On the edge of Downtown Houston, there’s a tiny village that feels like another planet. For some people, it feels like purgatory. For others, it’s hell. And for a few, it’s answering a higher calling to help their fellow man.
About 10,400 people now call Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, home. Hundreds of others are just here to help, giving what they can to make this place feel a little less like a giant concrete coliseum and more like a dorm.
Welcome to the GRB
When we first arrived, there were only beds for 5,000 people, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told the city that no one would be turned away as long as they follow the rules. First, no guns. Second, no alcohol. And finally, obey the requests of law enforcement.
At the main entrance, there’s police and chaos and cameras everywhere. Carts filled with everything from medical supplies to dog food to children’s toys and toiletries roll in. And there are so many people. Some are wet and cold, looking lost and scared. Others look relieved. And most look confused. It’s overwhelming and little bit baffling, even for volunteers just looking to offer assistance.
No one stands at the entrance very long without hearing a booming voice from over the loudspeaker. The words may come in English or Spanish, but pretty quickly people get the message. Get in, register your family, and prepare to put your life on pause.
A birthday seeking refuge, healing
Yesterday was Robert’s birthday. He turned 27 on the 27th. During his golden birthday, Robert had his grandma on his mind. She died last year and ever since, he’s having a hard time finding his way. A month ago, Robert was working at a McDonald’s in Rockdale, Texas. Walking home one day, a hit-and-run driver left him with third-degree burns all over his body.
Now, he now has no job, no phone and nowhere to go. The pain is real, but Robert was looking for work in Houston when Harvey showed up. On Sunday, he found his way to the GRB. Most people choose to carve out a cubbie inside one the rooms in the cavernous convention hall. But not Robert. He lays underneath the moon, with planets painted above his head. He doesn’t know what’s next, but he does know there’s something bigger for him to do.
An army of volunteers
It takes an army of volunteers to keep this village flourishing. The guy with pink beret enlisted right from the start. For three days, he’s stayed slogging whatever needs hauling inside the GRB. He’s one of hundreds. Too many to count.
There’s something for everyone to do: registering families, corralling puppies, folding clothes, serving up snacks or the serious stuff. Medical professionals, social workers and translators in are in high demand. But all you need to do is raise a hand-- they’ll give you a job to start giving back.
Even the animals serve
Twinkie the service dog is trained to never leave her mom’s side. And on Tuesday evening, she was ready to assist. She’s right there by mom’s side, comforting and calming in the midst of an asthma attack.
Medical teams were there to help, but it’s Twinkie who finds a way to help in a way that the humans can’t. Her mom says she knew they couldn’t be separated, so when the waters were rising, a rescuer came calling. They both got on the boat. Twinkie isn’t the only service dog here in the shelter.
He clips hair, calms nerves
Welcome to the barber shop, where Cedric Graham is giving free clips to anyone willing to wait for a cut. The buzz of the shears and beat from the speakers draw people to this makeshift salon. The line is long, but the conversation is good, so no one seems to mind.
The thought of a fresh trim seems to open their minds. Talk turns from water rescues to restored faith in a higher power. There’s laughing, cheers, and smiles, all while Cedric finds the perfect edge. His cape says Beard Recovery. While this isn’t the type of recovery he originally envisioned, but Cedric understands that his shears start to cut through the distress. What falls on the floor is swept up, and what’s left gives each face a fresh start.
A bright sign of hope
They’ve lived through a record setting rains. Their homes are gone. Their cars are still under water. Their phones are fried and some have no way to know if friends and family are safe. But still, they find a way to smile, because no matter where they came here from, they’re in this together now.
Then suddenly, there was a signal from above. At first just a glimmer, and then full blast. It didn’t last long, but rays of hope receive a warm welcome. They found safety, shelter, and now sunshine. A reminder… that storms pass.
To tell their stories
There’s a small roped off area right next to the main entrance, creating a pen for reporters, photographers, and writers. It’s a small fraternity of busybodies. Extensions cords snake all through the bright blue carpet. Stacks of big tough cases and carts with cameras are piled high next tripods and light stands. It looks like a mess. But inside, it’s a bit like a reunion. Journalists are actually a really tight crowd.
We’re competitors but we band together. In between live shots and interviews, we share power outlets, swap stories and recall the last place we saw each other. On this story, many ask how they fared the flood. Some have families nervously watching water rise outside their front door. Others lost their home two days ago. For KHOU crews, their entire TV station was wiped out. But reporting is the job, so they’re here helping out.KHOU crews, their entire TV station was wiped out. But reporting is the job, so they’re here helping out.
The early morning hours
By 5 a.m. the quiet hum starts to roll into a roar. The noise returns, but nowhere near the volume of the previous day. The number of evacuees has slowed to a trickle, and the number of volunteers feels a little lighter. This is the day the politicians show up and roll up their sleeves.
Sen. Ted Cruz came to help serve breakfast. Getting food means coming back the welcome room. There’s a line of volunteers offering oatmeal and bananas. There’s cereal and coffee, too. It’s not fancy, but there’s plenty to go around. The relentless rain finally seems to have stalled. Now the question is what happens next?
When pets are family
After the rescues, it wasn’t just people but also pets in need of a place to stay. So the GRB opened its doors to small animals. One room is reserved for humans and dogs sheltering side-by-side - keeping families together. Volunteers pamper these pets as their owners focus on rebuilding.
Veterinarians offer shots and medical attention. Extra dog walkers are also on-hand to keep all of these four-legged friends happy. Because you’re never really home without your pets.
Hope in the aftermath
We spent more than 24 hours straight living and working with the evacuees and volunteers inside the GRB. On TV and online, the headlines are filled with finger pointing and blame. But inside these walls, you’ll find hope and kindness everywhere you turn.
We watched strangers become friends. Even those most in need were willing to lend a helping hand. It’s far from perfect. Because it’s definitely not all bad. Because after every storm, even the record-breaking ones, you eventually find the sun.