On Aug. 25, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas with 130 mph winds and historic, torrential rainfall that devastated a wide swath of southeastern Texas.
The Killeen area was spared the brunt of the hurricane’s fury, but two days later, Harvey became our storm, too.
That’s when the first of nearly 450 evacuees from flood-ravaged Brazoria County began to arrive in Bell County for placement in temporary shelters.
Many of these people were forced to leave on short notice amid quickly rising floodwaters. Some were rescued by boat, some by police vehicles, others by helicopter.
Electronic and print media have been replete with heart-wrenching images of weary victims being plucked from flooded homes, carried by rescue workers or pulled into boats being guided along swollen, muddy waterways that had been neighborhood streets just hours before.
The evacuees were placed on buses, not knowing when they would see their homes again — and not knowing what kind of damage they would return to.
Most of the flood victims had little time to gather their possessions. Many traveled with only the clothes on their backs, leaving behind everything that had been familiar and comfortable — until Harvey turned their world upside down.
On Sunday, these Brazoria County residents began arriving at the Bell County Expo Center, where they were checked in before being moved on to shelters in Killeen, Harker Heights, Belton and Temple.
Over the course of the next few days, Central Texans responded with an incredible outpouring of compassion and support — filling the donation collection center in Temple to overflowing and doing the same to the Killeen and Harker Heights collection areas.
Volunteers came forward in large numbers as well, as area residents worked long hours to help sort donated items and prepare them for delivery. Others worked at shelter locations to assist workers there.
By midday Thursday, County Judge Jon Burrows put out a statement that the county had more than enough donated clothes, food and personal items to meet the evacuees’ needs. No more donated items would be accepted.
In three short days, Central Texans’ tremendous compassion and generosity had bridged the gap between the lives these evacuees left behind and the ones they encountered here.
From the outset, the county did much more than give the storm victims a place to sleep.
Many victims escaped with their pets, but the animals had to be placed in the county shelter for the short term. Still, officials arranged to bus evacuees over to visit their furry friends, as well as to bond with therapy animals on site.
The county also made arrangements to take busloads of evacuees shopping so they could buy needed items. They also offered trips to local laundromats.
The Salvation Army worked overtime to ensure that evacuees at each shelter location received three meals a day.
And that’s just some of what our community did on this end.
A team of Killeen police officers headed to Houston early in the week and subsequently rescued more than 100 people from flooded neighborhoods.
On Thursday, a group of about 50 local H-E-B employees headed to the Houston area to help restock and reopen more than 30 stores that had been closed since Harvey devastated the area.
It’s not known when some of the storm victims will be allowed to return to their homes. Bell County Emergency Manager Michael Harmon said it could be several weeks; it’s a matter of having electricity in the homes.
Until that time arrives, the evacuees will be calling Killeen’s old Fairway Middle School home. All evacuees were moved to that location by the end of the day Friday, to streamline relief efforts.
Meanwhile, about 50 children from evacuated families are already enrolled in Killeen and Harker Heights schools. They will start school this week, with the school district providing free breakfast and lunch services as well as transportation from the shelter.
It’s important that parents of school-age children impress on them how important it is to make these new students feel welcome, especially at a time when they are likely feeling out of place and anxious about their future.
The storm victims living among us are more than our temporary guests; they’re now our neighbors. We can’t simply forget about them as the days go by and Harvey fades from the headlines.
Over the coming weeks and months, the Herald will continue to follow the story — providing regular updates on some of the evacuees as they face the challenges and choices involved in rebuilding their lives.
Some storm victims may decide to make our community their permanent home — as was the case after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The Herald will stay in touch with these evacuees as they build a new life here in Central Texas.
Herald readers will be able to keep up with the continuing story both through the print edition and the paper’s website, kdhnews.com.
Online viewers will find a host of special features, including videos and slideshows chronicling the local relief effort — as well as the larger story of the hurricane’s aftermath.
Readers who still want to help the local evacuees, as well as assist with the recovery effort in Southeast Texas, can text HARVEY to 96362 for regular updates and links to previous articles.
The Herald will also maintain an updated list of help agencies and how to contact them to get involved.
Harvey is gone, but our community must continue to focus on helping those whose lives were impacted by the devastating storm.
Just as people outside our community reached out to help the Killeen area after the tragic Luby’s massacre in 1991 and the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, it’s our obligation to do the same for those who need it most today.
It’s not just a good thing to do. It’s the right thing.