It was a Friday when the rain began.
As it fell, Tom Miltenberger and his wife, Charise, began to worry about their home in Missouri City, Texas. They flicked on the TV and saw Hurricane Harvey slowly carve through the small towns in Texas like a band saw carving through plywood.
“That’s when they started sending out hurricane warnings,” Tom Miltenberger said, thinking back to Friday, Aug. 25. “At that time, the evacuations were only voluntary.”
Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 Hurricane that touched down in southeast Texas, bringing winds of 130 mph and over 30 inches of rain in certain areas. As the rain fell, all Tom Miltenberger and his wife could think about was the Brazos River, a large river that flows close to where they live. With up to 10 inches of rain a day pouring into local tributaries and bayous that eventually flow into the Brazos River, Tom Miltenberger said it was only a matter of time before it overflowed and its raging rapids destroyed their town. That was his biggest fear.
“Everyone in town knows the river can fill up to 59 feet before it overflows its banks,” Tom Miltenberger said. “After 59 feet, we’d be underwater.”
By Monday, Aug. 28, the evacuation in Missouri City was mandatory.
Tom Miltenberger graduated from Waynesburg College in 1977, receiving his BA in English. Forty years later, he works as a Direct Sales Representative for Comcast in Texas.
“I know it seems crazy, but when I graduated, there were just so many job opportunities down south,” he said. “With limited economic and employment opportunities, I took a chance and I fell in love.”
As a Waynesburg College graduate, Tom Miltenberger said his faith has always been important to him. In fact, he said it was his faith along with the prayers from his family and friends that kept him positive during Hurricane Harvey.
“I had a strong base of family and friends all over the U.S. praying for my wife and I,” he said.
But sometimes, even faith wasn’t enough to keep Tom Miltenberger calm.
“I remember talking to God, asking him why this was happening to us,” he said. “I knew there had to be a reason behind all of this.”
Soon after getting word of the mandatory evacuation, Tom and Charise moved quickly.
“If we didn’t listen and refused to evacuate, we were told that no one would be able to come rescue us,” Tom Miltenberger said.
They made sure to pack the necessities—important documents like birth certificates and social security cards, clothing, iPads, toothbrushes and their two dogs—before driving away from their home, hoping that it would still be as intact when they returned as it was in their rear-view mirror. As they drove away and left their subdivision, the streets were lined with police cars directing traffic. Tom Miltenberger said it was like a disaster film.
“To be honest, we had no idea where we were going,” he said. “We tried booking a hotel, but every room was full.”
Running out of options, they parked outside a local strip mall and began to pray for somewhere to go. Shortly after, their prayers were answered as a sheriff in an SUV appeared and slowly approached their vehicle, making sure they were okay. Tom Miltenberger said the sheriff was able to lead them to the nearest makeshift shelter: a high school in the Houston area. Seven miles of worrisome travel later, they arrived at the Red Cross-sponsored shelter, and their first impression was fear.
“When we walked into the shelter, we saw every type of person you could imagine,” Tom Miltenberger said. “There were folks in wheelchairs, indigenous people, people of every race, every body type. It was frightening to be just another face in that crowd.”
They sat in the school cafeteria for three hours, soaking wet from walking through the rain for only a few seconds. Suddenly, a voice boomed over a loudspeaker, advising everyone that due to the large volume of animals present at this shelter, everyone with pets needed to immediately transfer over to the junior high school.
Tom Miltenberger and his wife looked at each other, then down at their two dogs. Shortly after, they were hauling all their belongings onto a school bus with all the other pet-owning outcasts.
The new shelter was smaller, but it was another Red Cross shelter. This impressed Tom Miltenberger.
“The Red Cross volunteers were absolutely incredible,” he said. “I don’t think they ever went to sleep. They were constantly checking on people and helping them.”
When they signed in, Charise Miltenberger pointed out she was registered nurse, so she was continuously called on to help others. This is when Tom Miltenberger had an epiphany:
“It was all sort of starting to come together,” he said. “That was one of the reasons God had us come here.”
After their first night at the shelter, Tom and Charise slowly became used to the shelter lifestyle. They observed people bringing in donated clothes and paper bags filled with fresh fruit and other types of foods. To avoid sleeping on a concrete floor, they spread out the donated clothing and blankets to make temporary beds for themselves.
“It was kind of like what I’d imagine being at camp is like,” Tom Miltenberger said. “Everyone slept on the floor close to each other with our pets, and eventually, we all became really great friends.”
Tom and Charise Miltenberger broke up the monotony of the three days they spent in the shelter by talking and hanging out with their new friends, and from time to time, Tom Miltenberger would pull out his iPad to check the status of the Brazos River.
The sun came out on Wednesday, Aug. 30, and the final result of the river was 56-feet high, only three feet short of the point of the 59-foot overflow point.
Despite these victories, home was still out of reach for the Miltenbergers.
“With a mandatory evacuation, you can’t go back to your home for at least 5 days,” Tom Miltenberger said.
After exchanging contact information, Tom Miltenberger and his wife said their goodbyes to their new shelter friends who they otherwise never would’ve met and headed to a vacant hotel room for a night.
Their home is 28 minutes away from Houston, Texas, where Harvey destroyed nearly 40,000 homes with 50 inches of rain and 29 tornados. The Miltenberger home only sustained minor damage from the tornadoes that passed through, so their only concern when returning home was the food that spoiled in their refrigerator while they were gone.
For that, Tom Miltenberger was thankful.
“It really was the grace of God that nothing else happened to us,” he said.
Looking back, even though it was a traumatic and worrisome experience, Tom Miltenberger said he and his wife believe they experienced God’s grace.
“My wife got the chance to help people, we got to witness first-hand the power of the Red Cross and we gained a few great friends—which isn’t easy to do at my age,” he said. “God knew why this was happening all along.”