Houston convention center shelters surging number of storm victims and volunteers

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MILES O'BRIEN: Adding to the complexity of the disaster, ExxonMobil acknowledged today Harvey has damaged two of its refineries, causing the release of hazardous pollutants. A full assessment of the damage won't be possible while conditions on the ground remain so dangerous.

One thing that is clear, thousands in Houston have been forced from their homes in need of food, water and a roof over their head. The George R. Brown Convention Center has become the city's largest shelter.

Rachel Osier Lindley is there. She's an editor with Dallas PBS station KERA. She's in Houston, reporting on the storm.

We spoke a short time ago, and I began asking about how many people are there now.

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY, KERA News: Well, yesterday, it was 5,100, and today at 9,100, so it has grown substantially over the past 24 hours.

And they were already at capacity yesterday, but the Red Cross says that they're not going to be turning anyone away. So, they have expanded into other parts of the Convention Center. Pretty much every square inch is being used as either a dormitory or a makeshift hospital, large place in the back where people are sorting donations and bringing in donations of everything from clothes and shoes.

So, it's packed as it can be here. But they don't want to turn anybody away. And the Red Cross says they're currently working to find other places they can bring people, because they don't really anticipate that the need for places to stay will end any time soon.

MILES O'BRIEN: Are things working pretty well there? I recall being post-Katrina at the Convention Center in New Orleans and there were — a lot of systems broke down, including the plumbing, et cetera.

How are things working?

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY: Well, it seems like, so far, so good.

They have had a surge of volunteers who have wanted to help out. And they actually had to turn away people from the day volunteer shifts today.

The people that are staying here that had to evacuate their homes that I have talked with, they say they feel relatively comfortable. They have credited the city with doing a pretty good job of giving them a place to stay.

And I think just the ongoing concern would be what to do as more and more people come here. The Red Cross says that they're working to get people in touch with mental health services, if they need those, and connect with prescriptions because, in many cases, people just fled with the clothes on their back and don't have access to the medications that they need to be taking.

So, some other challenges that we're seeing here.

MILES O'BRIEN: Give us your impressions of what is going on there. I assume there's a range of emotions among people who are in such desperate need right now.

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY: Yes.

I actually — my colleague and I were just talking to a woman who had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. And she relocated to Houston. Of course, you will remember many people who evacuated from New Orleans ended up resettling in Houston.

And she was just beside herself and a bit stunned that this is happening all over again. We also talked to family members of folks who were trying to locate their loved ones in the Convention Center, where they hadn't been able to charge their phone for a few days, but they finally got service again and were relieved to find that they — their grandmother or their brother or sitter was actually here.

And so there have been a lot of reunions in that way. But I have also talked to a man who hasn't spoken to his parents for four days. And he was trying as best he could to keep it together without knowing what had happened to them and being unable the reach them.

MILES O'BRIEN: Have you seen many volunteers who have come to help out?

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY: Yes, so many volunteers.

I talked to someone who had come to sign up to be a volunteer, but they turned her away. And now they're only accepting volunteers for the night shift. And there's also — you see medical professionals walking by.

The Red Cross says that they had a huge amount of the medical country in Houston step up and come to help with addressing any of the medical needs that people had here at the convention center.

So, everyone is really pitching in. And that is just evidenced by what you can see in the back where people have been bringing donations, so many clothes, shoes, a wall of diapers that people have donated. Houston is really stepping up.

And the Red Cross said today that they do need wheelchairs at the Convention Center. So, that's one thing that they're hoping to acquire more in the next few days.

MILES O'BRIEN: All right, we will help get the word out.

Reporter Rachel Osier Lindley, thank you for your time.

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY: Yes, you're welcome.

MILES O'BRIEN: We just got an update from Rachel after we spoke.

She now tells us that the Convention Center is running out of cots.

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