By Georgia Duncan, American Red Cross
The George R Brown Convention Center is usually home to knitting conventions, conferences, expos and even a cat show.
But when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston, the center suddenly became the refuge for thousands forced from their homes. The American Red Cross opened a shelter that at its height was home to more than 10,000 people.
The center was transformed into what could be called a new city within a city. There were the traditional services for shelter residents – a safe place to sleep and stay, warm meals, health care and counseling.
But as the size of the shelter grew, additional services began populating the new city. Therapy dogs, whose sole goal is to make people happy, roamed the hallways outside the shelter dorms with their owners. A local barber set up shop; a beauty school transformed a corner into a beauty salon offering dry shampoos and styling. In another area a spa set up massage chairs to offer a few moments of relaxing music and a shoulder massage to relieve some stress. A yoga instructor offered relaxation exercises to interested residents.
An area for those with medical issues or who needed to replace lost prescription medications was established. Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers visited with those displaced to help them cope with the fear and anxiety they were experiencing, assuring them there would be someone available to speak with them if they wanted to just talk in the coming days.
Community residents signed up to help their neighbors by volunteering with the Red Cross; orientations were conducted several times a day. The new volunteers were given assignments helping in a variety of areas. Other service agencies also accepted new volunteers into their organizations.
Additionally, other agencies set up tables to offer services to those in need. FEMA established a counter to register those eligible for assistance. Legal aid agencies began providing advice to those with questions. Safelink offered cell phones to qualified residents and Verizon set up a charging station for cell phones and tablets. Microsoft offered computers and free internet to allow people to connect with family and friends to let them know they are safe in the shelter.
Wal-Mart opened a kiosk offering personal items to shelter guests. The Postal Service opened an office to facilitate mail tracking and change of address for those knowing they would not be returning to their former homes. Social Security Administration and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles set up tables to facilitate the replacement of cards lost or destroyed in the flood waters.
Shower facilities were brought to the center for guests to use and a mobile laundry was established.
For the children, there was the Kids Zone, where they were entertained with arts, crafts, books, stories and puzzles. In addition, an almost endless carnival of super heroes and story book characters paraded through the common area, stopping to say hello and have pictures taken to the delight of children and adults alike.
With few exceptions, the shelter residents are more than satisfied with the attention they have received.
At 64, Curtis Brown was forced out of his home by the rising water of Harvey and had to walk eight miles to get to the Red Cross shelter with little more than the wet clothes on his back. After getting a set of dry clothes, he was able to lay down on a shelter cot and get some rest.
“I’m really surprised at how well organized this place is and really, the food is excellent,” he said while sipping a cup of coffee in the dining area.
After talking to a Red Cross volunteer for several minutes, he got up to leave but turned back, and said, “Thank you so much for being here for me.”