AUSTIN—President Trump’s message to Texans—“Good luck. Everybody will be safe”—is wishful thinking at the level of aggression.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall outside of Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 storm on Friday around 10pm local time. In a Category 4 storm, roads are expected to become impassable, mobile homes will be flattened, and some areas will be uninhabitable for weeks or months. Winds up to 130 miles per hour have already knocked out power to 300,000 homes along the Gulf Coast, flooding is widespread, and many residents have taken to the highway, heading to Austin, Waco and Dallas, where Red Cross shelters are bare bones but up and running.
Mike, 66, drove his pickup to the Delco Center shelter in Austin from Lake Jackson, Texas, 190 miles south. At 10 p.m. on Friday he sat in the cab of his battered Ford trying to decide whether to sleep on the shelter floor or in the truck. “I thought they would have beds,” he said. “I’m old and creaky and I’ve been at it since six in the morning, because I had to bring everything to my storage unit and put it up as high I could. My house might not be there when I get back. Can I sleep on that concrete, I don’t know.” After deliberating half an hour, he decided to go in. “I just have to find an old lady with a bed in there and make friends so I can cuddle up to her,” he joked.
Lighted highway signs in Austin pointed to “Emergency Shelter, Exit 238b,” and a steady stream of cars arrived at the Delco Center, a cavernous sports center for the Austin Independent School District. New arrivals’ faces fell when they learned that no sleeping mats, cots or bedding were available. Yet people were relieved to have a safe landing point from the coastal counties taking a historic beating.
During the storm, the Central Texas Red Cross website server was seized up, and a red banner with links about emergency training went to an error page. But the shelter is set up to accommodate 350 people, has food and water, and volunteers—veterans of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—staff the front tables, though they’ve put out an urgent call for more bodies. The Circuit of the Americas has also opened its vast lot to RVs, and Austin has a second high-school auditorium waiting in the wings.
Another man by himself, Federico, 60, came from Victoria, Texas, 125 miles south. Walking haltingly with a cane, he carried his belongings, a flashlight, towel and wallet, in a plastic shopping bag. A Styrofoam ice chest in the back of his pickup was filled with frozen food. “Not beer,” he said. “I don’t drink, I promise you that, if it matters.”
Outside food and drink were not allowed in the Red Cross shelter, which distressed some. This was Federico’s first time out of his town, and he was worried about the ice chest in the back of the pickup being stolen, but said he would risk it. “Everybody here is probably hungry, so if they need it, I guess they can have it.”
At the shelter, it wasn’t just evacuees from the coastal regions seeking a dry place to wait out the storm. Austin residents in flood-prone areas also walked up, like a couple living next to Decker Lake, the man still in his uniform and yellow safety vest from driving the CapMetro city bus. His wife, in a rhinestone encrusted hat and hoodie, signed the papers as he held the hand of his elderly mother. “Last time we had a big storm it came up to the headlights on the car, and all the way up the porch, and our house is four feet off the ground. It’s not much, the house, but it’s where we live and it’s a good little house.”
The man’s mother sat in her wheelchair, not comprehending the scenario. “I don’t know what is happening here. I want to be in Alabama,” she said. “We are getting out of the way of the storm, Mama, and this is where we can get a place to sleep,” the couple replied. “Okay, baby.” That conversation repeatd several times, but when they heard that they’d have to sleep on the bare floor, they decided to head back home for the night, thanking volunteers profusely.
Another Red Cross volunteer called out, “Can anyone bring instant coffee for the clients to have with breakfast in the morning? We don’t have a coffeemaker, but we can make hot water.” Eddie and Kirstin, a lesbian couple living nearby, committed to bringing one. Austin residents were also mobilizing to collect airbeds and blankets—even though the Red Cross officially will not accept material donations at the shelters, some volunteers hovered in the parking lot to assist people without going through bureaucracy.
A Spanish-speaking family arrived with six people and a three-week-old puppy. Hannah Simpson, who came from New York City to Austin to speak at the Interfaith Service of the now-canceled Pride Parade, checked them in. “I think it’s important that people see trans people are out here helping. Trump banned us from the military today.”
Those in shelters are people fortunate enough to have transportation and gas money, yet not fortunate enough to have friends or family in dry places. The storm will ravage the people who don’t have vehicles and can’t get beyond home; the elderly, the differently-abled, the homeless. First responders in Rockport won’t release numbers until they have been able to complete search-and-rescue, but as of Saturday afternoon, blessedly, no fatalities were reported.
A family from Corpus Christi arrived around midnight, harried after their car had broken down twice on the road. A five-year old girl in her father’s arms happily announced her age to the assembled volunteers. Her mother held a fresh newborn, just five-weeks old, and looked around for a place to sit. “Are there any hotel vouchers?”
Told no, she squatted and leaned against the wall, while her husband and older son walked into the dark auditorium to find a spot. “Is there anything to eat?” she asked. The meal served at dinnertime had expired, according to Red Cross schedule, and couldn’t be offered to these new arrivals. A volunteer brought water bottles and granola bars, and assured her that diapers and formula were available.
“I have to bring my own food in because I am nursing,” the mother said, and no one answered, perhaps because no one wanted to insist that she couldn’t.