30/08/2017 06:53 SAST | Updated 30/08/2017 06:54 SAST

Inside The Megachurch Accused Of Closing Its Doors During Hurricane Harvey

HOUSTON — A spokesman for Houston's enormous Lakewood Church, which waited days before offering to shelter flood victims, has a message for those who criticized the delay.

"These are haters," Donald Iloff Jr., the church chief communications director, told HuffPost on Tuesday. "Haters gonna hate."

Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Volunteers take donations at the Lakewood Church in Houston. 

The church, stomping ground of celebrity televangelist Joel Osteen, started catching flack on social media Monday for not offering its 606,000-square-foot sanctuary as a refuge for people displaced by Tropical Storm Harvey's massive flooding.

"I know people sometime yesterday started coming up and shooting pictures and saying, 'Look, it's dry, its dry,'" Iloff said. "Well yeah, yesterday it was."

Water outside the building's 10-foot floodgate was 9 feet deep before Monday, Iloff said. Church officials feared rising water would overrun the floodgate and surge into the building.

"It was not safe," Iloff said, adding, "Nobody knew this was going to be a thousand-year storm."

Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Donald Iloff Jr., chief communications director of Lakewood Church, outside the church.

But Tuesday morning, the church announced it would take in people who needed shelter. By afternoon, several hundred people whose homes were swallowed by the floodwaters had taken refuge inside the sprawling building.

Among those happy to have a place to go was 38-year-old Jie Zhang.

Zhang was at the shelter with her husband and two children ― an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-month-old baby ― along with her husband's parents. The whole family was rescued early Tuesday after floodwaters began pouring into their home in Sugar Land, just south of Houston, which they purchased just last month.

Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Jie Zhang, 38, and her daughter Sheryl, 8, wait to be entered into the shelter at Lakewood Church in Houston. 

Water started pouring into the home Monday night, Zhang said. "The whole neighborhood is flooded."

Zhang and her children retreated to the second floor, and her husband managed to flag down rescuers. She said they never imagined the water would rise as high as it did.

"That's why we had decided not to leave," she said.

The Zhang family is among thousands driven from their homes by flooding caused by Harvey's record-breaking rainfall.

Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
People bring donations to Lakewood Church.

At least 11 people are known to have died, including a Houston police sergeant who drowned in his car. The toll is likely to climb once flood waters recede.

Meanwhile, Iloff said his church will remain open as long as it's needed.

"Even though we knew it was coming and we knew it was going to be bad, I don't think we knew it was going to be Armageddon," he said. "We're happy to be a part of this."

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