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Austin, Travis County prepare Convention Center for Hurricane Laura evacuees
(The Weather Channel)

Just over a month after it was prepared to open as a field hospital to care for overflow COVID patients, the Austin Convention Center is now being prepared as a shelter for Hurricane Laura evacuees, who continue to stream into the area.


Typically the city and county rely on large shelters during an emergency, but officials have refrained from opening such facilities due to the pandemic.

Instead, the city has accepted evacuees at Circuit of the Americas and directed them to area hotels, but there has been more demand than anticipated, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall around Cameron, Louisiana—near the Texas, Louisiana border—Thursday morning. It is currently traveling westward with winds up to 150 mph.

The city and county have already provided more than a thousand hotel rooms for over 3,000 guests. In comparison, they sheltered around 850 evacuees during Hurricane Harvey, said Juan Ortiz, Austin's director of homeland security and emergency management.

As a result, officials are now encouraging evacuees to continue heading north to the Dallas area, where hotels likely have more capacity.

For those who do not have the resources for a hotel room, the city and county are preparing the convention center. But the process is made more complicated by doing so "in the shadow of COVID," said Eric Carter, chief emergency management coordinator for Travis County.

Officials are relying on pandemic recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to guide capacity limits at the convention center, which will be around 135, and screening protocols.

In addition to the stand-up shelter, officials are also working to establish a medical shelter for any patients in need of care.

"It's going to be all hands on deck for this response," Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said.

It is likely that the pandemic will continue to affect emergency planning.

"We're not at the peak of the [hurricane] season yet," Ortiz said.

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