The Austin Convention Center will open this week as a mega-shelter for 2,500 Gulf Coast evacuees displaced by Tropical Storm Harvey while the city looks for options to house thousands more.
As ongoing rain flooded large swaths of Houston, state officials asked Austin to take in 7,000 evacuees. Austin city staff said Tuesday that they think they know of places to house 4,000 to 5,000 of those, and are still looking for community help with ideas. But they emphasized they don’t intend to turn anyone away.
“If Texans come to Austin needing shelter, we will find a place,” Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday morning during an emergency City Council meeting on the subject.
Staffers expect to open the convention center within 48 hours to house evacuees, mostly in hallways there, said Paul Hopingardner, deputy director of communications and information technology. The city will immediately shift all the evacuees now being housed elsewhere around the city to the convention center.
As of Tuesday morning, Austin had more than 560 evacuees divided among shelters at the Delco Center, the Burger Center and LBJ High School. The number has been fluctuating hourly, but is expected to rise quickly as more people are able to get transportation out of Houston.
Convention center officials wouldn’t say Tuesday whether using the space as a mega-shelter would affect any upcoming conventions. City officials refused to release the written plan Austin has in place for emergency mega-shelter operations.
Setting up evacuees at the convention center will “be like creating a city within a city,” said Juan Ortiz, Austin’s director of homeland security and emergency management. The hub will provide food, toiletries and sleeping space to evacuees and offer clothing, medical care and other necessities as needed via partnerships among the city, area counties, the Red Cross and other nonprofits.
The city provided a similar setup in 2005, when Austin housed more than 4,000 evacuees of Hurricane Katrina at the Austin Convention Center, providing on-site amenities including a library, computers, showers, cafeteria and more. Then-Mayor Will Wynn later said that Austin spent $8 million on the immediate response to Katrina and $17 million on rental assistance for evacuees for six months.
The last time the city used the convention center as a massive shelter was in 2008, after hurricanes Gustav and Ike, when it held about 1,200 people, city staff said.
City officials said it’s too soon to say how much it will cost to house Harvey evacuees, but they expect many of the expenses will be reimbursed by the state, which will get reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Ortiz said Tuesday that the convention center space would allow the city to house people immediately as it looks for other shelter options. FEMA will help evacuees find long-term housing and other services.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “We have capacity to meet the urgent need but, because we recognize the fact that these folks are not going to be returning back home, we need to get this mega-shelter, this city within a city, up and running.”
Beyond the convention center, the city can use recreation centers and school facilities as shelters, as it’s doing now. City officials will also be coordinating housing people in private homes, via local churches. Anyone interested in offering housing can call 311 to be connected with one of the organizing groups, city officials said.
Meanwhile, Travis County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to answer the call from the state to accept evacuees, including the possibility of preparing the Travis County Exposition Center as a shelter.
The commissioners also authorized the transfer of $200,000 as a placeholder for Harvey rescue efforts. The county will spend money upfront as needed with the hopes of being reimbursed at least in part through grants and other sources.
“We really need to triage those individuals who are rescuees,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “They’re getting on a state-sponsored bus after having been in the soup for several days, and they’re now willing to be bused several hundred miles from home, which makes it probable that they have nothing with them.”
Also, home rental service Airbnb is extending the time frame and places where its hosts can choose to offer free accommodations to evacuees, while receiving waived fees to the service and insurance for damages. Hosts can offer $0 listings with waived fees until Sept. 25 in Austin, Dallas, Waco, College Station and Houston’s northern suburb.
City Council Member Greg Casar noted that Houston is the most diverse city in the country, so there will likely be a need for volunteers who speak many languages to help with evacuees.
“Providing refuge is at the core of what the country should be about and what this city should be about,” Casar said. “I’m so deeply appreciative of every person who got in a boat in Houston, every staff member who volunteered time.”
How to help
Mayor Steve Adler has urged Austinites to:
• Find volunteer opportunities at GivePulse.com.
• Donate money to the Central Texas Food Bank (not cans of food, since evacuees don’t have kitchens).
• Donate blood, since facilities in Houston can’t collect such donations now.
• Donate pet supplies to Austin Pets Alive.
• Donate diapers via AustinDiapers.org.
• Donate household items to Austin Disaster Relief Network or give money to the Red Cross.