HOUSTON (AP) — For Tina Rios, her family and hundreds of other people, shelter from the winter storm that has left much of Houston without power or heat came from an unusual place: a furniture store.
Sitting at one of the many tables on display Wednesday inside Gallery Furniture's cavernous showroom, Rios, 32, explained how she “started stressing really, really hard” after her suburban Houston mobile home lost power at around 4:30 a.m. on Monday and she, her husband, Eric Bennis, and their three children were soon able to see their breath inside. After spending one frigid night there, they realized they needed to find somewhere warm to wait out the blackout, not so much for the parents, who grew up in New Jersey and are used to cold, but for the children, ages 3, 9 and 10.
“They’re Texas babies,” said Bennis, a 31-year-old tow truck driver. “This is the first time they’ve seen white on the ground.”
They heard Gallery Furniture's owner, Jim McIngvale, had opened his main store in north Houston as a shelter, so they made the hourlong drive from Channelview.
“We came in and they welcomed us with open arms,” said an emotional Rios.
As utility crews raced Wednesday to restore power to nearly 3.4 million customers in Texas and other parts of the U.S. while another blast of ice and snow threatened to cause more chaos in places that aren't used to such weather, McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack," said Houston has been good to his business and his employees and that he was just doing his part to help.
“We all have a responsibility for the well-being of the community and we think this is our responsibility,” said McIngvale, who later walked around the store greeting people and offering them doughnuts and kolaches — Czech pastries that are popular in parts of Texas.
McIngvale previously opened the store, which has a generator that can power the location for several days, as a shelter after flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 inundated much of Houston. He has also provided meals for people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike in 2017, McIngvale has had to take precautions to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Anyone entering the makeshift shelter must wear a mask and bottles of hand sanitizer were stationed throughout the store.
People sat around dining room tables in the showroom on Wednesday and ate food located near a back kitchen or bags of chips and other snacks taken from small metal buckets set up near the entrance.
At a playground inside, kids could be heard yelling and laughing as they came down a slide. Other kids played with their tablets while their parents made phone calls to see if power had been restored at their homes. Those still without power planned to stay another night on one of the store's $3,000 couches or $5,000 beds.
On Tuesday, more than 300 people spent the night, including Stephanie Anderson, 29, and her 8-year-old son, Jaden. Their home lost power Monday afternoon and after a cold night of sleeping under three blankets and with no water and only candlelight to see by, Anderson said they came to the furniture store on Tuesday after finding out about it on Facebook.
“I’m just thankful that we’re here and we’re warm. If we didn’t come here, I’m afraid we would still be at home,” she said.
Anderson and her son shared a couch Tuesday night and she tried to keep him distracted Wednesday so that he wouldn't worry too much.
Kids “really want to know what’s going on. Why do we have to live here? Why is it so cold and why don’t we have electricity?” said Anderson, who works in car sales.
In a moment of levity, Anderson and another woman staying at the store, Yvonne Woolard, compared notes over which furniture they had slept on.
“I slept on a $5,000 recliner over there. ... It reclined to a bed,” said Woolard, 59, adding that although it was comfortable, she'd rather be home and planned to head there later Wednesday to check on her cat and whether power had been restored.
McIngvale said he'd keep his store open as a shelter for as long as he could, if necessary.
“We’ve been through tougher fights than this. We’ll get through this,” McIngvale said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70