No vacancies at hotels sheltering hurricane evacuees

Amidst pandemic, Louisiana would fight to find safe space for more hurricane evacuees

File photo of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Louisiana would struggle to provide shelter to another round of hurricane evacuees without risking the spread of COVID-19, said Gov. John Bel Edwards in back-to-back press conferences Sunday and Monday.

The state does not have enough hotel rooms to house many more disaster victims and would likely have to rely on large, communal shelters if space was needed, Edwards said. Communal living quarters make it difficult to contain the spread of COVID-19, according to health experts.

“That is a real challenge and it’s one of the reasons that I’m grateful that [Hurricane Sally]  isn’t forecasted to be stronger than it is,” the governor said Monday in response to a question about shelter options. 

Hurricane Sally’s track has been moving eastward, toward the Mississippi and Alabama coast, and away from the New Orleans metropolitan area since the weekend. While some Louisiana communities are under evacuation orders, a mass exodus of thousands of people from the state is not expected to take place. Neither are large shelters expected to be needed in Louisiana after the storm makes landfall Tuesday or Wednesday. 

That’s a relief to state officials because Louisiana is essentially booked up when it comes to disaster housing. Hurricane Laura hit southwestern portion of the state in late August, and the recovery efforts from that storm are ongoing

Approximately 12,800 Laura evacuees are living in Louisiana-based hotels, mostly in New Orleans. The state government is paying for an additional 5,300 people to stay in Texas hotels because it can’t find local rooms for them. Relief workers, insurance adjusters and utility employees helping with Hurricane Laura recovery are also taking up hotel space. 

That situation doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon, either. 

Almost all of Cameron Parish, over half of Calcasieu Parish, more than a third of Beauregard Parish and about a quarter of Allen Parish still don’t have electricity two-and-a-half weeks after Laura made landfall.

The lack of power makes it difficult for people to leave the hotels and return home. Edwards expects thousands of people to remain in hotels for a few weeks while utilities are restored.

Typically, Louisiana would not be relying on hotels to house thousands of evacuees immediately after a hurricane. State and local governments usually use mass shelters — including a state-facility often referred to as the “mega-shelter” in Alexandria — for people fleeing disaster. 

But Louisiana officials and the American Red Cross assiduously avoided such mass sheltering in the aftermath of Laura — out of fear of further spreading COVID-19. Federal and state officials, as well as private disaster organizations, decided hotel rooms were a better option to cut down on transmission of the virus.

However, if Louisiana has to house a lot of evacuees after another hurricane, local hotels won’t be an option. “We would have to move them to a congregate shelter,” the governor said Sunday. “We don’t want to do that.” 

The Red Cross is prioritizing “non-congregate sheltering” — like hotels and dormitories — during the 2020 hurricane season, but is prepared to move to communal shelters if necessary. 

In those shelters, cots would be required to be placed six feet apart and people who tested positive for COVID-19 would be separated from the general population, said Katy Sandusky, spokeswoman for the organization. The shelters would also be smaller than normal, so that people could be kept apart more easily, she said. 

The state doesn’t expect to open up its shelters yet — Sally isn’t deemed to be enough of a threat —  but some local governments are preparing to offer temporary housing. 

New Orleans has prepared shelter for people with medical needs. The setting would be communal “due to the observation and assistance required for medical special need sheltering,” said city spokesman Beau Tidwell, but personal protective equipment would be provided. People would also be required to maintain six feet of distance between each other, he said.

In Plaquemines Parish — where some people are under a mandatory evacuation order — officials are encouraging people to avoid public shelters if possible because of COVID-19, wrote Jade Duplessis, the spokeswoman for the parish, in an email.

But if Plaquemines Parish does open its shelter located in the city of West Monroe, masks will be required on the school buses carrying residents to that northeastern Louisiana location. People will also be required to stay apart from one another and wear masks while in the facility, Duplessis said. 

After Sally, there’s still time for another storm to hit Louisiana. There’s six weeks left in the hurricane season, and there are currently five named storms in the Atlantic Basin. It hasn’t been that busy since 1971. 

“Whether it’s Sally or the next storm that might hit us, we would likely have to open up our congregant shelters, at least for some period of time,” Edwards said Monday. 

The governor’s administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are actively looking for space in other states for hurricane evacuees — so people can be housed more safely.

“There’s almost certainly going to have to be hotels found outside the state of Louisiana,” in order to provide a safe atmosphere, the governor said.