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Hope, Tragedy And Reunion: Stories From Inside Houston's Convention Center

Rachel Osier Lindley
Demetrius Washington and his mother, Ramona, learn that his grandmother is safe Tuesday, Aug. 29 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

It’s been days since the waters began rising in Houston, and people are still being rescued from flooded homes. Evacuees are arriving at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. 

From Monday to Tuesday, the population grew from 5,000 to 10,000 — far exceeding the capacity officials intended. People have showed up with few possessions – just what they could carry as they evacuated neighborhoods for safety. 


Securing basic necessities

All day long Tuesday people streamed past loading docks and empty trucks at the back of the convention center, hauling bulging bags of donations into the cavernous exhibition rooms turned into dormitories. Each item is added to massive piles to be sorted and handed out to the thousands of people displaced by the storm.

A volunteer helps triage the goods to the appropriate area. There are towering piles of clothes, stacks of diapers, cartons of ready-to-eat food piled high.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Donations sit in large piles in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Aug. 29, 2017.

Jennifer Miller and her friends came with plastic bags filled with diapers, dog food, tampons, bedding —anything they could think of. Miller says she’s lucky because she was spared this time.

"My family house flooded in Tropical Storm Allison, so I know what it’s like to lose pretty much everything. So I just wanted to come and try to help if I could," she says.

Evacuees wait in untidy lines for donated items. In one, a volunteer calls out shoe sizes, holding up a pair: "10.5 in men’s" as people rush to grab them.

These are the basic necessities the floodwaters stole. 

Reconnecting with family

Demetrius Washington is waiting for cartons of packaged food. He came with his mother on Sunday after his home in the Lakewood neighborhood flooded. He’d lost contact with his grandmother during the storm, and he was worried.

"I seen on the news that her neighborhood got flooded and everything and I stopped watching cause I got depressed," he says.  

But Tuesday morning, his mother Ramona got a text message. It was his grandma. She was at the convention center. Now, he’s searching for her among seemingly endless rows of green, army-style cots

"Getting that text message and her saying that she here? I feel relieved now. I know she all right," he says.


"To lose everything else again and start all over, it's just very hard."

Reliving painful memories

Washington’s friends Lee Benford and Crystal White say what a lot of people have been saying: They didn’t think it would get like this — that the flooding would be so bad. They hunkered down to wait it out, like officials had advised. But the rain was unrelenting; the bayou nearby spilling over its banks.

The sound of the rain on Benford and White's tin carpark roof was deafening. From inside, they watched their belongings floating in the floodwaters, panic rising with the water. Finally, a neighbor with a boat saved them.

"He came and got us out," White says. "That was our only means because the water was passing my mailbox." Benford adds: "It was all the way to the bottom of our window."

Benford says he’s never seen anything like this. But for Crystal White, it was all too familiar. It was a dozen years ago Tuesday – she was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.

Credit Rachel Osier Lindley / KERA News
Lee Benford and Crystal White at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. White, a Katrina survivor, says this experience is all too familiar but still painful.


"To lose everything else again and start all over, it’s just very hard. I’m trying to stay focused and positive, but it’s just too much," she says.

White says she does feel lucky her children were at her mom’s house this weekend – four kids all aged between 5 and 10. But this brings back painful memories of just how hard her family had to struggle to rebuild lives in a city full of strangers after Katrina.

"Honestly, to me, it just feels up," she says. "I don’t know what else to do."

Her husband also feels lost.

"I never been through this before," Benford says. "I’m supposed to be the man. I’m supposed to be the one she can look up to. And I just thank her for being strong, and I was able to lean on her. I just hope everyone be OK because this is hard."

By Tuesday’s end, with the convention center past its capacity and need continuing to grow, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a second massive shelter a few blocks away.


Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Volunteers and evacuees sort through donations at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Aug. 29, 2017.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.