Teresa Dunham, right, and DoubleTree Inn staffer Sherry Smith, second from left, visit with Harvey evacuees Annie and Leo Stewart of Beaumont on Saturday at the Arlington hotel. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina sent New Orleans residents fleeing to North Texas, Dunham organized a grassroots campaign to gather clothes and other necessities in her garage for Katrina victims. Now she’s helping Harvey evacuees. Ian McVea Special to the Star-Telegram
Teresa Dunham, right, and DoubleTree Inn staffer Sherry Smith, second from left, visit with Harvey evacuees Annie and Leo Stewart of Beaumont on Saturday at the Arlington hotel. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina sent New Orleans residents fleeing to North Texas, Dunham organized a grassroots campaign to gather clothes and other necessities in her garage for Katrina victims. Now she’s helping Harvey evacuees. Ian McVea Special to the Star-Telegram

Arlington

Katrina evacuee, Arlington volunteer are working to help Harvey victims

By Shirley Jinkins

Special to the Star-Telegram

September 18, 2017 08:54 PM

UPDATED September 18, 2017 08:58 PM

ARLINGTON

Teresa Dunham closely monitored the track of Hurricane Harvey as it approached the Texas coast last month, and began to make plans.

It was 12 years ago that the north Arlington resident threw open her garage, set out donation boxes and mounted a community effort to help the Hurricane Katrina evacuees who were arriving at North Texas shelters.

Boxes lined her street back in 2005 as neighbors and schoolchildren from nearby Butler Elementary answered the call to help, the Star-Telegram reported back then. The effort took on an informal name, Rocky Canyon Relief, and by the time it was done, donated items were delivered to evacuees as far away as Mississippi, and to shelters, hotels and individuals in Arlington.

When Harvey threatened, Dunham found herself estimating when it would hit the coast, how many people would likely be affected, and how many refugees might arrive in North Texas. This time, she would apply the lessons she learned during Katrina and be ready before evacuees arrived.

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“I learned after Katrina to go directly up to people and ask them exactly what they need, what sizes they need,” Dunham said. “If it’s something beyond your means to give, then put the word out and someone else can.”

Jemel Jones, general manager at the DoubleTree Inn in north Arlington, is working with Dunham this time around. But 12 years ago, he was himself a Katrina evacuee, along with his wife and two children, then ages 5 and 3.

“Doing this was second nature to me,” he said. “I was able to assess people arriving during their time of need. It’s so devastating for them. I wanted to make sure they had everything they needed.”

Jones said 23 families fleeing Harvey initially registered at the hotel. The families began arriving at the DoubleTree within three days of Harvey’s landfall, and as of Saturday, 18 to 19 families were still there. People from Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur came, mostly by car.

Jones was working for the Hilton chain in New Orleans when he and his family evacuated, and he quickly found a new job in North Texas — DoubleTree is a Hilton brand. He has been with the Arlington DoubleTree for a year after it opened in a former hotel’s location.

“Sometimes it’s easy for people to make that decision [to stay where they land] because they’ve already lost their homes,” he said. “I remember leaving New Orleans with just three pairs of clothes.”

Evacuees never forget the help and kindnesses shown to them by locals, Jones added, something he is seeing now from the Harvey survivors, including Leo and Annie Stewart of Beaumont.

The Stewarts had evacuated once before, when Hurricane Rita damaged their home in 2005, but they knew this was going to be much worse.

As the water began to rise in their home, there was little time to sort through key paperwork.

“What concerns me the most is we just had to evacuate quickly this time,” Annie said on Saturday. “Before, I had everything” — birth certificates, medical records and other documents — “together, and this time I didn’t have anything together. I was just overwhelmed.”

Annie, 52, and Leo, 78, rented a vehicle (theirs was scuttled in the flood), dropped off their Yorkshire-poodle mix named Harmony with her veterinarian in Port Arthur, and drove to North Texas, where they had sheltered in Fort Worth after Rita.

“It took nine hours to get here, and it’s usually a 3  1⁄2 to four-hour trip,” Annie said. “It was raining, raining, raining.”

Both Annie and Leo have health problems and require medications. Leo, a Vietnam veteran, had a third back surgery in May and was scheduled to start physical therapy on Sept. 7.

Annie has high blood pressure, congestive heart problems and diabetes. She had to make an emergency room visit shortly after arriving in Arlington when her blood pressure spiked.

They spent four days in other lodging, paying their own way, until arriving at DoubleTree Arlington DFW South, a FEMA partner.

The Stewarts recalled how thoughtful it was when someone gave Leo — who becomes very cold at night — a warm robe, house slippers and gloves.

Lessons learned

This time around, Dunham asked for monetary donations first from her large family. She shopped for the immediate personal items that evacuees need, such as disinfectant wipes, socks, toiletries, diapers, sanitary products and underwear.

“Whenever there’s a tragedy like this, call up local hotels to see which ones have guests needing help, and if they do, then call someone else to help too,” she said. “When you find a need, just take it over.”

Her plans for this week are to have helpers ready to make some home-cooked meals for evacuee families who many not have had home cooking for some time.

“Someone here had a 2-month-old baby, so the call went out for those needs and equipment,” she said. By the end of the day, there were multiple strollers, car seats and baby swings collected.

People came out to fold items donated at the hotel, and staff at the DoubleTree would come to help organize donations after their shifts ended.

“Another thing I learned from Katrina is the value of getting your children involved,” Dunham said. They will gather things on their own, tell their friends about it, and it will inspire a habit of giving in them, she said.

Dunham and her husband have four children. Daughter Mollymarie was 15 when Katrina hit, and is now 27 with a daughter of her own.

E-mails were a powerful tool during the Katrina effort, but even that has been improved.

“Our community made a huge difference then,” Mollymarie recalled. “Of course, now social media has made it a lot easier to get out the word and connect.”

Teresa Dunham puts out a newsletter on her Facebook page, updating people on the progress of their donations. Instant messaging and group messages improve coordination.

“Helping people — it can really catch on,” Mollymarie said. “If you don’t have the money to donate, that’s OK. But everyone can donate time.”

“It’s not hard to be nice,” Teresa Dunham added.

Harvey evacuees say good-bye to Fort Worth

Many Harvey evacuees packed their bags and left the Wilkerson-Greines Athletic Center in Fort Worth Monday, boarding buses bound for Port Arthur.

Anna M. Tinsley atinsley@star-telegram.com