Joel Osteen: ‘The City Didn't Ask Us to Be a Shelter'

Osteen has faced a wave of online criticism for not opening his massive Lakewood Church as a storm shelter

Televangelist Joel Osteen continued to defend the decision to delay opening his Houston megachurch to flood victims in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, arguing city officials had not asked him to use the building as a shelter and citing safety concerns.

"We worked very closely with the city [of Houston] and four miles down the road the city established its biggest shelter with room for thousands, with beds, with kitchen supplies, with everything they need, security. They didn’t need us as a shelter right then," Osteen said Wednesday in an interview with the "Today" show.

Osteen faced a wave of online criticism for not opening his massive Lakewood Church — a 16,000-seat former arena that served as the longtime home of the NBA's Houston Rockets — earlier as a storm shelter, while other places of worship, including several mosques, offered sanctuary to people who needed help. By Tuesday, the church was taking in Harvey evacuees and accepting emergency relief supplies. 

"We are all about helping people. This is what our church, and all churches, is about," Osteen said. "I think if people were here, they’d realize there were safety issues. This building had flooded before, so we were just being precautious, but the main thing is the city didn’t ask us to become a shelter."

He added that no one predicted the sheer number of people who would be displaced, and had city officials asked Lakewood Church to prepare to be a shelter, "we would've been a shelter right away."

Don Iloff, a church spokesman and Osteen's brother-in-law, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that floodwaters had rendered the building mostly inaccessible before receding Monday afternoon, but he said the church wasn't closed. Three people who showed up at the church on Sunday spent the night there before being taken to a city shelter.

"Our church doors have always been open," Osteen insisted. "In fact, we started taking people in as soon as the water started to recede, which was just a day or two after the big storm hit."

However, early Sunday, Lakewood had issued a statement on its Facebook page announcing that the church was "inaccessible due to severe flooding."

The statement raised eyebrows after several people posted photos and videos on social media appearing to show that the area around the building had not been damaged or flooded by the torrential rains. Olsteen disputed the allegations and shared images with NBC News Monday that appeared to show standing water in the church's basement and parking garage. 

"I think this notion that we would turn people away, or we weren’t here for the city is about as false as it can be," Osteen told "Today," noting that Lakewood Church didn't have any volunteers or staff that could get there or supplies on hand to begin taking people in. 

Asked if he would have done anything differently, Osteen said "I don’t think we would have opened any sooner, cause again, there were safety issues ... we were one foot away from flooding."

"Think of the story if we had housed a whole bunch of evacuees and the building flooded. That wouldn't have been a good story," he told "Today."

Lakewood Church announced on Twitter late Tuesday that it had begun receiving people in need of shelter as well as emergency relief supplies.

A fleet of panel trucks, Mercedes coupes, SUVs and pickups descended on the church. Out came bags of donations — jackets, strollers, bottled water, pants, dresses, stuffed dolls, sheets, pillows — that volunteers piled in a mountain in the church's lobby.

Photos posted to the church's Facebook page show the building lobby filled with people accepting supplies, which include clothes, food, pillows and diapers. Others were shown receiving medical care and setting up beds and sleeping bags. A caption stated the church "hit our maximum capacity for volunteers."

Other photos posted to Facebook showed long lines of cars waiting to arrive at the church.

"In 2001, Lakewood housed 3,000 people during tropical storm Allison, so we're all about helping people,'' Osteen said. "We'll be here five years from now helping these people, so we feel good about who we are and what we're doing."

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