Fleeing Hurricane Harvey, they land in Kansas: ‘God wanted us here’

Jimmie and Mary Hall have been through so many hurricanes in Louisiana and Texas over the years that you need two hands to count them all.

Alicia. Ike. Jerry. Lili. Katrina. Rita.

But when a meteorologist they trust announced that Hurricane Harvey was closing in and could bring more than 50 inches of rain to their home in coastal Baytown, Texas, they decided enough was enough.

“We’re hurricane magnets,” Mary said. “The hurricanes are chasing us.”

They packed all they could into their 1999 Isuzu pickup, along with their daughter, Amanda, and her three children and headed north. They spent a week or so in Oklahoma and watched as Harvey ravaged Houston, Baytown and southeast Texas.

They knew they couldn’t go back to the house they rented, which had been damaged by flooding and was about to be sold by its owner. But they weren’t sure where they could go.

A relative of Jimmie’s mentioned he was moving to Kansas and had a house they could use in Wichita. Mary loved the idea.

“Kansas,” she said, “doesn’t have hurricanes.”

They spent time in Oklahoma, looking for work and a place to stay, before they decided to accept the relative’s offer. But when they arrived in Wichita, they discovered the house wasn’t available after all. They spent their final dollars living in hotels.

They went to the Salvation Army and American Red Cross seeking assistance, they said, but were turned away because they didn’t meet the criteria as victims of the hurricane. They’d have to return to Texas to get help.

“We had spent our last ten dollars on gas,” Mary said. “We couldn’t afford to go back.”

Their clothes were wet and dirty. They had no food. They faced the prospect of sleeping in the truck.

Amanda Hall searched online for “family shelters” and found the Salvation Army and St. Anthony Family Shelter. The Salvation Army had no space, so Mary went to St. Anthony downtown.

“I walk through the front door and I’m way down the hallway for five or ten minutes” before someone came through a door and saw her, Mary said.

An official was summoned to help. As he was gathering information to see if the shelter could take them in, he asked, “How’d you get in?”

“The front door,” Mary said. “I just walked in.”

“That door’s locked,” he said.

He went and checked the door. Sure enough, it was locked for anyone coming from the outside. Yet it had opened for her. A devout Christian, Mary took that as a sign.

“God wanted us here,” she said. “God’s opening doors that should be shut.”

They were able to move into the shelter the first week of September. Since then, 14-year-old Debra, 10-year-old Dallas and 7-year-old Kevin have enrolled in local schools.

Dallas celebrated his first birthday at a shelter in McKinney, Texas, as his family sought safety from Hurricane Ike. He turned 10 at Anthony Family Shelter as a refugee from Harvey.

“I don’t want to be in a hurricane ever again,” Mary said.

The shelter even threw a birthday party for Dallas, a memory that made his face brighten as he smiled shyly.

Amanda worked for Denny’s in Texas and she has just started a job with a local Denny’s restaurant. Jimmie had a warehouse job in Texas and he’d welcome a similar job in the Wichita area.

“I’m still looking” for work, he said.

They’ve found a house to rent and hope to move in early next month.

“He’s going to have blind faith we’re going to have money” for the rent by then, Mary said of the landlord.

The family has been humbled by help they’ve received. They need furniture for their rental house and winter clothing — shoes, coats, apparel. There are other obstacles to clear, too. But now they have hope.

“Everybody’s been nice to us,” Mary said, especially the staff at the shelter. “They’ve helped us. They’ve encouraged us when I’ve been down.

“Even a couple of policemen we’ve stopped on the road: ‘We’re lost. Can you help us?’ And they have. I asked a policeman I saw at the grocery store, ‘What’s the best, safest neighborhood for children?’”

He recommended a neighborhood on his beat near East High — and that happens to be where the house they’re moving to is located. The children are eager to see snow for the first time.

“I can’t wait,” Debra said with a big smile.

Mary has never seen the leaves change during autumn. She’s never lived through ‘a blue norther’ — the sudden drop in temperatures when a cold front moves through. She’s never been to a pumpkin patch or a real Christmas tree farm.

All of these await the family in Kansas.

“This is home now,” Mary said.

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger