Austin Braces for Weekend Rush of Evacuees
After the flood
Update: City Council met for an emergency meeting on Thursday morning (Aug. 31) to approve leases on a warehouse and office building in Southeast Austin to house evacuees, rather than the Convention Center.
Original story: Some evacuees from the coast who fled to Austin last weekend after Hurricane Harvey landed will be returning home this week, but the relief for local shelters will be short-lived. Red Cross and the city have spent most of the week already preparing for a much greater influx of evacuees this coming weekend.
Even though the category 4 hurricane made contact last Friday, and has largely weakened and moved northeast toward Louisiana, its rainfall has continued to wreak havoc on Texas in the form of flooding. Houston has been the hardest hit; on Tuesday, a reservoir west of the city's downtown area overflowed for the first time in its 70-year history, and breaches of levees have been reported as the rain continues to fall. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said emergency responders in that area have already made more than 6,000 rescues, and the death count has risen to 15 – and included a police officer who drowned in his car on the way to work. Some estimates project total damages caused by the hurricane will run over $50 billion.
The state government has called on Austin to accept 7,000 evacuees from Houston as exiting the flooded city becomes more possible. Austin has already made accommodations for several hundred, mostly from the coastal region, which the eye of the storm passed over. Many of those who self-evacuated to the Wilhelmina Delco Center will be driving back to their hometowns this week, but others who were rescued from their homes, like those bussed from Rockport to the Toney Burger Activity Center, will likely be here a while longer. Rich Scanlan, the shelter manager at Burger, said Tuesday that many of the evacuees (around 165 in total) have been traumatized by their experiences, and escaped their homes only with the clothes on their backs. "We've got mental health volunteers. We've got nurses. A couple days ago we had doctors. We've got a whole support structure," Scanlan said. "[These] people need things. They need medical care; they need prescriptions; they need clothes. And we're meeting their needs, slowly but surely."
On Tuesday, City Council held an emergency meeting to receive an update on relief efforts. Paul Hopingardner, the city's deputy director of communication and technology management, informed the Council that plans were already underway to open a "mega shelter" at the Convention Center, which will act as a city within a city. "Within the next 24 to 48 hours," he said at the meeting, "we will begin to move people out of existing shelter operations into the mega shelter." The city anticipates 2,400 evacuees going to the Convention Center. (Capacity there is 3,200, but organizers will only be able to provide space and services for 2,400.) Others will be dispersed elsewhere throughout the city, to previously established shelters as well as other locations throughout the community.
Mayor Steve Adler opened the discussion by confirming that Austin would answer the call and not turn any evacuee away. "We will not be checking immigration status at shelters," he said. "Our priority is your safety, and we want to make you feel at home regardless of where you come from." Senate Bill 4, adopted this past legislative session, would empower local law enforcement to inquire about immigration status, as well as require local law enforcement to honor all federal immigration detainer requests. The law is scheduled to go into effect on Friday, barring any court injunction. Council Member Greg Casar, who was born and raised in Houston, had said on Monday that he was called to a shelter to assist with translating for the large number of Spanish speakers who had arrived there; only one Spanish-speaking volunteer was at the location. "There are a lot of people who are really scared right now, and not just because of the hurricane," he added at the meeting. Shelters "can seem chaotic, and there are a lot of government personnel. There is a rift of trust with government right now."
Down at the Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon, a couple hundred volunteers in American Red Cross vests buzzed around the fourth floor making phone calls, filling out forms, and taking care of other preparations to have the shelter open Thursday morning. Red Cross spokesperson Bristel Minsker said the shelter's management is prepared to adapt to any situation as it unfolds. "You have to take it day by day," she said. "Right now we just want to focus on providing a safe place for evacuees to be."
For ways to help survivors of Harvey, the mayor suggested at Tuesday's meeting to make monetary contributions to the Red Cross, as well as to the Greater Houston Community Foundation.