Residents greet Harvey evacuees with open arms


As Hurricane Harvey intensified into a Category 4 tropical system, Elizabeth Leija and her family made a familiar drive from Freeport to Kilgore to escape the catastrophic storm.

Leija and other members of her extended family have found refuge at Forest Home Baptist Church twice before during other storms that had the Texas Gulf Coast in its crosshairs, but she does not remember much about the first two times they escaped to East Texas.

“This is the third time we’ve had to evacuate because of the weather, and we really appreciate and thank this church that every time we have been on the way or running form a hurricane, they have always welcomed us very good and treated us with everything,” Leija’s sister Maggie Luna said. “We have a lot of help from them. We’re very thankful.”

The first time they had to evacuate, Forest Home Baptist Church Minister of Education Pat Monk said, they went to First Baptist Church. When Monk approached First Baptist Church’s David Hampton about helping house people, Hampton suggested Leija’s family reposition to Forest Home.

“They came and they stayed with us about two or three days; it wasn’t long,” Monk said.

The church offered to cook for them, but the family insisted on doing their own cooking and then collected an offering for the church and asked if there was some way they could help the church.

Before leaving, Monk said, they cleaned the building, swept the floors and stacked all the mattresses they had used during their stay.

“They went above and beyond what anybody could ever ask,” Monk said. “They have been in our hearts, and so we had another hurricane come a year or so after that, and I don’t remember who called who… When we saw this one coming, I think they called this time, and they called last Thursday or Friday and said, ‘We’re on our way,’ and we said, ‘Come on.’ That’s how the relationship has built with them.”

After staying in the gymnasium area previously, the evacuees are calling the church’s newer Torrence Student Center home during their stay this week.

At first, they thought about going to San Antonio to stay with other family members, but the projected path of Harvey looked as though the hurricane could still reach the Alamo City after making landfall.

“From San Antonio it seemed like it was going that way, so we had to run back where we usually go,” Leija said.

Luna added the people of Forest Home help make them feel at home while they are away from Freeport.

Alma Treviño, who evacuated from Fresno, which is also near the Brazos River, said she was thankful for the church’s help as they arrived at Forest Home Monday after spending the weekend in a hotel in Longview.

“It’s too expensive for us, and I come here because I need the help because I don’t have money for the next few days. I don’t have a job or money for the groceries,” she said.

Treviño plans to go back to Fresno once the roads are passable again, she said.

During previous storms the stay was limited to two to three days, but with 95 percent of roads in Houston experiencing flooding through Monday afternoon, Luna said, it could be next Tuesday before they can return to Freeport.

“That’s a maybe because of the floods and everything, we don’t know if it’s going to go down or not,” she said. “So far they did evacuate Brazoria County already, so there’s no way we’re going to be able to go back home until next week.”

With a connected sports area available, the church set up some TVs and collected children’s movies to help the evacuees get their minds off of what was happening back home.

When they left Freeport, Leija said, it was a normal rain, but information from the city convinced them the Brazos River could threaten their homes like it never had in the past.

“We already know which streets flood the most, and my perspective not knowing nothing about the city, I thought they had it under control because it looked like they were prepared,” Leija said. With communication from the city through one family member, they learned, “They were showing the people comfort but the reality is that the pumps are so old and they were more worried about the flooding, the lights… They were saying the septic and when they’re doing the flushing, everything goes in one.”

Leija’s concern, as well as other family members, was what happened after the storm’s initial impact with the nearby river.

Although the Brazos River has overflowed its banks before, Luna said, it has never gotten to the point of reaching their homes.

“We don’t know at this point how it’s going to be because of all the water in Houston, all the rain and it’s still raining over there,” she said. “We really hope we get back and in our homes and nothing else happens. We don’t know because water just keeps on rising, and whiting the 12 hours, I believe it’s two and a half foot already, so we don’t know how bad it’s going to be when we get back.”

Leija’s mother did not evacuate with her family, but will need to leave the area. Instead of coming to Kilgore, though, they will be going to a public shelter.

With a little more than 60 people, including children, and their pets expected by the end of the day, the church is not taking any more evacuees.

Last time, Leija said, the need was limited to shelter and food, but this time they did not have as much time to prepare for the more extended stay.

The families arrived in Kilgore with about two sets of clothes, Monk said. After putting out a request for clothes and other resources on Facebook, he said, they received enough to fill an entire truck bed.

“God provides us resources. Everything in this room is God’s. Whatever we can provide, however we can help them, we’re doing it,” Monk said.

“More than anything we really appreciate everything that they do for us,” Luna said. “We don’t know what we’re going to come to. Number one, we can’t get back because on the way from here to Houston we just can’t make it back.”

Along with local hotels and motels providing a safe shelter for people fleeing Harvey’s destruction, First Baptist Church is also waiting to open their doors if needed.

“We are still on standby, waiting to hear from the Red Cross,” said Glenn Young of First Baptist Church of Kilgore. “We have been in contact with our local officials and are prepared to house as many as 100 storm victims but have not received word from the Red Cross yet. This is probably indicative of the size of the disaster, and that search and rescue operations are still ongoing in the Houston area.”

If anyone would like to help evacuees, Monk said, the best way is to donate Walmart gift cards to help with food and any other needs they may have during their extended stay in Kilgore.