HOUSTON – Of all the places that have been turned into shelters for Hurricane Harvey victims – a megachurch, a ballpark, a gas station, a bowling alley, among them – the one with the most comfortable sleeping arrangements surely must be the Gallery Furniture showroom.
Owner Jim McIngvale, better known as Mattress Mack, threw open a couple of his stores to anyone in need, offering food, clean bathrooms and, of course, luxury bedding.
“If this is what you call a shelter, I might not want to go home,” said 47-year-old India Jackson, who marveled at the silky pillowcases, the $1,000 mattresses and the atrium with its live ocelot and colorful macaws.
With more than 17,000 people flooded out of their houses, big-hearted Texans, religious institutions and businesses have turned their places into unlikely shelters, offering soaked, frightened and disconsolate storm refugees – two-legged and four-legged alike – a safe and warm place to sleep.
Some of these places have proved a homier alternative to the convention centers that have taken in more than 10,000.
At Gallery Furniture in Richmond, just outside Houston, a clown and a face-painter delighted the children on Wednesday. On Tuesday, an out-of-state businessman ordered a lamb chop dinner from a fine Houston restaurant for the roughly 150 people at the store.
To relieve evacuees’ stress, employees direct them to a meditation area, with soft music and a thousand-gallon fish tank with sharks, stingrays and exotic fish.
Jackson, who was evacuated from her home in Katy, Texas, on Monday, said her temporary bed at Mattress Mack’s is a Tempur-Pedic just like the one she has at home, only nicer. “Yeah, I am going to upgrade,” she said.
“Mattress Mack. He’s the most loving person in Houston,” she said. “He turned his store into a resort for refugees.”
And the pampering didn’t stop at people. A pet groomer was there on Wednesday, offering to clean up any soggy dogs in need of a bath or haircut.
In hard-hit Port Arthur, near the Louisiana line, the Max Bowl bowling alley hosted roughly 500 Port Arthur residents, plus 50 to 100 dogs. And a lizard. And a monkey.
Max Bowl general manager Jeff Tolliver Tolliver said that the monkey “was a little surprising” but that the primate, like any other Texan, wouldn’t be turned away.
The Islamic Society of Greater Houston announced it would offer space at several mosques, and televangelist Joel Osteen on Tuesday opened his 16,000-seat megachurch, formerly the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, after getting blistered on social media for not doing so sooner.
The basketball team’s current home, Toyota Center, started taking in evacuees Tuesday, handling the overflow after more than 9,000 sought shelter at the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center.
At least 200 residents of one Houston suburb took cover together for one night in a minor league baseball stadium. Sugar Land Skeeters owners Marcie and Bob Zlotnik said they called the mayor to offer their ballpark as a shelter-in-a-pinch. “Just doing what we can to help people out,” Bob Zlotnik said.
And in badly flooded Katy, an outpost of the popular Texas convenience store chain Buc-ees invited first responders to eat, drink and stay the night.
Airbnb extended for a month its disaster relief program, which began in Houston before Harvey hit and was supposed to run only until Thursday. The program allows Airbnb hosts to offer housing free of charge and helps match available rooms with evacuees.
Many residents whose homes stayed dry invited flooded-out friends, family and neighbors to stay. Others offered to host complete strangers.
Chaya Koual and her husband and six children hitched a ride across town with Tomer Benshushan and Moshiko Chen, a pair of Israelis who have been going out in Chen’s massive Studebaker REO M60 truck to rescue those stranded in waters so high that even a rugged SUV would conk out.
Chen, a cancer survivor who says his bout with illness has imbued him with a renewed sense of responsibility to others, said: “Muslim, Jewish, we don’t care. We help everybody.”
The pair blasted through flooded areas and churned across abandoned stretches of highway littered with debris in order to bring Koual and her family to the home of Natan Vaisman, who opened his door to people he had never met before.
“If there’s a disaster coming or a war,” Vaisman said, “everybody becomes family to each other.”
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