With Hurricane Laura approaching the Southeast Texas coast during a pandemic, local and state officials are looking to house evacuees in government-paid hotel rooms instead of large, often clustered emergency shelters.
The state said it has been preparing for this since March, but as early as Wednesday morning and into the evening, rooms were filling up in refuge regions as Texans left cities and counties that have issued mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders.
The storm is now a Category 4 hurricane whose dangerous winds are expected to reach the Texas-Louisiana border Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service. Storm surge, which pushes water from the coast inland, is also expected. The hurricane is expected to make landfall early Thursday morning.
“We are not a sheltering city, but we might have to shelter people that couldn’t get out in time," said Beaumont Mayor Becky Ames. "But now in a building that had capacity for 200, we can only shelter 100.”
One of the state’s few shelters for evacuees in Austin filled up Wednesday morning and ran out of hotel vouchers for Galveston evacuees, city officials said. State emergency officials said they were working to ensure there was access to additional hotel rooms after the shelter at the city’s Circuit of the Americas racetrack filled up.
“Due to exceeded demand for safe sheltering options from Hurricane Laura, Austin Area shelters hit capacity around 5:30 a.m. this morning,” the city said in a press release. “Those seeking shelter from this weather event are welcome to wait at COTA to see when more hotel rooms become available. Once confirmed, shelter rooms will be ... first come first served.”
Early Wednesday morning, KVUE-TV reported that evacuees were turned away from the shelter, which had the capacity for about 3,000 evacuees. At 10 a.m., the city said the racetrack was opened back up as a rest area and waiting location while officials scrambled to find more housing options.
At a noon press conference with the governor Wednesday, the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management said that the problem arose because the city believed it had rooms reserved, but they were taken by evacuees who went directly to hotels instead of first checking in with government officials at the racetrack. Officials were then juggling those who went to the city for vouchers and those who checked into hotels on their own.
"There are still plenty of hotel rooms available, it's just trying to balance the load right now," Nim Kidd said.
Gov. Greg Abbott still urged people who could safely evacuate to do so at the noon press conference. He said more than 5,000 evacuees had already been sheltered throughout the state at the time.
For Austin, Kidd said at the noon conference that the city's convention center was also being discussed as an emergency shelter option if needed, and there were still hotels available in surrounding counties like Williamson and Hays. By 5 p.m., Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced that room was running out — with more than 3,000 evacuees already placed in about 1,000 hotel rooms. The convention center was set to open by then as well, he said, with a limited capacity of 135 shelter spaces.
“It’s more than what we anticipated, so our resources at this point, hotels, are stretched kind of thin,” Adler said. “We are urging folks, as they are leaving and coming to Austin, that if they want a hotel room, the easiest way might be to stay on the road a little bit more, get up north toward Dallas.”
The city would also establish a medical shelter in case people have COVID-19 symptoms or other health needs. Medical authorities explained that people have been checked for fevers before getting on the bus that is transporting them and that no one has reported symptoms so far.
San Antonio, which is taking in evacuees from the Port Arthur and Beaumont areas, still had rooms available as of Wednesday morning, according to a spokesperson for the city’s fire department.
In response to the hurricane and the pandemic, San Antonio is only using hotel rooms for evacuees, Joe Arrington said. As of Wednesday morning, he said, 1,458 evacuees were sent to local hotels.
“We’re not utilizing our typical large shelters, like a congregate-setting shelter. That will cut down drastically on potential COVID exposures,” he said.
Because of San Antonio’s usually popular tourism industry and a lack of travelers as the coronavirus continues to endanger the state, Arrington added that “we have lots of hotel rooms that are vacant right now.”
But Dallas also started receiving buses with evacuees from Southeast Texas on Wednesday as officials said at a 4 p.m. news conference that hotels in Austin and San Antonio are hitting capacity. Evacuees in the North Texas city will also only be housed in hotels, not shelters, because of the coronavirus.
“Hotels up and down the coast from Austin to San Antonio are full,” Rocky Vaz, Dallas’ director of emergency management, said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Dallas hotels are filling up extremely fast.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Dallas had a contract with one hotel, which had over 285 rooms available. At 2 p.m., Vaz said eight buses had arrived and 185 people had been housed in 92 hotel rooms. Most evacuees — largely families with children and senior citizens — are fleeing Beaumont and Port Arthur, in line of the storm’s expected direct path.
The city is looking for other hotels to contract with, but Vaz warned that the supply is decreasing quickly.
“At last count, we had close to 200 people who have arrived in our city,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said. “We expect that Dallas will welcome many more evacuees in the hours and days ahead.”
The city expects another 16 buses coming in by the end of the day. Thousands have evacuated on their own, and by Wednesday afternoon, there were over 130 cars lined up in a reception center in Mesquite.
According to a state emergency department spokesperson, TDEM and regional emergency departments throughout the state have been preparing since March for a hurricane in the pandemic.
Seth Christensen said coastal regions have standing agreements in place with inland communities that take in evacuees and people rescued from the storms — like the partnership between Galveston and Austin. The state provides buses to transport people to the partner cities and towns where they're often then checked in and taken to emergency shelters. But in the pandemic, Christensen said, more places are choosing to house people in hotels or motels instead, where families can be better isolated.
“Using noncongregate settings like hotels is a new environment in 2020,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of people traveling at the moment because of COVID-19, so that probably works in our favor.”
He said the city’s costs for the hotels, like emergency shelters, are reimbursable with disaster funds from the federal government. In places where emergency shelters are established, they will follow guidelines from the state health department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, providing cleaning supplies and masks to those who need them and holding fewer people with more distance among them.
The state has also increased its contracted number of buses, Christensen said, since a bus that previously could have transported 50 people may now only seat 15 or 20. Masks are also required on buses and are provided to those who don’t have them. Abbott said Wednesday that the state had already deployed 400 buses.
In Port Arthur on Tuesday morning, John Beard watched his elderly neighbors get on a shuttle that was helping evacuate people. The husband was lifted into the shuttle while sitting in his wheelchair and carrying a duffel bag. The wife left with a suitcase and her walker. Beard wasn't sure what city they were headed for.
“They locked up the house and they were gone,” said Beard, who is a former council member and founder of the advocacy group Port Arthur Community Action Network. “They said, ‘We really don’t want to go, but we do what we have to do.’”
The state has also been stockpiling personal protective equipment throughout the pandemic, Christensen said, with masks, gloves and cleaning supplies spread out throughout the state where they are expected to be needed most.
“For this event, we’re able to utilize that PPE not only for the first responders that are going to need it if they are rescuing residents, evacuating residents, but also the residents,” he said.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the Texas Division of Emergency Management.