AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin says it plans to open the Austin Convention Center as a traditional shelter for Hurricane Laura evacuees.
This comes after some evacuees had to be turned away Wednesday morning, because hotel rooms the city reserved were at capacity.
Mayor Steve Adler was joined by other leaders virtually Wednesday afternoon to give an update on care for evacuees. Here are the top takeaways from that press conference:
HOTEL ROOMS: According to Juan Ortiz with Homeland Security and Emergency Management Austin, as of Wednesday morning, 1,078 hotel rooms were filled up by a little more than 3,000 evacuees. While the city is looking for more hotel room blocks to reserve, Ortiz says much of the space is being taken up by evacuees who booked rooms on their own and did not go through the city. Ortiz says during Hurricane Harvey, Austin saw only about 850 evacuees.
CONVENTION CENTER: The Austin Convention Center is being prepared to be a “traditional” evacuation shelter. The city hopes to have it open by either Wednesday night or Thursday morning. It will be able to house up to 135 shelter spaces in order to maintain social distancing guidelines, according to Ortiz. Although the center was prepared as a COVID-19 field hospital before, Ortiz says that part of the center won’t be impacted. Instead, they are using other areas of the convention center to house evacuees.
COVID-19 RESPONSE: Evacuees who arrived by bus or on their own at the Circuit of the Americas were screened either before boarding or upon arrival, leaders say. As for those who booked hotel rooms themselves, leaders say the rooms make social distancing easier. Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden says if someone were to present symptoms or have medical needs at the Convention Center, they would be transferred either to APH’s medical shelter that was set up in response to Hurricane Laura, a local hospital or an existing City of Austin isolation facility.
Evacuees turned away Wednesday morning
Evacuees from Texas Gulf Coast communities were turned away Wednesday morning at the intake center at Circuit of the Americas by City of Austin emergency officials. This morning COTA reopened as a “rest area” for evacuees waiting for hotel space to open up, officials say.
Officials with the City of Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management told KXAN “a handful” of evacuees who drove to COTA on their own were turned away because hotels were at capacity. All 15 of the hotels Austin is using to house evacuees are full, and people were told to drive to Mesquite, Texas or Ennis, Texas — just east and south of Dallas-Fort Worth — to seek lodging.
Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference Wednesday that hotels were full because, while the state worked to reserve rooms, people decided on their own to evacuate and book hotel rooms.
“The math behind this is that means there are more people out of harms way,” Abbott said.
Bryce Bencivengo with the City of Austin said that everyone who arrived on a bus has been taken in and has shelter. He also said buses that were lined up at COTA Wednesday morning are empty.
Under the Capital Area Shelter Hub Plan, the city said the three-county area of Travis, Hays and Williamson counties had room for 3,000 people.
Ty Benjamin, who evacuated Port Arthur, arrived at COTA around 1 a.m. and was processed at COTA and was given an address to a Motel 6 in San Marcos to go to. Benjamin said when they arrived at the hotel, they were told they didn’t have a room.
“We got to the hotel, and the man there has an attitude, he said they aren’t registering and to get off his property,” Benjamin said. “We don’t know where to go. We’re not from here.”
Benjamin said she lost her property in Hurricane Harvey, and that’s why she said she rushed to Austin to seek refuge.
“That’s why I came out here because I don’t want to be in another hurricane and they said they were going to help — no help,” Benjamin said.