Flood of evacuees follows Hurricane Laura in Texas, Louisiana

Some hotels in Houston already filled to max amid concerns of COVID-19

Hoteliers in Houston also are seeing a wave of evacuees from Laura amid concerns about spreading COVID-19.

AS THE FORMER Hurricane Laura moves inland to dwindle across the plains, residents of the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast are left to pickup the damage. For some hotel owners in Houston the storm passed with little or no damage, but now they are faced with the next challenge, housing evacuees.

The task is complicated by the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

When Laura made landfall Wednesday evening as a Category 4 storm it hit around Cameron, Louisiana, well east of Houston. It was the strongest storm to hit Louisiana since 1856, according to Accuweather.com.

“We have sustained a tremendous amount of damage,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference while noting that it was not as catastrophic as expected, according to CNN.com

But, in Houston, Sawan Patel, managing partner at Unity Hotels Group and director of AAHOA’s Southeast Texas Region, was breathing a sigh of relief. Before the storm he had spent days preparing his hotels for Laura.

“We are fortunate that the hurricane moved east and we didn’t see nearly the impact previously expected,” Patel said. “Our hotels are doing fine. The city is doing fine.”

Now Patel has contacted the city’s Emergency Management Department to offer to house evacuees.

“They’ve informed us they’re working on identifying any needs and any possible evacuee overflow, and logistics of being able to meet those needs, and we have discussed getting hotels involved to shelter the evacuees,” he said. “However, there are a lot of moving parts for them and for the local governments of the impacted areas so we are standing by ready to assist in the event the need arises.”

However, another Houston hotelier, Raj Das, vice president of development for Palace Inn Franchising, said all 10 of his hotels in the city are already completely filled with people displaced by the storm.

“We got a bunch of evacuees from the Port Arthur and Beaumont areas,” Das said. “We’re just making sure to have all the rooms we can available for them because right now it’s going to be tough to find rooms.”

So far he is confident that his hotels are safe despite the crowd.

“We have exterior corridors so they’re not in the hallways and there are really places where they can congregate inside a building. So most people are just staying in the rooms or they’re just going to the car and leaving. No one’s really standing outside or hanging out so it hasn’t been an issue so far,” Das said. “With our housekeepers we’ve been making sure when they do service they’re trying to interact with the guests the least that they can. If a guest doesn’t need service, then we’re asking them to just make sure to let us know so we’re going in their rooms.”

He’s not the only one, Das said.

“All over Houston the inventory is picking up,” Das said. “But we just make sure to let our front desk employees know not to raise the rates too much. We only raised the rate by about 5 percent.”

For some of the people coming in, he said, they lower the rates, sometimes below ADR.

“It breaks your heart when you hear their stories,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to help these people, you know? Just seeing the carnage now from after the storm, I’m thinking that could have been us if it had never shifted, if it had just kept going to the west that would have been us. We really got lucky.”

Other cities in Texas also are seeing waves of evacuees and state officials have turned to hotels to avoid congregating evacuees in large group shelters as would ordinarily have been created pre-COVID.

“Obviously, this year it is different with the considerations for COVID-19; traditionally we have shelters set up in schools, that’s not going to be how we’re going to operate this year,” Bryce Bencivengo, spokesman for the Austin, Texas, department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told USA Today.

Supposedly the evacuees are being screened and given personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer. They are asked to stay in their rooms and not to congregate in public areas or other people’s rooms.

Nevertheless, a study from Columbia University, which is still undergoing peer review, found a large-scale hurricane evacuation could spur thousands of COVID-19 infections, according to NPR.

“In every scenario we analyzed, hurricane evacuations cause an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases,” Kristy Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the co-authors of the study, was quoted as saying.