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Flooding Forces Thousands Of People From Their Houston-Area Homes


The rain from Tropical Storm Harvey has just not let up here at all. FEMA has now activated over 8,000 federal workers to help with rescue and relief efforts here. They join the 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard who were pressed into action by the governor yesterday.

And many people here are facing this difficult choice about where to go. Houston's downtown convention center is housing at least 2,500 people right now, and more are arriving every hour. The Red Cross has opened shelters. And we're at a hotel in north Houston, where people trying to flee to Dallas got caught on flooded roads. They pulled over. They - the lucky ones were able to pay for a room, and they're now hoping that the waters in the parking lot here don't rise too much more.


Huh. So David, some people have made it out. Thousands are taking refuge in San Antonio and Dallas and Austin, driving hundreds of miles on flooded highways to escape the effects of the storm. And joining us from Houston is NPR's Rebecca Hersher. She's been spending time with families who are under evacuation orders.

Hey, Becky.


MARTIN: What are the choices for people who are told that their homes are no longer safe?

HERSHER: Well, first there's a question of whether to stay or leave at all. So in a lot of neighborhoods and towns in this area, there just isn't enough space at the shelters. So people who are being affected by evacuation orders, even in places where there's a mandatory evacuation order, what that actually looks like in practice is a lot more loose.

So people who don't want to leave generally aren't being forced to. And in a lot of cases, people left their homes actually before an evacuation order. It's actually yet more evidence that the emergency system here is under a lot of strain.

MARTIN: So people were leaving before they were even told to. Does that mean they could tell they were in danger before the governments actually warned them?

HERSHER: Exactly. And you just imagine the local emergency responders are totally overwhelmed. They can't get ahead of this storm. And even after evacuation order, it's sometimes unclear where to go.

So take for example one family I met. This family is from west of Houston. I met them yesterday. They're the McMahons. Tammy McMahon has been a nurse at a local high school in Bay City, Texas, for 21 years. And that's one of those jobs where you really can't help but get to know people.

TAMMY MCMAHON: I know a lot of kids, and I know their parents, yes ma'am.

HERSHER: So Tammy and her family, which includes a bunch of relatives, all the way from kids to grandparents, were hunkered down in their homes for the first part of the storm. There were flash flood warnings, but they stayed. And all of Friday and Saturday and Sunday, it seemed like they had been spared. And then everything changed at midnight on Sunday.

MCMAHON: It's frightening to be told at midnight by the local police that this is life and death; evacuate. We were told that it's going to be catastrophic flooding.

HERSHER: So the switch just flipped from we're OK to we're in imminent danger. They packed everything they could. It took a couple hours. It was scary.

MCMAHON: We left at 4 in the morning, so we drove in the dark. It was pouring rain. It was windy. As we were driving, on either side of us, you could see reflections.

HERSHER: Reflections of the headlights off lakes where there had been pastures just the day before. The shelter in town was also being evacuated, so they went to a motel in a town about 45 minutes away, which is where I met them - exhausted, holding it together but knowing this was just the beginning.

That's the thing about this particular storm that's so hard on evacuees. It's not just one evacuation for a lot of people. It's evacuation upon evacuation, over and over as the storm lingers and keeps making places that were safe into disaster areas. Later that day, the McMahons' motel was part of an area that was evacuated again. Tammy just wants it to be over so they can go home.

What are you worried about going back?

MCMAHON: I'm worried about losing my home. (Sobbing) I'm worried that we won't have homes to go back to - not just myself but our entire community.

MARTIN: Oh, that's hard to hear. And you just think about the stress of having to go through multiple evacuations. Becky, what have you learned about the nature of this storm that has made that so?

HERSHER: Well - and it is. It's so hard to hear because people are - they're just stuck. But part of it is that this storm is moving so slowly. Right? It's hanging out for days and days, dumping rain. But as much as we talk about how it's lingering, this storm isn't entirely stationary. It's moving little by little. And there's not a lot of notice about how that happens. So over the course of hours, it will move, and you won't necessarily know where. So if you imagine the whole entire region - this is a really big area.


HERSHER: It reaches for at least 100 miles in most directions, this metro area. And the ground is saturated throughout that area. So depending on how the storm moves...

MARTIN: So it just feels like nothing's safe.

HERSHER: Exactly. And manmade structures as well - rivers, dams, reservoirs react in different ways. So places that seemed like shelters - are a threat.

MARTIN: NPR's Rebecca Hersher reporting from Texas. Thanks, Becky.

HERSHER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rebecca Hersher is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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