In 'the darkest of times,' this big-hearted man brought hope to his city

Adriana Navarro
1 / 2

In 'the darkest of times,' this big-hearted man brought hope to his city

A sea of nearly knee-deep water had flooded the streets of Houston as 25-year-old Ariel Segoviano and his family piled into their small red car, heading for higher ground during Hurricane Harvey's onslaught. Segoviano's brother had told them that a furniture store he was familiar with was opening its doors to people seeking shelter. With the floodwaters already creeping through their front door, the family decided to leave.

They lived only 15 minutes away from the store, but it took them double the amount of time to drive through the flooded streets. By what Segoviano described as a miracle, an 18-wheeler came through the streets. Their car followed close behind as it parted the sea of floodwater before them.

Upon their arrival at Gallery Furniture, they were not only greeted with dry clothes, warm food and a comfortable place to sleep, but also a familiar face to welcome them.

Their host and the owner of Gallery Furniture, Jim McIngvale, more commonly known as "Mattress Mack," has been lauded as a Harvey Hero after turning his store into a disaster facility during the storm. And McIngvale certainly fits the profile for the stories AccuWeather is revisiting as the decade comes to a close. Mattress Mack has been right in the thick of some of the most extreme weather events of the last 10 years and is one of the heroic people who has carried out selfless acts during those disasters to help those in need.

An earlier shipment of sweatshirts and shirts for the employees had been distributed to his guests to replace their soaked clothes. The restaurant in the store distributed meals free of charge. Mattresses in the warehouse were pulled out from storage and put to use as places for Houstonians to sleep on when the furniture store's bedroom and sofa groups were filled. When blankets ran out, blue moving blankets were distributed. Hundreds of people showed up. No one was turned away.

"It's kind of a natural-made disaster facility, and so we're proud to open our doors and help people in need," McIngvale told AccuWeather in an interview.

The Hurricane Harvey calamity in 2017 was the second time he had opened his doors to the public during a natural disaster. The first time was during 2005 when Katrina hit and people from Louisiana were looking for places to stay. Two years after Harvey, McIngvale found himself housing Houstonians once more as Tropical Storm Imelda caused devastating flooding this past summer.

The Houstonians came to the store in waves, sopping wet and a few in a daze as Hurricane Harvey stalled over the city. Children and parents, the young and the elderly, people of all ages and walks of life flocked to Gallery Furniture as "all hell was breaking loose."

Hurricane Harvey had slammed into the coast of Texas on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, as a Category 4 hurricane. The storm stalled for four days, deluging southeastern Texas and western Louisiana. The highest total rainfall in the nation's history, 60.58 inches, was recorded in Nederland, Texas, about 90 miles east of Houston.

Harvey remains the second-most costly hurricane in U.S. history after accounting for inflation behind Katrina from 2005, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

At least 68 people in Texas died from direct effects of the storm, amounting to the largest number of direct deaths from a tropical cyclone in Texas since 1919. There were an additional 35 deaths from indirect causes.

"It was pretty surreal because so many people came in all night long," McIngvale said. "They were shell-shocked, PTSD, whatever you want to call it. They were traumatized and they were wet and they were miserable, and they had lost their belongings to 3 feet of dirty water, so they were certainly in a bad space. When they came in and saw me at the front, at least they saw somebody they knew and recognized, they knew they were safe in here."

While staying at the store, Segoviano found he had to keep his mind off of the devastation happening beyond the doors of their safe house. Seeing that McIngvale was asking for volunteers to help incoming guests, Segoviano stepped up to the task.

"It was the darkest of times, but it was also a good time to see everybody come together to help one another regardless of political preference, regardless of what neighborhood they lived in," McIngvale said. "We were all here helping each other."

Members of the military, civilians, first responders, even an astronaut, stayed at the shelter provided by the two locations of the store.

The owner of Gallery Furniture provided breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between for his guests, even coordinating with rapper Trae Tha Truth and DJ Mr. Rogers in high-water rescue efforts.

People volunteered to come in, including a group of young musicians who played in the warehouse. A local barbershop volunteered to give haircuts, and Payless ShoeSource and Vans donated footwear.

"We believe that the essence of living is giving. We have wonderful employees who volunteer their time and come up for all of these things," McIngvale said. "We feel good about being able to help people who are less fortunate than ourselves and hopefully give them better hope for the future because as human beings we all need hope."

During his time volunteering, Segoviano found himself approached by McIngvale.

"Do you have a job, son?" Segoviano recalled McIngvale asking him. "You need to go upstairs and get hired. I need you on my payroll right now."

By the end of his stay, Segoviano had joined the Gallery Furniture employees.

"Just hearing those words were amazing and such a great opportunity," Segoviano said.

Valery Salas's house was spared during Harvey, but she came to the furniture store to volunteer and, like Segoviano, was hired.

"When you're in need, that's what we do here in Houston. That's how we are, just like Mack is. That he just ran to it and I'm going to do something. That's how we all are," Salas told AccuWeather.

Although the store was a refuge from the storm, most people only stayed a night or two before returning to check on their homes.

"It was a trying time for everybody, and the one instinct that you can't hide from us humans is we all want to go home," McIngvale said. "And those residents wanted to get back home as fast as possible, no matter how bad of shape their house was in so they could start reclaiming that wonderful place called home, and we were happy to have them."

Catastrophic flooding damaged millions of households, including Segoviano's home.

"We found out that the water got to the house up to the knee, so we did lose a couple things. Thank goodness we were able to cut the sheetrock off of the walls. We were able to get new items, fix the floor," Segoviano told AccuWeather. Today, he and his family are settled back into their home.

"Thank God. Thank Mattress Mack," Segoviano said. "Through such bad destruction comes great things at the end. Always keep your mind up, always keep your hopes up, and after the storm comes the light. I believe that."

Additional reporting by Bill Wadell in Houston.