Irving offers sanctuary to Hurricane Harvey evacuees

Liz Isles’ road to Irving’s hurricane relief shelter began at 3 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 27, when her house began flooding with water in Dickinson, a city in Galveston County and within the Houston metroplex.

“Within 30 minutes it was knee-high,” Isles said.

Isles, her husband and mother did not want to leave their home and decided to wait until the water receded. Instead, the water level rose to nearly four feet.

“At first, the water was clear and didn’t look so bad,” Isles said. “Then all of a sudden, the furniture was stained, and it was nasty.”

By 5 p.m., she and her family decided to leave. They were picked up by a boat and taken to a Galveston church. Thinking they had reached the end of their journey, Isles’ family was told the church was closing and they had to make a decision: either get on a flight to Dallas or get out of the church. Although Isles and her family eventually chose Dallas, she admitted she never imagined traveling so far to escape the hurricane.

Isles joined roughly 60 Hurricane Harvey evacuees and their animals as they arrived late Monday, Aug. 28, to the Lively Point Recreation Center, a youth recreation facility at 909 N. O’Connor Road. The building was converted into a relief shelter and welcomed evacuees who had flown from Houston into Love Field on military aircraft and were then bussed to the location.

“We don’t do this on the fly,” said Jason Carriere, the Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Irving. “We have been preparing for this as early as last week on Thursday. Obviously watching the weather situation unfold, we knew we were going to be getting evacuees here. We just didn’t know how many, so we started pre-positioning personnel and equipment to open the shelter if needed.”

In his role, Carriere supervised the opening of the shelter and setting up the facility. There are three different dormitory locations within the shelter: a space for the elderly and sick near a paramedics’ station, a large room for families, and an area for single men. Amenities inside the shelter include an area for sleeping, medical care, basic first aid, disaster mental health counseling, food, and water. The center is equipped to hold 202 evacuees.

Dan Barrios, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, was assigned to the Irving shelter on Monday morning. Barrios has been volunteering with the Red Cross for eight years and has assisted with hurricane shelters in Cleburne and Rockwall as well as tornadoes in Oklahoma. Compared to his work with other cities, Barrios said Irving was fully prepared to handle emergency relief.

“With some shelters, Red Cross goes in and does everything,” Barrios said. “Some shelters we’re here as a consultant-type, and this is one of those shelters. Irving has provided all of the resources, we’re just coming here to help out where they need it. They’ve done a great job of everything.”

The Red Cross is the only first responding relief organization in the country. They are chartered by Congress to be the first ones on the ground alongside first responders.

In his role at the Irving shelter, Barrios will be working with the Red Cross operation command to help coordinate meals and supervise the proper paperwork for check-in.

A number of rules are enforced at the shelter, including times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as strict times for lights on and off. Although evacuees are free to come and go as they please, they have to be inside the facility by 10 p.m. before lights go off if they want to stay the night. Evacuees entering the shelter are also subject to a background check. According to Carriere, issues that arise in the background check are handled on a case by case basis.

One issue that will not affect evacuees is immigration status.

“Nobody’s going to be asked about any immigration status when they come here,” Carriere said. “They’re just running criminal history, and that’s an issue for our law enforcement. We’re not turning anybody away on immigration status.”

Immediately upon arrival, evacuees fill out a Red Cross form and have food waiting for them. Lively Point prepared hamburgers with trimmings.

There is currently no timetable in place for how long the shelter will remain open. According to Barrios, evacuees tend to stay in shelters for roughly one to three days during a tornado disaster and for an event as large as Katrina some evacuees stayed in shelters for weeks.

“As far as we know, it’s going to be temporary,” Carriere said. “We want them to get back to their lives. It could be a day or two, it could be a week. The goal is to get them back to their homes where they came from as quickly as possible.”

Currently, Point Lively Recreation Center is the only shelter open in Irving and the city does not have plans to open a second.

“At this time, we do not have enough resources to open another shelter,” Carriere said. “That’s why they’re trying to open a Dallas mega-shelter. There may be other shelters opening DFW-wide, but not here.”

Some families and their pets have already left the shelter because they have connected with family and friends in the area. City officials say more planes are coming in throughout the week.

How can people help?

Lively Point is made up of volunteers from the city of Irving and the Red Cross staff. No outside volunteers are accepted because of background checks and training time involved, but Barrios says there are other ways to help.

“If anybody would like to volunteer, they can go to RedCross.org and sign up to take the classes as a volunteer and you will be placed accordingly,” he said.

Patty Denko, Lively Point Recreation Center Supervisor, urges Irving residents not to drop off items at the center.

“We don’t have the capacity,” Denko said. “If 500 cases of water show up, we have to put that somewhere. We already have issues with storage and need to make sure that we have all space available going to the folks who are going to need it.”

Irving’s resources are funneled through the Disaster District Committee (DDC). The committee is comprised of local representatives of various state agencies and commissions as well as organized volunteer groups. Each DDC coordinates with political subdivisions to make sure resources are available where needed.

“Everything’s coordinated and tracked so when we need things like food, cots, and water, it’s all coordinated through the state and country,” Carriere said. “That way, we can track and ensure it’s going to get fulfilled in a timely manner.”

To prepare for resource and volunteer distribution during a disaster event, the state conducts regular dry run situations.

“There are multiple levels involved in emergency command,” Barrios said. “It’s a structure set up by our federal government and it scales down to states, then counties, then the city. There are relationships in place so that when the county or state government says we need to open a shelter, there are already regional hubs to send people and notify the county, which then notifies the city.”

According to Barrios, a major mistake individuals make during disaster relief is donating too many items to aid organizations. The Red Cross cannot accept certain donations due to safety concerns, so a lot of those items go to waste. They would also need additional staff to sift through the donations and this drains their already stretched numbers.

“We as Americans, and especially as Texans, are very generous in helping people in need,” Barrios said. “But it actually deletes resources to go that way. It will do a lot more good by donating $10 than dropping off a car load of stuff. It just saves everybody time.”

Animal Safety

Lively Point has created extra space to house animals. Corey Price, Irving Animal Services manager, learned early Monday morning about the shelter being set up and began converting office space within the center into a temporary animal shelter space for the next few weeks. Animal owners that are staying at the shelter can visit their pets and take them on walks.

The center currently is housing 24 animals, including a few parakeets. The space is set up to house 50 pets. If needed, Price has an overflow plan ready to implement that can raise the maximum number of animals the surrounding location can hold to 150. That plan includes using space across from Lively Point including an armory and police buildings. The important thing, Price said, is to keep evacuees near their animals.

“It helps people deal with the crisis to have their best friend available,” she said. “It’s one way to help keep people comfortable and have less of a sense of loss in a situation like this. That’s just one more thing they didn’t lose.”

Compared to hurricane relief in the past, Price said relief organizers and evacuees have learned a lot in terms of how to deal with our animals and respond more quickly.

“A lot of people in Katrina didn’t think to evacuate with their pets,” Price said. “Texans did a better job. We learned a lot from Katrina. You’re still seeing all of these pictures of people wading through the water, but they have their animals with them.”

Price is not accepting volunteers to help with hurricane relief due to security concerns. She has a staff of 19, including six animal control officers.

“It’s a pretty lean group, but we try to be as responsive as we can,” she said.

Irving Animal Services is working in tandem with DFW Humane Society to funnel volunteers and create a strategy to receive food for the animals.

If someone wants to help with animal relief efforts, Price encourages individuals to visit DFW Humane Society’s website at dfwhumane.com and click on the volunteer link.

If individuals would like to donate items of necessity, Carriere advises to choose organizations carefully.

“If you want to help with a cause, we encourage individuals to donate to reputable charities,” Carriere said. “Donate to those volunteer organizations that you know are doing the right thing and are out here for the specific reason of helping individuals from Hurricane Harvey.”

Irving Circle of Prayer

Irving Circle of Prayer set up a drop-off location to accept items of necessity such as pre-packaged food, water, personal hygiene items, and new clothes including undergarments.

Located at 1516 W. Irving Blvd, the organization will be buying the items locally and shipping them to the Gulf Coast area.

“The money’s going to come locally, and it’s going to be spent locally,” said Bruce Burns, one of the group’s founders.

Three years ago, Irving Circle of Prayer was set up to help local public servants including firefighters and police officers. Using donor money, the group has organized events such as a prayer for firefighters and police offers, a fish fry, and an annual prayer breakfast for all Irving pastors and assistant pastors.

Using money from donors gives the group flexibility to help across a number of local causes and has allowed the organization to support evacuees from Hurricane Harvey.

“It was originally set up for local support only,” Burns said. “But this is catastrophic, so we’re going outside the circle for the first time to help our fellow Texans.”

Irving Circle of Prayer is a 501c3 that supports local projects in Irving not funded by state or local government efforts. The organization will be assisted in their donation efforts by AMBUCS, who will be providing volunteers for the location.

Irving Circle of Prayer wants to thank Shahid Jetpuri for donating his building for the next two months as well as Fast Signs Irving-Las Colinas. Anyone interested in helping donate supplies or their time to Irving Circle of Prayer are encouraged to call any of the below:

Judge Bob Whitney (972) 897-4203
Bruce Burns (972) 322-9999
Councilman Oscar Ward (214) 537-4944
Irving Circle of Prayer (972) 322-9998

 Evacuees from Lively Point are encouraged to come to the Irving Circle of Prayer location to pick up needed items. They are slated to stay at Lively Point temporarily and the shelter will remain open until the state advises Irving officials to move the evacuees elsewhere. In the meantime, Liz Isles is grateful for the support she received from Irving but admits her life is in Houston.

“We have to go back,” Isles said. “We’re going to go back and build it up.”

About the Author

Joe Snell
Joe Snell studied film and business law at the University of Southern California. He has worked for a number of film and television companies including 21st Century Fox, Starz Entertainment, Creative Artists Agency, and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.