Hurricane Katrina forced Iraj and Phyllis Freeman out of New Orleans 12 years ago and they chose to make their new home in Seabrook, a town about 20 miles north of Galveston on Trinity Bay.
As Hurricane Harvey approached Friday, they were on high alert. The Freemans lived in a second-floor apartment in Seabrook, but they felt anything but safe.
“We learned some lessons and got to higher ground before it hit,” Iraj said. “We weren’t waiting for any mandatory evacuation orders.”
The Freemans, including grandson Ryan Jones, left Seabrook before Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall, and stayed with relatives in Cypress, north of Houston, until Monday. That’s when they loaded up and headed to Fort Worth, leaving the steady rainfall and devastating flooding behind.
They were among the first evacuees to arrive at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center in southeast Fort Worth.
“We’re right there on the water,” Phyllis Freeman said Tuesday morning at Wilkerson-Greines. “That’s the Gulf. We’ve heard from people back home whose apartments and houses are totally flooded out. We didn’t want that to be us.”
The family packed light and bought some clothes and supplies on the way from Cypress to Fort Worth. That drive usually takes about four to five hours, but Monday, Phyllis Freeman said, it took nine.
“We would get some momentum going and all of a sudden another road would be flooded,” Iraj Freeman said. “So we had to turn back and find another road. Just getting out of the Houston area was the hardest part. Every once in a while we would pass some people whose cars had flooded, and they were walking along the highway.”
The Freemans, who were later transferred to Worth Heights Community Center, don’t know when — or if — they’ll be going back to Seabrook. For now, they’re just happy to have a place to stay with their grandson.
“It could be tore up,” Iraj Freeman said of their apartment. “That’s why we took the steps we took from Point A to Point B.”
Reminiscent of Katrina
The first nine evacuees arrived in Fort Worth overnight Monday. They came on their own, city officials said.
Fort Worth is equipped to handle more than 1,000 new guests. Wilkerson-Greines and Worth Heights Community Center are open, and the Fort Worth Convention Center has been prepared as a shelter, but has not been opened.
Dallas opened its “mega-shelter” at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Tuesday and it will be the busiest of the shelters once a steady stream of evacuees begin to arrive.
And Arlington officials said they are prepared to open a shelter if needed.
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Statewide, the Red Cross reports that about 17,000 evacuees are staying in shelters, but as floodwaters rise, so will that number.
Wilkerson-Greines, which is perhaps best known as a basketball venue, serves as the processing point in Tarrant County. Some evacuees, like the Freemans, will be assigned to another shelter, while others will remain at Wilkerson-Greines.
The emerging scene is somewhat similar to the one that played out exactly 12 years ago, when tens of thousands of evacuees from the New Orleans area fled to the Dallas-Fort Worth area after Hurricane Katrina, living with relatives and friends or in makeshift shelters at churches or city-operated facilities, including Wilkerson-Greines.
Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, and the storm surge in New Orleans breached the levees and flooded more than 80 percent of the city, killing more than 1,800 people and displacing another 250,000.
Fort Worth received a request from the state Monday evening to begin sheltering the evacuees from the coast.
‘We had to leave’
Blanca Lopez, Ricardo Miranda and their two young daughters got out of Houston just in time.
Water was creeping into their trailer off U.S. 59 from the roof and in through two windows. Outside, the water was almost waist-deep.
But when Lopez saw sparks coming from an electrical socket, she knew they couldn’t ride out Harvey any longer.
“We just wanted to take our daughters away from there,” Lopez said. “We didn’t have anywhere to go, though.”
With the help of a truck driver who pulled their car from a flooded parking lot, they left Houston at about 5 a.m. Tuesday.
Like the Freemans, they headed north and ended up at Wilkerson-Greines, where they checked themselves in with both Fort Worth police and with Red Cross personnel before being transferred to another of the city’s shelters.
Lopez said it’s hard not knowing what happened in their wake, but take comfort that their daughters, Belinda, 2, and Jennifer, 1, are safe.
“We don’t know how our home is, or if it caught on fire,” Lopez said. “We don’t know if everything is flooded or not. We’re scared to go back.”
She was on the verge of tears as she described the friends and family that weren’t able to make it out. Parts of Houston have taken on more than 40 inches of rain since Friday.
“We had friends and family that were stuck and were trying to get to us, but they stayed stuck,” Lopez said. “Now we feel bad, because they were trying to leave with us. But our first concern was our daughters. We had to leave.”
‘We weren’t prepared’
In Dallas, Harvey evacuees who drove themselves out of danger began straggling into the mega-shelter Tuesday morning. The shelter is set up as a mini-community for 5,000 with a pharmacy, triage area, living area with cots and blankets and more.
Bus loads of evacuees are expected at some point, when vehicles are finally able to get out of the Houston area.
A family of five arrived in their own car early Tuesday morning.
Several hours later, a group of around 15 arrived after making their way out of the heavily flooded community of Dickinson outside of Houston.
On Friday night, they hastily packed bags at their homes, bringing only some clothes, cell phones and important papers such as Social Security cards.
“We didn’t pack everything,” said said Luis Banda, a 12-year-old seventh-grader standing with his Spanish-speaking father, Jose Luis Banda. “We didn’t care about anything. We only cared about family.”
But he said one thing was certain: “We weren’t prepared.”
Even so, they left their homes that night and headed to Houston, seeking safety, and were later told they needed to leave there as well.
So they headed to North Texas, a three-family, four-car caravan.
They endured flat tires and engine trouble and arrived in downtown Dallas late Tuesday morning — exhausted, hungry and still a little scared.
As glad as they are to be dry and safe, Luis Banda said his family is worried for relatives who wouldn’t leave Dickinson, where they have a landscaping business, when they had a chance.
“About half of them stayed,” Luis Banda said. “They said this is where we live, raised our family.”
But after the rain continued to pour down, those left behind were trying to get out — but were stopped by high waters and flooded roads, he said.
“They can’t get out.”
The first evacuees were expected to arrive at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center early Tuesday. (Facebook Live video by Ryan Osborne)
The Fort Worth Police Department has over 100 officers on standby to aid the recovery efforts in the Houston area. (Video by Max Faulkner/Star-Telegram)
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has raised more than $200,000 for hurricane relief, including $100,000 of his own money.
The 1949 flood is considered the worst in Fort Worth history as at least 10 people were killed and 13,000 left homeless. The city is now protected by stronger flood controls.
How to help
▪ Anyone interested in donating items to those who are residing in shelters are asked to take donations to any Goodwill location in the area. Items needed include: baby diapers and formula, new socks and underwear for men, women, boys and girls; blankets and towels, plus-size clothing.
To volunteer for relief efforts, register at voly.org.
For updated information about relief efforts in Fort Worth, go to www.fwhelpforharvey.com
▪ The Junior League of Arlington is also collecting donations at its Center for Community Service at 4002 W. Pioneer Parkway from from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday. Two Men and a Truck is providing trucks to transport the donations to shelters.