Town's churches, people offer aid

Relief efforts

September 25, 2005|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun Reporter

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS // After sleeping on the grass next to the Interstate 45 freeway for several hours, Rita evacuee Frank Montes was desperate to find someplace with a roof.

Driving around in this small town most famous for being the headquarters of the Texas prison system, Montes wasn't having any luck.

The Walker County Fairgrounds were full, as were Huntsville High School, the basketball stadium at Sam Houston State University and the lobbies of a few hotels that had opened up to more people because thousands streamed in after running out of gas sitting in traffic jams for hours.

While Montes was looking, Ron Nelsen, pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, in Huntsville was praying.

"I wasn't planning on bringing anybody in, but I asked God if he wanted me to help, to send people here," Nelsen, 77, said.

A few moments later, Montes stopped his car at the church and asked for help in broken English.

A sign on Nelsen's church promised bilingual meetings, and Hispanics fleeing from Houston began flocking to the small church as soon as he opened its doors. On Friday night, about 160 people were sleeping in a 3,000-square-foot chapel.

Across East Texas, improvised relief efforts like Nelsen's saved thousands from panic and exposure to harm from the fury of Hurricane Rita's winds and rain as the violent storm swept across the Gulf Coast.

Nearly all of Huntsville's dozens of churches opened up after shelters quickly filled, and people all over this city began to drive through the town looking for ways to help the stranded and desperate evacuees.

Houseguests

It didn't take long for Brian and Marie Miller to find someone they could help. At midnight on Friday, they connected with evacuees Courtney and Joel Eilerts after a phone call from a mutual friend. Courtney Eilerts was 38 weeks pregnant and was being turned out of Huntsville Hospital after a few contractions that ended up being a false alarm.

They stayed with the Millers until they connected with another evacuee who was trying to reach Oklahoma, where the Eilerts' parents live and who happened to have access to a corporate charter jet. The Millers took them to the Huntsville airport, and they flew to Oklahoma, arriving early Friday morning after a trip that lasted less than an hour.

Friday afternoon, Marie Miller met Patty Shipley who was sitting on the grass near I-45 waiting for her son and husband to come back with gas. Lacking gas containers, they dug several empty salad oil jugs out of a trash bin at a Chinese restaurant and returned with 8 gallons, not enough to move three cars very far.

"We hadn't showered in several days, and we looked terrible," said Matt Shipley, 23. "We didn't know where we would stay. I had found a carwash that we were going to pull into."

Instead of sleeping in the carwash, the Shipleys became the Millers' houseguests. They left yesterday morning, headed for Dallas.

Finding the Millers was nothing short of a godsend, Shipley said.

He said the evacuation was necessary to protect people from what all saw as a catastrophic threat. But it was ugly in some ways, too.

Gas stations

Shipley said he saw people filling up trash cans and plastic bags with gas. As lines got longer, people began to be frustrated with those they felt cut in line and started pressing emergency shutdown buttons at the pumps, which stopped gas at the whole station.

"I remember seeing one lady in her car next to me," he said. "All the windows were rolled down, and she had two very small children. They were all beet red, with sweat rolling down the sides of their faces. The kids looked lethargic. There was stuff like that everywhere. It was 120 degrees in the car, and we started to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. Some animals I saw looked like they might be dying."

Yesterday, Houston Mayor Bill White called the fuel shortages in the area "totally unacceptable" but said the evacuation plan was necessary to get the greatest number of people out of harm's way.

"Everybody knows it was totally unacceptable that there was not adequate fuel supplies stashed around the state. That's part of the state [evacuation] plan that's going to need review."

Hal Kooken said he had 14 people, seven cats and two dogs in his house in Huntsville after giving refuge to relatives and finding several families who needed somewhere to stay.

"I'd be fine if I could just get rid of my relatives," he said, laughing about a few hassles he'd had with his brother's family. "I like the strangers just fine."

Kooken was walking around his neighborhood asking people to spare some gas from their cars so he could help some of the families head home.

Shelters

But not everyone was as fortunate as those who found themselves with Kooken or the Miller family.

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