Task of rebuilding lives awaits thousands in Houston shelters

Authorities and volunteers assist estimated 30,000 displaced by flooding

The lines of makeshift beds and blankets stretch as far as the eye can see.

For a moment I am transported back to the refugee camps of Dunkirk and Eastern Europe which housed millions of refugees during the height of Europe’s refugee crisis.

The hundreds of families that have gathered at the enormous NRG centre in the southern outskirts of Houston may have a roof over their heads, but their plight is similar to those who left the Middle East for Europe. They are refugees – people who have lost their homes, their possessions and, in many cases, their livelihoods.

The NRG centre is one of several shelters established in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to accommodate the estimated 30,000 people displaced by the floods.


President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, stopped by on Saturday, serving food to the residents and meeting flood victims before being whisked off by security services further east to survey the damage in Louisiana.


Many of the residents were moved here by authorities from other centres, including the George B Convention Centre in downtown Houston became overwhelmed as people kept arriving at its doors.

Tiffany Bernard knows a thing or two about natural disasters. She lived through Hurricane Katrina and was of the thousands of New Orleans residents who moved to Houston following the 2005 hurricane.

“Honestly, I feel thankful that we are alive,” she tells me as she recounts how she and her five children were rescued by boat from their home.

“We became stranded, the water was rising and it was like an island. We tried to call for help but were not getting through and then someone knocked on our door. I was trying to gather up things and we missed the first boat, but we got the second.”

As she speaks her children are sleeping on the makeshift beds that have become their temporary home. Books and toys peek out from some of the cardboard boxes scattered around, but she says most of the items that they brought were damaged by water.

She has no idea when they can return home – her landlord is working to renovate the house and has been very helpful, she says.

But she still counts herself lucky. While her family was forced to sleep on the floor in the first centre they were assigned, MO Campbell Educational Centre in the north of the city, she says the NRG centre is very well equipped.

“Compared to Hurricane Katrina, this is so much better. With Katrina it was chaos. There was crime, there was looting. I saw a naked man walking through the shelter one time. I have to protect my kids. He was a baby at the time,” she says, pointing to her 12-year-old son who is sleeping.

Tiffany and her children are staying in a section specifically set up for families. Two other rooms in the centre have been established for women and men.


Outside the main sleeping area, teams of medical staff, psychologists, volunteers and internet companies have set up shop, offering treatment, advice and support to the hundreds of people who reside there.

Three meals are offered each day, prepared by the Red Cross and other volunteer groups.

Jeri Holbrook and Ann Glover are dressed in distinctive yellow uniforms with the words “Disaster Relief Arkansas”. They are part of a 70-strong group of volunteers from the Southern Baptist Convention who travelled to south Texas from the neighbouring state earlier this week. They sleep upstairs in the convention centre, and their main duty is food preparation.

“This is what we do: help others in need. As a servant of God, that’s what we’re called to do: to serve others,” she says, adding that it is also an opportunity to speak to people about the word of God. Jeri and Ann will stay in the centre for a week before being replaced by a new group of volunteers.

Joyce Kidd, originally from Anchorage in Alaska, has been working for the Red Cross for 18 years. She spent five months working in New York after the 9/11 attacks, and spent 25 days in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

“It is a lot more organised than Katrina,” she says as she pours coffee for the line of people who have queued up for breakfast.

The services offered here include everything from free phone calls and phone-charging facilities by Verizon to prescription-writing services by pharmacists CVC and Walgreens, who have dispatched teams to help people forced to leave home without their medications.

Jill, an optometrist from North Carolina, arrived here last week and is helping people who lost glasses or contact lenses in the floods. She says the centre is expecting a new batch of people from Beaumont, the city 130km east of Houston that has been hit badly by the floods.

“In some ways this is the easy part. Assessing what people need and helping them. The difficult question is what happens next – when do people start thinking about the future. How do they rebuild their lives after this?”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent