HOUSTON — On the same day of the first World Series game in Houston, in a random confluence of events and life paths, the last shelter housing Hurricane Harvey evacuees closed. A little before 9 in the morning, I drove out to the northern edge of the city, to an abandoned Macy’s in a wilted-looking shopping mall. The city that is hosting a big sporting event and the one still trying to stand up after taking 15 trillion gallons of water have had little in common with each other. Really, that’s what disaster recovery tries to solve — closing and then erasing the gap torn in a place. This coincidence, one building opening up for thousands of fans while another processes out the people hit hardest by the storm, seems a little profound: Houston stood up twice on Friday — once in as public a way as possible, and the other out in the Greenspoint Mall, in a department store taken over by the Red Cross.
It’s in the crook of Interstate 45 and Beltway 8. Even the trees and landscaping looked abandoned. Inside, volunteers from around the country — from Coos Bay, Ore., and Indianapolis and nearly everywhere else imaginable — did the hidden, thankless, essential work paid for by all those Americans who donate a few dollars every time the capricious hand of fate smacks the hell out of some community.
A communications manager named Ekland Durousseau took me around.
“It’s incredible,” volunteer Chris Genin said to her. “Have you walked around yet? It’s empty. Sixty people found homes in a day.”
On Thursday, 89 people remained in a shelter in Houston, all of them at the mall. That’s down from a high of more than 10,000, most of whom were in the downtown convention center. Lots of media folks set up operations there, outside Hall E, so if you saw footage of people affected by the hurricane, odds are that’s where it was shot. And that coverage is important, but the literalness of television cameras can never fully show the most important thing, hiding just out of range of the lens: Whenever something terrible happens, human beings find the will to do truly amazing things.
That certainly has been happening in Houston the past two months.
The convention center managers put into action a plan developed through the hard lessons learned while housing so many Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Lots of people pitched in. So many donations arrived, they opened the BBVA Compass Stadium to house the stuff. The chef at the convention center, usually in charge of catering big events, emptied out his freezers, feeding people until the Red Cross could show up. A lot of people wanted to pitch in.
“We had James Beard Award-winning chefs cooking,” said Leah Shah, public relations director for Visit Houston.
The first time the Astros returned to Houston after the storm, the convention center was still packed. The ballpark is just a few blocks away, and the team came over to talk to people, to show their faces. The mascot, Orbit, came to play with the kids. The Astros gave every single evacuee an invitation to a game, and Shah put the big box of tickets in her trunk and distributed them. That’s when the divide that the storm cut in the two Houstons started to shrink, just a little, as 10,000 people stepped out into the sunshine and walked like normal people to a ballpark.
That reunification, at least the first phase, was nearly complete on Friday.
As Durousseau showed me around the Macy’s, only 29 people remained.
They were the last hurricane victims still in a shelter anywhere in the city. Workers stacked barricades, and the Southern Baptist Convention had taken home its big, mobile kitchen run at most disasters. Not long ago, the floor of Macy’s was covered in cots, but now only a few remained. Four people by the Hello Kitty sections. Seven or eight by the old Bali and Vanity Fair areas.
“This is the last day,” Darryll Maddux of the Red Cross said.
The Red Cross sets up everyone with a place to live and a starter kit to get back on their feet, and whenever a person leaves the shelter, someone rings a bell and everyone cheers. On Friday, a woman finally moving out hugged volunteers, the hugs lingering long enough to let anyone watching understand what this meant — to the people being helped, and those doing the helping.
People clapped when they saw what was happening.
Sometimes the most interesting thing about a story is the disconnect between the world chronicled and the one the chronicler returns to once the work is done. That’s certainly true here. Right now, I’m sitting in the auxiliary press box at Game 3 of the World Series, the “aux box” in sportswriter lingo, and some guys were just walking around delivering Torchy’s tacos. I just got off the telephone with one of the 89 people in the shelter on Thursday. His name is Alfredo, and he’s a huge fan, according to the Red Cross people at the mall. They gave me his number, explaining how much he loved baseball in general and the Astros in particular. When we talked during the first inning, I expected him to be in front of a television. Instead, he was in Oklahoma. That’s where he’d found a place to live, and he’d finally arrived, on the night the World Series came to his hometown. He faced a long road to travel before he found his way back to the life the storm took away.