RICHMOND, Texas — As a native of St. Bernard Parish, Charles Arcement is a veteran at outlasting hurricanes. There were Betsy and Camille in his younger days. And in 2005, a decade after he moved to a Houston suburb, he returned to Louisiana to organize the rescue of relatives stranded by Katrina.
But Tropical Storm Harvey's flooding presented an unfamiliar dilemma for Arcement, whose family was displaced by the rising Brazos River, expected to reach record levels in the wake of the historic deluge. He remained under a mandatory evacuation order Wednesday, along with thousands of other residents of Fort Bend County, which abuts Houston's southwestern border.
"They're saying some people won't be back in their homes for three to four months," said Arcement, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Sugar Land. "We haven't even flooded yet, and because the streets are dry, you think you're safe. But the Brazos River is coming."
After authorities told them to leave their homes, Arcement and hundreds of other evacuees took refuge at an unconventional shelter: Gallery Furniture on West Grand Parkway, which opened its doors to flood victims and National Guard troops in search of a warm meal and a comfy mattress.
They are among roughly 30,000 local residents displaced by Harvey, according to federal estimates. More than 9,000 of those fled to the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, which became overwhelmed by the number of evacuees.
Dozens of those families have been camped out at the furniture store since Saturday night, spreading out on sofas and Tempur-Pedics and munching on an array of gourmet meals donated by local businesses. On Wednesday morning, the store's guests helped themselves to a spread of kolaches and orange juice for breakfast.
"It's like a vacation for the kids," said Arcement's son Robert, who came to the shelter with his wife and their 7-year-old daughter. "They don't want to leave."
The storm victims expressed profuse gratitude to the store's owner, Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale, a local businessman known for his commercials and generosity to the community — and not just in times of crisis.
Both of McIngvale's Gallery Furniture locations here have hosted about 400 people a night since Harvey hit. He set up a similar shelter during Katrina, when some 250,000 people evacuated to Houston from the New Orleans area.
"It's the way I was raised," McIngvale said. "We were obligated to open our doors and welcome these people in, to give them a comfortable and safe place to recharge."
While some of the evacuees managed to return home Wednesday, many, like Tina Santos, still had not been able to assess the damage to their homes.
Santos, whose family lives in the Grand Mission subdivision of Richmond, fled her home Saturday under dramatic circumstances, heeding the warnings of a fire and rescue team.
She had been cooking on a grill, having already lost power, when authorities told her to drop everything and leave.
"We had to climb over our neighborhood's wall, walk through thigh-high water to the West Park Tollway, and then a firetruck brought a ladder for us to climb up on to the freeway, where a bus was waiting," Santos recalled.
The bus took Santos and her family to the Gallery Furniture shelter, which offered families — and their pets — free accommodations, including toys for the children.
Most of the guests slept on mattresses or sofas in an atrium of the furniture store that's being converted to a "Made in America" exhibit. They were assigned to cubicles that Arcement's wife, Cindy, described as small "apartments," as they offered a semblance of privacy and seclusion.
The atrium is lined with American flags and divided by a large indoor pond under a high ceiling of glass windows. Large cages at the end of the pond house rare species of large tropical birds. The store's main exhibits contain an aquarium. Two women with breathing machines slept there, as did the National Guard troops.
"We couldn't have asked for a better place to stay while dealing with this," Santos said. "We've had not just food but hot food every day."
McIngvale, the store's owner, said Houston faces a "daunting" recovery that he believes will make the city stronger than ever.
"It's not about being right-wing or left-wing," he said. "It's about being a Texan and being an American."