The back of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where volunteers helping Hurricane Harvey evacuees are meant to check in. (Credit: Matt Goodman)

Local News

It’s Quiet at the Convention Center, But It Won’t Be For Long

Once Houston's sunken roads drain, Dallas officials expect to host thousands at the convention center. Tuesday morning, however, was all quiet preparation.

On Tuesday morning, the air-conditioned first floor parking garage of Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which is filled with rows and rows of neatly arranged cots, was opened for evacuees fleeing Hurricane Harvey. It will likely take days, at least, before Houstonians and residents south and east of the city can navigate the roads that will take them north. The streets still look more like tributaries than thoroughfares; the drone footage from above is downright apocalyptic.

There is currently room for 5,000 people in a sprawling area that Mayor Mike Rawlings called “a little city.” Physician leaders from Children’s Medical Center and UT Southwestern quickly put together a makeshift clinic, set aside in a corner of the space, cordoned off in a blue tent for privacy. Dr. Halim Hennes, the chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Children’s Health and UT Southwestern Medical Center, said he sent out a request for volunteer physicians and filled the schedule through September 15 in a matter of four hours. The clinic will be staffed to meet demand, so Hennes couldn’t give a number of physicians or mid-levels who will be there.

Ambulances have direct access to the clinic, and there are about 100 seats for triage and another 100 cots for those who need them. Children’s officials anticipate having to transfer some patients to the pediatric headquarters in the medical district, but they’re equipped to take on minor emergencies if they need to. Julie Hall-Barrow, Children’s director of innovation, set up telemedicine services for after-hours care inside the shelter, the same sort you’ll find in many Dallas ISD schools. Mental health providers will be available for patients who need their services. Rawlings said Walmart is establishing a pharmacy, and there’ll be areas for evacuees to eat and relax.

“This is going to be the start, I believe, of a long process. Lives have been devastated in Houston. They’re fellow Texans, and we’re gonna help them out,” Rawlings said Tuesday morning, moments before the shelter formally opened. But he acknowledged the evacuees may be slow in coming. “They can’t get out of town. Right now, that city is a lake.”

Monica Cordova, a city spokeswoman, told the media gathered outside the convention center that evacuees had begun arriving at 8 a.m. She didn’t have a number, but it couldn’t be too many. Through the glass, security officers ambled about, men and women in yellow jackets staring back out to the street. The city isn’t allowing media inside for the privacy of those already there, although that could change once folks start getting here en masse. The state has about 250 buses in Houston waiting to transport evacuees to Dallas and Austin once it’s safe.

The George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston is already about double its capacity of 5,000. The AP reports that people are sleeping on chairs and towels and cardboard in the little floor space they can find. It’s not clear when the roads will be traversable. Remember, in 2005—a dozen years ago to this date—New Orleanians fleeing the city had to wait three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall to begin the journey to Dallas.

And so, it was quiet outside Kay Bailey. The city was still placing signage indicating where both evacuees and volunteers need to go. A piece of paper is taped to the convention center’s back entrance with the phone number and address for where to take donations, as the shelter doesn’t have the staff to process them. At about 9 a.m., a man hurriedly parked his Expedition next to a gate set up on Lamar Street outside the center. Two of his children hopped out and began wandering. The man clutched a toddler in his arms with a woman to his side. News cameras swarmed the family, filming them until security kindly asked the photographers to back off while the five made their way into the convention center.

Another man in a Ram 2500 pulled up looking to unload donations from a U-Haul trailer; he was referred to the Trusted World location in Addison, which is processing donations for the shelter. Juanita Jacoby, a volunteer with the DeSoto chapter of the Community Emergency Response Team, scrambled around the outskirts of the convention center trying to locate volunteers arriving to check in. Paul Veneklase and Darien Burrell, members of Baltimore’s AmericaCorps cohort, were flown in yesterday and stood ready to check in evacuees when they begin arriving.

CNN and NBC sent reporters here, but there just wasn’t much to see.

That probably won’t last more than a few days, and Dallas clearly wants to be ready for when that time comes. Rawlings said that City Manager T.C. Broadnax is researching long-term affordable housing options for evacuees who may need to stay for up to a year. Fort Worth, already operating a shelter with 100 beds and another with 300 beds, is preparing a larger shelter with room for 650. The Mavericks offered office space in Deep Ellum and the Stars have offered their practice facility, should the city need them. In all, Rawlings said North Texas will have north of 6,000 beds—smaller shelters are already full at Walnut Hill Recreation Center and Tommie M. Allen in South Dallas.

Last night, 137 evacuees were flown from Galveston to Love Field and resettled at a gym in Irving. They’re expected to come to the Dallas shelter; in all, Rawlings said 500 could be flown from Galveston over the coming days. Dallas ISD has designated schools for evacuated kids to learn—John F. Kennedy Learning Center for elementary grades, the Alex W. Spence Talented and Gifted Academy for middle schoolers, and the North Dallas High School. Trusted World is reportedly overflowing with donations and needs warehouse space. Dallas is working hard to ready itself for what could be an influx of evacuees who may need to be here for some time.

I’m going to break the fourth wall here: I grew up in Houston. My family is almost entirely there, many of my friends are there. I just got a text from one who fled to Waco before the storm, saying his apartment is “toast,” that his neighbors had to break through to their roofs to escape the rising water. That story is one of hundreds of thousands across the city and the coast, which we also can’t forget as we see more and more images out of Houston. Nicole Vogel, the CEO of Houstonia magazine, sent D an email updating us on how they’re doing. Their office, in a three-story Victorian home in the Heights not far from the flooded Interstate 10 feeder road, is, miraculously, undamaged. The magazine plans to use it for donations and is researching launching a nonprofit to aid in recovery. She highlights the good will of Houstonians, about the reason “you’re only seeing 30,000 people in shelters is because people who have dry homes are taking on two and three families.”

“The devastation is noticeably color blind and economically diverse,” she wrote. “I have friends with multi-million dollar homes that escaped through the 2nd floor windows as well as those that were rescued from $500 a month apartments.”

Then there’s this line: “But, as adrenaline moves to fatigue we will need you the most.”

That’ll happen soon. Give to Trusted World, it needs diapers and toiletries and non-perishable food for the shelters. Give to food banks around Houston. Give to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s official relief fund. Eat at these restaurants and go out drinking at these bars on September 6; they’re donating some of their proceeds. We’ve put together resources for you to choose from, as has The Dallas Morning News. Nobody here should feel powerless to help.

People in Dallas often ask me why I care so much about Houston—a sprawling metropolis of 2.3 million people and unrelenting, year-round humidity—and what makes it such a special place. My boilerplate answer was that it built a culture all its own without worrying about what anyone else thought of it. In hindsight, that’s not entirely true. Houston’s culture is everyone’s culture; it’s a place that welcomed all and allowed them to intermingle and become something unique. It gave us DJ Screw and Townes Van Zandt, Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish and beef fajitas.

When you look at photos of rescues from the flood, you see brown and white and black faces, all helping one another, hoisting each other into boats to escape flooded neighborhoods. Anyone who can help is tweeting phone numbers out, searching for the stranded. Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, the biggest furniture salesman personality in the city, opened his two monstrously large Gallery Furniture locations for victims and their pets. They slept on merchandise.

This is a city that accepts 25 out of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles, more than any other in America. Houston has always had its arms open for anyone who wanted to call it home. Now, it’s time for its neighbors to offer the same.

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