Americo Espinoza drove out of Freeport Friday morning with his one-year-old son and wife.
He said he went to bed the night before, trying to decide what to do. When the wind and rain woke him up Friday morning, he decided it was time to go. He says when he left town, it was dark, windy and raining. He came to Dallas to escape the oncoming onslaught of Hurricane Harvey.
“I'm not really concerned about my property,” says Espinoza. “I'm more concerned with my family. Property you can make it up I guess. My family, you can't make it up.”
He was among a number of evacuees from Freeport, a city located about 60 miles south of Houston, that arrived at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center around midday Friday. Most of them arrived with clothes and few other personal belongings.
The city opened up the shelter at the request of state emergency management officials. City officials say the shelter can accommodate as many as 500 people. Dan Halyburton, a spokesman for American Red Cross of North Texas, told the Star-Telegram that 286 evacuees stayed at the Walnut Hill shelter Friday night.
A second shelter was opened late Friday night at the Tommie Allen Recreation Center in Dallas, located at 7071 Bonnie View Rd.
“The majority of the people I’ve interacted with in the Dallas shelter have been from Houston,” Halyburton said. “If the need arises, we’ve got pre-positioned supplies at a number of shelter locations, so these things can go up pretty fast as needed.”
For now, all those pre-positioned shelter locations would be in Dallas. State officials will reimburse the city for its costs.
Officials say they have learned the lessons of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. About 26,000 disaster victims flooded into North Texas. City and county officials were ill-prepared for the influx.
Since then, officials have met once a month and conducted routine drills to prepare eventually for another disaster.
“The big danger here is rain,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. “Our graphs that we’re looking at [show] risk of catastrophic, life-threatening rain is literally off the chart. There are rivers that are projected to flood to levels that we’ve never seen before in that area.”
Jenkins advised North Texas residents to provide shelter to relatives if at all possible because of the lack of space for those who may need shelter.
There are about 740,000 people living in the 30 Texas counties that will be potentially affected by Hurricane Harvey. There is a maximum of about 51,000 shelter spaces in the entire state.
Jenkins also advised those who are fleeing to North Texas to fill up their tanks before setting out northbound. It would only take a couple of cars running out of gas to create a massive traffic backup on Interstate 45.
“It may take a lot more gas to make this trip,” he said. “You may have a seven-hour journey.”
If necessary, Dallas officials say it can open up to other recreation centers for evacuees. Those three recreation centers can hold as many as a 1,000 people.
In the unlikely event that those centers overflowed, then they can open up the convention center and it would serve as a mega-shelter. Jenkins said because of all the security and sanitary problems associated with a mega-shelter, opening up the convention center is an absolute last resort.
Star-Telegram reporter Matthew Martinez contributed to this report.