Harvey evacuees going to southeast office park, not convention center

Aug 31, 2017

The city of Austin on Thursday shelved its initial plan to use the Austin Convention Center as a “mega-shelter” for Hurricane Harvey evacuees, instead deciding to lease a large building in Southeast Austin.

The city reversed course after state projections for evacuees expected to come to Austin dropped from 7,000 to between 1,500 and 2,000. Another factor, interim City Manager Elaine Hart acknowledged, was a desire not to cancel scheduled events at the convention center.

“We were trying to be not only responsive to our business of running a convention center, but also to shelter people,” Hart said.

New shelter site Photo: American-Statesman Staff

The new shelter site is in an industrial park at 7000 Metropolis Drive near Montopolis Drive and Burleson Road. The council will pay roughly $112,740 a month to lease two spaces within one building: a fully built-out, 64,000-square-foot space and a 96,000-square-foot area that would need air conditioning installed, according to city documents.

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Bathrooms, showers and other facilities will also need to be installed in the building. Staffers said they wouldn’t open the shelter until those are in place.

Cost estimates for adding the air conditioning, bathrooms and other amenities weren’t provided to the council on Thursday.

Staffers said the state has already pre-authorized the leases for disaster aid reimbursement. The council unanimously approved the leases.

Officials said they don’t yet have a target date for moving the roughly 560 evacuees to the Metropolis Drive center, but would be working to consolidate and end operations at Austin’s other shelters this weekend.

“We’re going to be demobilizing shelter operations at school facilities, starting first with the teaching facilities and then moving on to the nonteaching facilities,” said Juan Ortiz, director of the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Office. “All of this will take place by this weekend.”

The evacuees are currently housed at the Delco Center, the Burger Center and LBJ High School.

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“District 2 is welcome with open arms to what we can do to house these individuals,” Council Member Delia Garza said. The Metropolis shelter is in her district.

Staff said the site is more advantageous for a shelter than the convention center because it has better transportation options. It is located near U.S. 183, Texas 71 and is about 1 mile from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The site is near Capital Metro bus routes on Metropolis Drive and Burleson Road.

The 660-spot parking lot also attracted city staffers to the building because it would leave plenty of space for tractor shelters and FEMA shelters.

Garza did have concerns, however, about the location. She noted that the area is a heavily industrial area that is a “food desert.”

“This is not the best place for a shelter out on industrial island, but I appreciate that you have looked everywhere,” Garza said.

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She also noted the Austin school district has been preparing to enroll potentially thousands of students whose families were displaced by Harvey, but the Metropolis shelter is in the Del Valle school district. She urged staff to coordinate with Del Valle school officials.

In 2005, the city opened the Austin Convention Center to more than 4,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. As it and the Palmer Events Center remained closed indefinitely, it left the staff at the Convention and Visitors Bureau scrambling to find other venues for at least 20 groups that had booked events at the two venues.

The convention center also housed about 1,200 people in 2008 in the aftermath of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

With the relocation of the mega-shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees, the convention center will be able to move forward with scheduled events.

The center’s online calendar shows six events over 14 days with an expected attendance of at least 12,750 people.

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