Around 1 o’clock on Saturday morning, 61-year-old Joan Groth noted water seeping through the bottom edges of the door in her one-story house. By 4 am, it was waist high, so she and her husband William, like other Houston area residents that night, climbed into the attic. Water would rise 7 feet inside her house.
"We flooded before, but never this bad," Groth said after climbing off a city truck in downtown Houston. "I was afraid we'd get flooded in the attic." Indeed, the National Weather Service was warning people to wait on their roofs rather than in their attics for rescue.
Groth arrived Sunday evening at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston with her husband and about a dozen neighbors who'd been rescued by boat from their flooded homes. She, like others filing into the convention center Sunday, was plucked from her home by a boat driven by the National Guard, the Houston Fire Department, or just a friendly neighbor.
Houston residents arrive at the shelter happy to be dry and alive, but as the shock of their water rescue fades, attention turns to the future. Thousands of people in Houston are homeless now, all their possession claimed by the floods. Even those with salvageable houses will need to wait months for repairs. Although the most urgent rescue efforts are ending in Houston, a years-long problem is just getting started.
George Snow, 68, was dazed to be vying for a cot in a city shelter, his south Houston house in ruin.
"It had never flooded there before, so we were just going to ride it out," he said. "We didn't have any idea it was going to be this bad."
His neighborhood, Scarsdale, sits in an area near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, where water rose above the second story in some neighborhoods, and where boat owners flocked Sunday to join first responders in the rescue effort. Snow and his wife were picked up by a volunteer boat owner.
In the stress of unexpected catastrophe, Snow said, he and his wife were unable to pick the valuable belonging from their three-story house.
Many of the evacuees filling the center carry all their dry possessions with them.
Ariel Wadler, 21, marveled that everything she owned she carried in her purse: mostly dry clothes, shampoo, and conditioner. She and her family had waded across a street to a neighbor’s two-story home when water began to overtake their ground floor. The floods that followed swallowed her bedroom, and she was rescued the next morning by a National Guard boat.
"I can't even feel anything," she said. "That's why I'm not crying."
Authorities, still absorbed in the rescue effort, haven't yet produced a clear figure on the extent of the damage or how many people are left without a home. Evacuees throughout the shelter told of their own rescue by boat. Congress is sure to take up a relief bill when it returns from August recess, and how and whether flood victims will be able to rebuild their lives will depend on the outcome of that bill.
When Ricky Harris realized the storm had brought disaster, he drove toward his 91-year-old grandmother Clara's house northeast of downtown, parked at the edge of the flooded street, and walked for 45 minutes through knee-high water find her. He helped her from the house and walked her back to the edge of the flood, where dump trucks waited to move evacuees to the shelter.
"This is unbelievable," he said as he waited for officials to help him lower his grandmother off the back of the truck.
Oscar Santos, 54, left his apartment near Buffalo Bayou without knowing what condition he'd find it on his return. Police came through midday Sunday, just as water crept over first-floor door stoops, telling residents to head toward an evacuation pickup point before water got too high.
"The bayou is still rising; that's why we're here," he said.
A neighbor who didn't leave has been sending Santos videos showing the bayou slowly overtaking his apartment.
The city's homeless have also flocked to the convention center. Many spent Saturday night trapped in pounding rain, and then were trapped Sunday by the shutdown of public transportation.
Gordon Miles, 51, had been in Houston for just nine days when, sleeping under an overpass of I-45, he saw the dark, misty cloud, bursting with lightning and rolling toward him. He immediately knew trouble approached.
"Scared the hell out of me when I saw it coming," he said. "Everybody left but me; I didn't know where to go."
At one point in the night, he braced himself in the corner of a fence to keep from drifting away in the water.
In the morning, he walked two hours to the shelter.
There, on Sunday evening, thousands registered and filed in to wait in line for dry clothes, towels, and food. Many watch the weather forecast on TV or wrap up in towels and stare ahead, dazed and tired from a wet, sleepless night.
The convention center will be open for a few more days. After that, while Houston flooding refugees’ homes are repaired or demolished, they'll need to find elsewhere to go.