HOUSTON – Houston strained under the arrival of tens of thousands of people fleeing submerged homes and flooded roads on Wednesday and faced an outbreak of looting and armed robberies that forced a midnight curfew.
The city opened the George R. Brown Convention Center over the weekend with a plan to house 5,000 people and be run largely by American Red Cross volunteers. The center’s size quickly doubled, as people streamed in from areas south and west of the city. Despite promising two more “mega” centers early Tuesday, Houston opened one, at a basketball arena, and two smaller centers.
That proved too little for county officials who set up their own location as an outbreak of looting and armed robberies prompted the city to order an indefinite curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. (0500 to 1000 GMT).
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said late Tuesday individuals impersonating police officers knocked on doors in at least two parts of the city telling residents to evacuate their homes.
Saying it spent days trying to coordinate an emergency plan with city, federal and county officials, Harris County officials late Tuesday decided to open a separate shelter for 10,000 people at a county-owned exhibition hall.
“The Red Cross was pretty much overwhelmed,” the county’s chief administrator, Ed Emmett, said at a news conference late Tuesday. After joint efforts didn’t come together, Emmett said officials decided “we can’t wait. We need to get this done.”
A county-owned exhibition hall, the NRG Center, was opened at 10 p.m. local time Tuesday. Emmett said it would be staffed in part by members of the National Guard.
More than 3,000 Houston homes were underwater and thousands more were threatened by two reservoirs swollen by an estimated 35 inches (90 cm) of rain.
In Brazoria County south of Houston, a levee broke on Tuesday morning, and the county’s chief administrator urged residents to “get out now.”
Mandatory evacuation orders covered Brazoria, Galveston and Fort Bend counties south and west of Houston, and officials issued calls for people to leave voluntarily across the region.
Some 9,000 people were at the nearly 2-million-square-foot Houston convention center early Tuesday, and local officials began searching for two additional sites as more headed to the city.
Officials defended a decision not to call for a mass evacuation because of the dangers posed by such a move. A 2005 evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita turned into a nightmare for many in Texas and Louisiana who found themselves trapped on clogged roadways and running out of fuel.
Area churches and aid organizations donated clothing, bedding and food for those forced to leave their home. The American Red Cross brought at least 1,000 volunteers to staff the city’s convention center, and provided cots, blankets and food for 34,000 across the region, officials said.
Houston called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send cots, other supplies and food to help 10,000 people “as soon as possible,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. The main shelter was initially expected to take in 5,000 people, but more than 2,000 arrived late on Monday, and the numbers swelled.
Among them were Maria Davila, 56, her husband, daughter, and two grandchildren, who arrived Monday night after their Houston home was flooded.
“We left our cars and belongings and starting swimming,” she said. “We don’t know how long we will be here.”
Dulcie Alexander, 44, was trapped along with several other drivers by heavy water on a highway Saturday night. She and a group of 15 others spent the night in their cars. On Sunday morning they made their way to a fire station, and were ferried to the convention center.
City officials prepared to vote Wednesday to allocate $20 million to storm relief, said city Controller Chris Brown. “Houston will have enough money to handle this storm,” he said.
City officials would not say how many evacuees they expected, or how many the city could hold.
“We are going to have to take folks. We have no choice,” said Darian Ward, a spokeswoman for Mayor Turner.
Lakewood Church, the Houston megachurch that holds televised services in a former basketball arena, announced on Tuesday it would take in up to 300 people. The church has been collecting supplies for other centers and is providing on-site health checks.
“When the city needs us, we try to help,” said Paul Osteen, the brother of Lakewood Pastor Joel Osteen and an associate church pastor. Pastor Osteen was criticized on social media for offering prayers, but not opening church doors to evacuees. Church spokesman Donald Iloff Jr. called the criticism a “completely false” narrative.