AUSTIN (KXAN) — Chantay Roberts will never forget the chaos of evacuating, as Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters crept closer to her home.

“I knew how to swim, but some people didn’t,” she recalled. “It was surreal,” she said.

She said it happened so quickly, she barely had time to grab any belongings. Losing her family photos hurt the most, but she said she was grateful for the people who came to her rescue. Now, after relocating to Austin permanently, she volunteers with the Austin Disaster Relief Network and other services to help evacuees like herself.

“Don’t be afraid to start over,” she offered as advice.

Many of the Hurricane Laura evacuees, who filled up Central Texas hotels and part of the Austin Convention Center, won’t have to start over. Places like Galveston, where mandatory evacuation orders were issued, were largely spared — meaning residents could start making their way home on Friday.

But first, they need to check in with officials.

State officials want all evacuees in Austin, even those who drove here on their own, to check in with staff at their hotels, a government official or the Red Cross before they return. These check-ins will help cities affected by the storm apply for disaster reimbursement.

Buses line up at Circuit of the Americas to take hurricane evacuees home Aug. 28, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Julie Karam)
Buses line up at Circuit of the Americas to take hurricane evacuees home Aug. 28, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Julie Karam)

Buses gathered starting at 6 a.m. Friday at Circuit of the Americas and buses started picking up evacuees from hotels around 9:30 a.m. A KXAN photographer saw people loading personal protective equipment and waters onto the buses.

Many evacuees arrived by bus at COTA earlier this week, where they were given hotel vouchers. Austin hotels quickly reached capacity, and some people were turned away Wednesday morning before the city opened up part of its convention center as a shelter.

According to Daniel Geraci, founder and Executive Director of the Austin Disaster Relief Network, 1,078 families stayed at local hotels and 12 families volunteered to stay at the Convention Center.

“Normally, a lot of people are put into small spaces,” Geraci said. “This particular time, it was probably more costly for the state to provide this, but I thought it was still amazing that we could still find ways to get around COVID — to be able to put people up in hotels this first-class.”

Other Central Texas counties stepped in to help house about 3,000 people at 21 hotels and the convention center. Some places, like Buda and San Marcos, reported all their hotel rooms were booked Wednesday. Below is the breakdown from Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management:

  • Bell County: 35 hotel rooms
  • Hays County: 65 hotel rooms
  • Travis County: 795 hotel rooms
  • Williamson County: 197 hotel rooms

“We couldn’t ask for no more. They treated us nice and kept us safe!” said Galveston resident Corean Roche, as she loaded her things onto a bus outside the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Austin.

Some evacuees will have to wait and see how their neighborhoods fared in the storm before they return — particularly Louisiana residents.

“We don’t know what we are going home to. All the pictures that we are seeing are just… devastation,” Marquisha Minor said.

Minor and her husband, Aaron, planned to weather the storm in their Lake Charles home, but ultimately decided to come shelter in Austin. Now, they’re worried about how much their home and their kids’ schools were affected, but they said were grateful for the volunteers providing resources here.

“The most important thing is we still have our life,” she said. “Everything else we lost we can most likely get back.” 

The couple plans to move to another hotel, for now.

The city said in a press release, “Depending on the number of people remaining in the Austin area after August 28, we may consolidate shelters in the coming days.”

The reception area at the Circuit of the Americas closed Friday night, so the city has asked anyone else needing shelter head directly to the Austin Convention Center at 500 E Cesar Chavez St. People can also text ATXShelter to 888-777 to get information about shelters in Austin.

The city did not say how long the Convention Center would be open to evacuees.

“Past experiences have told us those shelters could be open a week or two weeks,” Geraci estimated.

He said their network of churches with ADRN will step in to help find apartments or fund longer-term solutions for people who lost everything. They also plan to help storm survivors buy cars and get supplies.

“How can we stop the bleed, until we can rebuild or repair their house?” he said.

ADRN has called on Central Texans to put together care kits for people impacted by the storm, containing emergency supplies like toiletries, towel, blankets, and pillows. The network has set a goal of collecting 5,000 care kits in the coming days to ship to communities along the Gulf Coast.

Geraci said they were able to ship 11,000 care kits to people affected by Hurricane Harvey a few years ago.

You can find instructions for how to create and donate a care kit below: