Shelter from the Storm: Stories from the Texas Gulf Coast

by Jennifer Hansen, American Red Cross Regional Digital Marketing Specialists

Under cloudy, humid skies, the threat of rain hanging heavy in the air, Tonya McIntyre is a welcome ray of sunshine. Standing outside the Walnut Hill Recreation Center in Dallas, which, as of yesterday, has operated as a City of Dallas shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees, the Houston resident epitomizes someone making the best of her situation.

“Once I arrived, the Red Cross seemed like they had everything organized, they were very friendly,” she said. “To me, it’s like a mini vacation in the middle of a bad situation.”

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Tonya is one of hundreds of south Texas residents that now occupy the shelter, having fled the Category 4 storm as it made landfall near Rockport, TX, late Friday night. Winds of 130 mph, blinding rain, dangerous storm surges and catastrophic flooding came with it, and early reports of damage are slowly trickling in. The full impact is yet unknown, and with the potential for Harvey to spin, undisturbed, over the Texas coast for days – dumping record rainfall in the process – the complete picture of its devastation may stay unknown for a while.

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But in Dallas, well out of Harvey’s reach, shelter evacuees like Tonya have chosen to stay calm and cautiously optimistic despite the unknown. The shelter staff work around the clock to make this home-away-from-home as calm and comfortable as possible. Manned by a battalion of dedicated staff and volunteers, many from the Red Cross, the shelter provides hot meals, water, snacks, showers, and a safe, secure place to sleep (among many other services) to evacuees, all free of charge.

And Tonya understands the importance of a helpful presence in a time of stress. A student in her final semester of college, she will soon have her Bachelor’s degree in computer science, and hopes to work in IT after graduating. She radiates a vibrant positivity, and can’t help but chuckle when she admits that ‘most IT folks aren’t very social.’

“I’m a people person, and I want to be the person that helps people,” she said, adding that she needed directions to a local library for a quiet place to study.

Her sunny outlook and attitude have certainly helped her weather this storm. The uncertainty about homes, friends and loved ones who chose to stay behind and ride out the storm hovers like a grey cloud, and everyone is eager for updated damage assessments.

“I put everything up on crates before I left,” she said, hoping that by elevating her belongings, they might be spared from flooding.

Having first heard about the possibility of evacuation on Thursday, Tonya did not waste time getting packed up and on the road on Friday morning. The Michigan native is accustomed to snow and rain, and, after years of living in the Phoenix, Ariz. area, intense heat. But Harvey is her first hurricane, and having moved to Houston only a week ago, she took no chances with the storm and heeded the call to evacuate to Dallas.

“I know snow, rain, and heat, but I don’t know hurricanes!” she admitted.

Ruby Thomas also heeded that call. The Texas native and her family fled Galveston on Friday morning, enduring a 7+ hour drive up I-45 to the Dallas area with thousands of other drivers fleeing the Texas coast.

Hurricane Harvey 2017

“We kept watching the news, and my daughter asked me ‘Mom, what’s the plan? I know you have a plan.’ But I didn’t have a plan!” she said. “So I told her ‘Just pack clothes for two days, make sure your (fuel) tank is full, be at my house when I get off work, and we’ll go’…but I still didn’t tell her that I didn’t have a plan!”

Her makeshift “plan” was a smart move: recalling her evacuation experience with Hurricane Ike in September 2008, Ruby knew to take Harvey seriously.  Hurricane Ike devastated the Galveston community, including Ruby’s mother’s house, which ultimately had to be rebuilt.

“We couldn’t even open the door (to her mother’s house), we had to go in through a window,” she recalled. “All of her furniture had been pushed to the back of the house, there was mud, there was (debris). It was a mess.”

Like Tonya, Ruby is remarkably calm and well composed, with a Cabernet-hued lipstick on her lips. During the Ike evacuation, Ruby and her family stayed at a Red Cross shelter at the Dallas Convention Center, and recalls it as being a great experience – organized and easy, with plenty of gracious, caring volunteers. Now in 2017 with Harvey, packing up the car and driving to Dallas to another Red Cross-manned shelter was a no-brainer.

“They took us in, gave us snacks, water, dinner, gave us a place to sleep…it was real nice. Everyone was so nice.”

“The beds are pretty comfy!” chirped Antonio, Ruby’s grandson. He’s anxious to have a charged phone in his possession so he can resume playing games. He’s been watching Ice Age on the TV in the cafeteria along with other shelter kids, but admits it’s hard to hear the movie with so many people in the room.

“I think now the only struggle is charging our phones,” Ruby added, chuckling.

Antonio also misses the family dog, an energetic retriever named Astro who arrived late last night with Ruby’s fiancé, Cesar Rodriguez. As the shelters are unable to house pets, Astro is spending his time with other evacuee pets at the SPCA, one of several non-profits working alongside the Red Cross to ensure needs for both people and pets are met.

Both Tonya and Ruby are eagerly, and anxiously, watching the news and latest social media updates from those who stayed behind. Though not exactly hoping for a prolonged Dallas visit, neither have any intention of returning home until the threat of storm damage has subsided.

“I look at Facebook and see that so-and-so street (in Galveston) is flooded with 2-ft of water, and everything’s closed,” said Ruby. “I try not to be anxious.”

In the meantime, the shelter and its Red Cross volunteers have provided peace of mind and a welcome respite from the unknown of Hurricane Harvey.

“I’m glad I was here to experience (staying in this shelter), because I never would’ve gotten a chance to meet you guys,” said Tonya. “I thank God for the Red Cross!”

To help those affected by Hurricane Harvey text ‘HARVEY’ to 90999 to make a $10 donation or donate online and sign-up to volunteer at redcross.org

 

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