As thousands flee their homes to escape flooding in Houston and destruction along the Texas coast after this week’s Category 4 hurricane struck the state, emergency shelters are filling to capacity in that city and across the region.
Officials estimate more than 32,000 people have sought refuge in over 235 shelters across Texas and Louisiana. This includes more than 8,000 evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
To date, San Antonio has received 1,428 evacuees, with 874 evacuees currently remaining in the three active shelters. More space is still available at those sites, according to a report Emergency Management Coordinator Lawrence Trevino provided to City staffers Wednesday.
In addition, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District reported that even before the storm arrived, hospitals in San Antonio began accepting hospital-to-hospital transfers – patients from both hospitals and other care facilities throughout the affected region. That number has risen to 836.
It’s a familiar scene for those who recall the post-Hurricane Katrina days in 2005 when San Antonio laid the welcome mat for an estimated 30,000 evacuees following that epic storm. Houston’s metropolitan area has a population of about 6.5 million, or about 6 million more than New Orleans at the time of Katrina.
An influx of evacuees in those proportions is still possible here, said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. But there has been no official word yet from state authorities on exactly when they will arrive, or even if they will be brought to the Alamo City.
“It’s not frustration so much as it is everything’s a bit tentative right now,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report. “We’re on high alert just because the situation in Houston is evolving rapidly, so we are increasing our shelter capacity to an unlimited amount.”
The City, he said, created space this week for 10,000 evacuees within available large-scale shelters, the locations of which are not being disclosed.
Hurricane Katrina evacuees were housed in four emergency shelters here that are no longer available for that purpose. There were two shelters at the former Kelly Air Force Base (now Port San Antonio), one at the old Levi Strauss manufacturing facility and another in abandoned portions of the old Windsor Park Mall on Walzem Road (now home to Rackspace).
“I instructed our emergency operations center to start scouring the landscape for anything that can be used for shelter,” Nirenberg said. “We have a couple of facilities at the Port that are stood up and ready to go. We also have a couple of large-scale shelters on the eastern edge of the city. And I let them know we want to operate two- and three-deep, so as shelter space fills up, we’ll be able to have additional capacity coming on line, and no one will be turned away.”
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The AT&T Center and newly-renovated Alamodome are not being considered, at least for now. “But I let everyone know that if it came to us using the Alamodome, we will commandeer the Alamodome if that’s what it took to ensure everyone is safely evacuated and has shelter,” Nirenberg said. “This is a priority.”
Jeff Coyle, director of government and public affairs for the City, said crews at the City’s emergency operations center have been working to identify privately or publicly owned facilities that are large enough to hold people, and then securing leases to those spaces.
“At this point, it’s an operational issue, and we are working to make sure we have enough capacity and waiting for word we’ll need to shelter folks,” Coyle said. “We continue to be in full activation at the emergency operations center 24/7 and almost entirely focused on relief and recovery and providing aid to other areas. But we’re kind of in a holding pattern, waiting for direction what if anything we need to do to house people, in terms of numbers.”
At Port San Antonio, where the former military installation once had 500,000 sq. ft. of office space available to use as a shelter after Hurricane Katrina, space this is currently open for use is likely more suited to short-term sheltering only, said Paco Felici, the Port’s vice president of communications.
“The Port has smaller options now,” he said. “Nothing to the scale we had in 2005.”
Instead, Felici said, Port San Antonio is ready and waiting to provide space for operations staging and warehousing and distribution activities in support of relief efforts. “Otherwise, we expect to get, as with rest of the community, some clarity [on what is needed] as the waters recede and as people and response agencies make their plans.”
Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference Wednesday that 30,000 beds are available across the state, and more than 2,000 rooms should become available soon for transitional housing at post-evacuation centers.
Hotels in the San Antonio area are currently at a 45% occupancy rate. A reservation system has been set up at visitsanantonio.com/hurricane with price reductions for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Evacuees from designated disaster-prone areas and documented relief workers will not pay state and local hotel occupancy taxes in Texas (through Sept. 6).