At Convention Center, Houston Survivors Ponder Life After Storm

Image: Evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rest
Evacuees escaping the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rest at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Tuesday.LM Otero / AP

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By Jon Schuppe

HOUSTON — After facing a second night on a cot with her mother, two sisters and three dogs, Tania Flores was ready to wake up Wednesday thinking about going home.

Home may no longer be the house they fled during Hurricane Harvey, wading through waist-high water to a helicopter that delivered them to a police van that dropped them off at the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.

But with the high winds gone, and the rain finally letting up, there was reason to ponder life after the storm. Somewhere. In Houston.

“When we got here it was scary,” Flores, 22, said late Tuesday, her family’s cots arranged in a square amid more than 9,000 other people who’d been forced from their homes since the weekend. “We didn’t expect this at all. It’s hard not to know what’s going to happen.”

At the convention center, they found a well-organized and friendly staff of volunteers who handed them donated clothes, bedding, food and toys. A psychologist stopped by to give advice about dealing with the trauma they’d endured. It seemed like every five minutes someone was asking if they needed anything.

Related: Harvey Doubling Back After Houston Deluge, Louisiana in Crosshairs

“It’s crazy to think that a couple weeks after what happened in Charlottesville, the people of Houston are saying, ‘We don’t care about your race or religion. We will help you.’ We are in this together," Flores said.

Many of the people housed temporarily in the convention center face profound uncertainty. They are tired and stressed. They’ve lost many of their possessions, and don’t know where they’ll go next.

At the center, though, they’ve found a temporary escape from the horrors that Harvey brought.

The operation, overseen by the American Red Cross, began accepting streams of people over the weekend, quickly surpassing the original 5,000 limit and forcing many to sleep on the floor or on chairs. By Tuesday, nearly everyone had a cot. There were areas set aside for people with disabilities, for people with pets, for families. There were doctors tending medical stations.

Volunteers organized mountains of donated clothing and handed them out in neat piles. Children sorted through piles of books and toys. Dogs barked from cages and peeked from under blankets. There were makeshift phone-charging stations, and temporary showers.

Terranysha Ferguson holds her son, Christian Phillips as she sits with the rest of her family at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Sunday.Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle via AP

At a baby-supplies station, Sava Sipe and Katlyn Austgen stacked boxes of diapers and handed out formula.

“I’m here because of Jesus,” Sipe, a 23-year-old events planner, said. “He served others. And I’m happy to live in a city where if this happened to me, people would do the same for me.”

Austgen, 18, a student at the University of Houston, said she watched the flooding from her dorm room and felt compelled to help. Her own town, Friendswood, south of Houston, was underwater so she showed up at the convention center to help.

Related: Hurricane Harvey: Houston Imposes Overnight Curfew to Fight Looting, Break-Ins, ‘Lowlives’

“I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” she said.

Val Ree Shankle and his wife, Donna Shankle, ended up in the convention center Monday with their six children and two young grandchildren after fleeing chest-high water outside their home on Houston’s east side.

They slept on the floor that night, but got cots Tuesday.

They were thankful for it, even if they didn’t know where they were going to end up.

“We can’t complain,” Donna Shankle said. “We’re out of danger. We’ve got to keep it moving." She glanced at her grandkids. “For them.”