Austin sets up city con­ven­tion cen­ter as shel­ter

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@statesman.com

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 t he 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 man- age­ment.

The hub will pro­vide food, toi­letries and sleep­ing space to evac­uees and of­fer cloth

ing, 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. ThenMayor 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 evac- uees, but they ex­pect many of the ex­penses will be reim- bursed 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 hous

ing 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 res

cuees,” 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.”

STEPHEN SPILLMAN / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATESMAN

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey evac­uees con­tinue to shel­ter at the Delco Cen­ter in East Austin on Tues­day. City of­fi­cials don’t know yet how much it will cost to house evac­uees, but they ex­pect to be re­im­bursed by the state.

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