined by several men shyly asking to pose for photos.

In the women’s restroom, women preened before a bank of mirrors and sinks, washing out their muddy boots. Men shared newspapers and helped carry cots. Teenagers bent over their phones.

Nearly all had stories of escaping their homes as dark brown waters swirled, often having to flee by boat or even helicopter as the floods turned entire neighborhoods into inland lakes dotted with roofs and treetops.

Vianey Salazar, 17, said her family and three others — about 40 people, half of them children — made it to the shelter early Tuesday after water surrounded their homes in northeast Houston and they had run out of food.

“When we saw the water was rising, we knew we had to go,” she said.

They had to pay a team of beer-chugging rescuers $40 to drive them to a fire station, where they were turned away, she said. They tried a school next, but it was closed, windows dark, alarms blaring. Finally they reached the convention center. They planned to meet relatives there Wednesday and go stay with them east of the city.

Vivian Bell, 61, ignored the pain in her feet from diabetes sores as she walked the length of the convention center to bring food to her three grandchildren. Then she watched over them as they slept on cardboard pallets, sorting supplies she had gathered, including comforters and prepackaged meals.


“I tried to get a bed, but they said they didn’t have any,” she said.

Vivian Bell with her grandchildren at the Houston convention center
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Her grandson had been trying to persuade her to leave town and stay with her son in Killeen, Texas. But after escaping to safety in a dump truck, Bell refused to leave her family at the shelter.

“We’re going to ride it out together,” she said.

When volunteers announced lunch was served — a mix of rice and vegetables — more than a hundred people lined up. Many had children in tow. Some pushed relatives in wheelchairs. A woman started shouting, “I love you, Lord! I Love you, Jesus!”

“Oh my God in heaven,” said Robert Hart, 64, a homeless Marine veteran accustomed to staying in shelters.

The woman quieted down on her own, and the line trudged forward.

As the day wore on, tension began flaring.

Loretta Jones had seen her neighborhood in southeast Houston engulfed, and fled her family’s home of 40 years with her two young sons.

Rescuers in a military truck drove them to the convention center downtown — an area that has largely escaped inundation — where workers offered clothing and food.


But her 12-year-old son was getting antsy. He got into an argument with another boy while playing ball in the hallway, and another storm victim, Kesha Bundage, had to intervene.

“You already lost a lot,” Bundage, 44, told the boy, who was teary-eyed. “This is going to happen. You just got to pray on it.”

Just then the other boy’s mother arrived, and she and Jones began to quarrel. A police officer intervened, and tempers subsided, but Jones worried about her hotheaded sixth-grader as the days drag on.

“I have a feeling there’s going to be a fight before this is over. I’m trying so hard,” she said, longing aloud for a smoke.

The officer advised her to go get a cigarette.


Twitter: @mollyhf


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