Harvey evacuee in shelter: 'Everyone's been so helpful here'

AUSTIN, Texas — The minute Melissa Bamba heard “immediate mandatory evacuation,” there was no more teeter tottering about whether to leave Victoria, Texas, on Thursday. Her decision was made.

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“Hearing some of the news reports of how bad it was going to be, we just didn’t want to be stuck,” Bamba said. “Thinking about Katrina, we didn’t want to be those people on our roof or stranded somewhere.”

“When they tell you, ‘We can’t come out and help you,’ you have to think about, are you going to stay and help yourself or are you going to leave?”

Bamba packed up as many of her belongings as she could, gathered her son and grandson and pointed the car north, not sure where they’d land. Anywhere beyond the wrath of Hurricane Harvey.

Dallas was an obvious safe haven, but it was also a long drive. So Bamba settled on Austin.

The first night they stayed in a hotel while they waited for shelters to be opened. Friday they were one of the first families to be let into the Wilhelmina Delco Center in East Austin.

The shelter was the first to open in Austin, and Bamba is among the 140 or so people staying there, said volunteer spokesman Geof Sloan. Capacity is 350 people. By midafternoon, American Red Cross employees and volunteers were preparing to take more people in. Another shelter is being prepared at LBJ High School.

More than 1,000 people trained to help volunteer with the Red Cross at such shelters. Of those, 800 were from Austin.

On Saturday, children ran and played soccer between aisles of cots in the large gymnasium. Adults pulled up folding chairs to sit and chat with family members and new evacuee friends. Cats and dogs slept quietly in an animal area operated by Austin Animal Shelter volunteers.

“Everyone’s been so helpful here. … We really felt like we made the right decision,” Bamba said, adding the shelter was even better than the hotel because of the attentive volunteers. “We haven’t had to ask for anything.”

Bamba said she planned to write the city a letter when she returned home to thank Austinites for their hospitality.

Marty McKellips, CEO of the Central and South Texas Region American Red Cross, said she’s often asked, as she was on Saturday by a reporter, why she choose this work.

“I always tell people, in a national emergency like this, I wake up, turn on CNN, see the disaster and I know what I’m supposed to do,” McKellips said. “And other people wake up and wonder what they can do.”

Bamba said friends and news organizations have been posting pictures of the damage in Victoria on Facebook, eerie foreshadowing of what might be awaiting them when they return.

“It’s horrible,” Bamba said. “Victoria tends to flood, and it’s just bad rain, so we have no idea how long it’ll be before we get back or what to expect. … It’s going to really be a mess when we get home.”

And the storm projections are far from comforting, with some showing it looping around South Central Texas and returning to the coast.

“Whoever that hurricane’s trying to find, they just need to surrender,” Bamba joked.

For Bamba, who is originally from Pennsylvania, hurricane evacuation is something new, something she and her family joked about checking off their Texas bucket list.

But for others, like Elisabet Perez, it’s unfortunately becoming somewhat of a practiced routine. Perez and her family from Port Lavaca were forced to evacuate during Hurricane Rita in 2005. That time, they came to Austin for refuge.

When they heard the news about Harvey on Thursday, they knew it was time to do it all over again.

If Perez had any hesitation about leaving, it was quashed quickly by one thing central in her mind: her young children and her nieces and nephew, about 15 of them total.

The kids have been asking a lot of questions about why they had to leave and about the severity of the storm, she said, but “they know that nothing will happen to them here” in the shelter.

During Rita, they stayed in an Austin shelter for four days. This time, it’s anyone’s guess. But knowing they’re safe in the shelter, and not in the midst of some of the gnarly scenes they are seeing on TV at the shelter gives Perez calm.

“I’m calm (because) we made the perfect decision,” Perez said.

Her father, Elias Perez, said his biggest fear is “that we go back, and we don’t find anything.” But his daughter and Bamba, the Victoria evacuee, had a similar response to those kinds of thoughts.

“Everything important is here,” Bamba said of her family.