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Texas is frozen and in crisis. A furniture store owner has emerged as a hero — again.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/18/2021 Cathy Free
a person standing in front of a store: Gallery Furniture in Houston has opened its stores as shelters for those in need of food, water and heat. © David J. Phillip/AP Gallery Furniture in Houston has opened its stores as shelters for those in need of food, water and heat.

Houston furniture store owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale is known for his showmanship, even airing television commercials in which he’s actually wearing a mattress to draw attention to his stores.

But McIngvale is becoming more famous for something else: turning his expansive showrooms into lifesaving shelters.

He opened his Gallery Furniture stores to people who fled Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019.

Now he’s doing it for those who have been hit hard by a deadly winter storm that has left more than 3 million Texans without power and running water in record-setting freezing temperatures.

“The logistics are a little hard, but we’re making it work,” said McIngvale. “The main thing is to get people out of the cold.”

The state’s power grid, isolated from the rest of the country, failed to meet demand in the frigid weather, as residents scramble to stay warm, dry and safe. Many who need medical care that depends on electricity are in dire conditions — and livid at how unprepared the state was for the ice and snow.

One unsympathetic mayor took to Facebook to demand that “lazy” people get electricity and water on their own. Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Tex., removed his post and resigned after writing that he was “sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

Texas mayor tells residents to fend for themselves during power outage: ‘Only the strong will survive’

At Gallery Furniture, McIngvale is having none of that.

Anyone is welcome to use the beds and sofas in his showrooms, take in a movie or basketball game on his big screen televisions and sit down to a hot meal, said McIngvale, 70.

“Obviously there’s a lot of angst among the community coming in here. They’re shellshocked,” he said. “They’ve been home for days in the cold with no electricity, no heat, no water, no plumbing.”

a group of people standing in front of a store: People take shelter in a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter in Houston. © Zach Chambers/Bloomberg People take shelter in a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter in Houston.

Since Tuesday, about 350 people a night have taken him up on the offer at two of his three stores, while up to 800 have come in each day to warm up and get coffee, snacks or a meal in the cafeteria.

While the store has power supplied by a generator filled with 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel, only one faucet is working because of frozen pipes, said McIngvale.

He brought in portable toilets and rigged a special flush system in the restrooms with extra water.

a group of people sitting at a table: Owner Jim McIngvale collects trash inside his Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter Wednesday in Houston. © David J. Phillip/AP Owner Jim McIngvale collects trash inside his Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter Wednesday in Houston.

McIngvale has also paid food vendors to bring in tacos, enchiladas, hamburgers, hot dogs and breakfast burritos.

“To whom much has been given, much is expected,” he said. “We’ve benefited from public support over the years, so it’s our obligation to open our doors and let people come in to get a respite from the storm. It’s the right thing to do.”

McIngvale said he knew that he again needed to offer up the beds and sofas in his stores after he witnessed a sad scene while driving to church on Valentine’s Day.

“I saw some cops putting a sheet over a homeless guy who had frozen to death,” he said. “That really got me. I decided then that I’d open the stores to everyone if it got really bad, and it did.”

a group of people standing in front of a building: People wait in line for food at Gallery Furniture in Houston. © Mark Felix for The Washington Post People wait in line for food at Gallery Furniture in Houston.

He put the word out on social media that he was opening his stores as warming shelters and within hours, people began showing up to escape their cold homes.

“We have lots of beds, lots of sofas and lots of recliners,” McIngvale said he told them. “Come on in and make yourself at home.”

He and his employees made sure that everyone had masks and were safely distanced from each other, then McIngvale passed out blankets, sweatshirts, doughnuts and bags of chips and bottled water left over from Super Bowl Sunday.

As millions remain without power amid more snow and ice, blame and questions mount

Felicia Maten showed up with her daughter, Ebony Augustine, 23, and her mother, Dora Maten Bell, 65, after the pipes burst inside their condo, about a 20-minute drive from the furniture store.

“It was 17 degrees inside. We could see our breath,” said Maten, 42. “I’d lost the feeling in my toes, and my mom’s nose was bleeding. When my neighbor told me about this place, we knew we had to get out of there.”

Maten said she nearly burst into tears when McIngvale warmly greeted them and helped them get settled for the night.

Michael Singletary rests behind a desk at a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter. © David J. Phillip/AP Michael Singletary rests behind a desk at a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter.

“They fed us roasted chicken, rice and beans, fruit and coffee,” she said. “It was like an answer to our prayers. There’s such a wonderful feeling here. It’s been like going to my grandparents’ house.”

Maurisio Garcia and his wife, Yolanda Martinez, brought their three children to Gallery Furniture after the power went out in their mobile home Tuesday morning.

“We’re so grateful to have learned about this place. Their generosity is incredible,” said Garcia, 36. “It’s been like an adventure for the kids staying here. The first night, they fell asleep on a diagonal sofa, happy and warm.”

Martinez said they’ll stay in the furniture showroom until their power is restored, hopefully by the weekend.

“I don’t know what we’d do without Mack,” she said. “We have everything we need here. It’s wonderful to see people doing what they can for everyone, no questions asked.”

Jim McIngvale standing in a room: Jim McIngvale in his mattress suit in 2017. (Facebook) Jim McIngvale in his mattress suit in 2017. (Facebook)

His stores have gained a loyal following because of such community outreach, but McIngvale said seeing people warm and safe is why he does it.

“It’s bitter cold out there, but it’s warm inside,” he said. “When it comes down to it, Texans will step up and get through the storm together.”

Reporter Ken Hoffman in Houston contributed to this story.

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