Waiting anxiously for evacuees

Photo courtesy of Islamic Relief USA

By Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA. Omar Nassimi contributed to this blog.

I’m standing in the middle of a convention center in Dallas and there are cots lined up as far as I can see.

Almost all of them are still empty because people still can’t get out of Houston to get here.

On Friday night, Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm with winds upwards of 130 mph. It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made its way to Houston, but we knew that didn’t mean the danger was subsiding.

Houston is one of the largest cities in the nation and it’s prone to flooding. Islamic Relief USA’s Disaster Response Team was in Houston in 2015 and again in 2016 responding to flooding. When we heard Harvey was going to deluge the city with approximately 35 inches of rain — double what we responded to in 2016 — we knew the situation was dire. It’s been even worse than predicted, with more than 50 inches already fallen and more rain to come.

When Islamic Relief USA’s Disaster Response Team arrived on Sunday, Houston was shut down and under water, so we couldn’t get in. So we worked with the American Red Cross to set up a mega shelter in the Dallas convention center to take care of the evacuees when they can finally get out of Houston.

When you first walk in to this shelter, it’s eerie.

The place is massive but it looks empty. There are rows upon rows of cots, and each one has a little blanket and a little cover on it.

Each of these cots represents a person who will be here soon. It’s a little mind-boggling.

I’ve been to Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan and that’s enormous. However, in the U.S., I’ve never seen anything like this.

Only about 50 people are here so far. Most of them got out of Houston before the roads were covered with water. They’re pretty calm; the people who were in distress are being cared for at the mental health clinic. For the rest, the number one priority is just to be a friendly face there for them — being kind, smiling, welcoming them. A lot of people are surprised that volunteers came from all over the country to help. It lends a sense of support.

But most of this hall is still empty and waiting.

I know it’s chaotic over in Houston while it’s so silent here. It’s frustrating to be unable to get in to help. But we know the orders to stay out of the water apply to us as much as they do to the residents, so it would be irresponsible to go in even if we could. We don’t want to be part of the problem instead of the solution.

And I know from past rescue work to not complain about the wait, because when it does hit, once the buses start showing up, they’re going to come all at once. We have to be mentally ready for that. It reminds me of the calm before the storm. You don’t know when it’s going to hit or how hard it’s going to hit, but you know it’s coming.

I think the volunteers are anxious. There’s a sense of readiness and they want to start helping. They came hyped and charged up and they’re waiting for people to arrive. The teams are ready. Everyone is in their positions. Yahia here is staffing the medical station, and Lamya is taking care of the families. We have people taking care of the clothing and the snacks and the canteen and baby diapers, manning the store. A few residents have come by looking for socks or other clothes, and we try to get them what they need.

A lot of people have been messaging me because they want to help. I want them to know that this is not going to be a short-term effort by any stretch of the imagination and a lot of help will be needed.

Some of our team members came here straight from Princeville, N.C., where they had just spent a week rebuilding houses that were damaged by Hurricane Matthew last October — almost a year ago. The full recovery process for Matthew is estimated to be five years. Judging by initial damage assessments, the recovery here in Houston could take at least twice as long.

It’s going to take a strong community response to help these people recover.

Right now, this story is hot and trending, but soon the attention will go away — but the problem is not going to go away. This is just the beginning.