ENNIS, Texas — Thousands of Gulf Coast residents fled inland from an approaching hurricane deemed “unsurvivable” by forecasters, heeding warnings from leaders in two states as hotels and shelters filled quickly and some were left without help.
Evacuees travelled as far as Ennis, Texas, a city south of Dallas that’s roughly 200 miles (320 kilometres ) from the coast, as incoming Hurricane Laura rapidly gained power hours before its expected landfall. Forecasters predicted a life-threatening storm surge would pound a wide stretch of the coast.
James and Samantha Bison evacuated from Jasper, about 200 miles away, and eventually made their way to Ennis by early Tuesday after being directed there by a 211 information line. Hoping for a place to stay, they ended up sleeping in their car. When they called 211 again, an operator told them to drive to San Antonio, about 250 miles (400 kilometres ) in another direction.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that the state has 200,000 hotel rooms across the state for evacuees. But as of Wednesday afternoon, the couple was waiting for a call from the Red Cross amid hopes the agency would have a hotel room for them somewhere. Samantha, 30, said the couple and their two dogs, Buffy and Girl, remained outside in the heat due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Shalonda Joseph, a teacher who evacuated from Port Arthur, Texas, with her sisters, said their family has burned through savings as some of them have lost their jobs because of the virus.
“The COVID-19 is just totally wiping us out,” said Joseph, 43.
Inside the hall, evacuees in face masks waited at tables and on hold with Dallas County Case Management, whose number was being given out at the entrance. Some munched on free bags of snacks and drank from plastic water bottles.
Like the Bisons, others had come to Ennis hoping for shelter. But Mayor Angeline Juenemann said all the area hotels were “100% booked” and the city never received vouchers to give people.
“We don’t have a place for them to sleep,” Juenemann said. “We just really need to set the record straight.”
In the south Louisiana community of Delcambre, a steady stream of customers stopped for last-minute supplies at Shawn’s Cajun Meats and Grocery.
“Getting some snacks. Definitely getting some beer. I’m pretty sure that’s the highest-selling product around here,” said Austin Domingues, 26.
Domingues said he and his family had been prepping for the last three days for Laura. At his father’s nearby sugar cane farm, “we’ve been moving equipment on the highest ground we have.”
While Domingues said his wife likely would evacuate to Lafayette, further north and east of Delcambre, he and other members of his family planned to stay put. He said he expected to stay at his father’s farm, where the house is 14 feet (4 metres ) off the ground.
“I don’t know if it’s too smart, but we’re going to stay just in case we need to help people out,” he said.
But Lexie Creighton, who was rounding up shopping carts outside the grocery store, said she planned to head to Lafayette after ending her shift, rather than ride out Laura. Her home took on water during Hurricane Rita, which ravaged the Gulf Coast just days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Getting out of the surge, you know?” she said. “The water’s going to come up. It’s better safe than sorry.”
In Lake Charles, Louisiana, the National Guard picked up residents in school buses and took them to a local coliseum. Many of the evacuees were families with small children. The National Weather Service evacuated its office in Lake Charles, transferring its forecasting duties to the service’s office in Brownsville, Texas.
Leaders in both Texas and Louisiana urged residents to flee in the final hours before landfall made it too dangerous to travel.
Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said the city of Austin had run out of free hotel rooms, forcing officials to send evacuees further away from the coast.
Kidd said the convention centre in Austin might be opened to temporarily house evacuees while more hotel rooms are set up for residents. He said hotel rooms are being reserved for evacuees in some nearby counties.
Traci Shannon left Galveston for her parents’ home in north Houston on Tuesday with her husband, two teenagers, and six pets.
“It would be hard to find a hotel or shelter that accepts all the animals we have,” she said. “We could hide the rat and the gecko but my husband is a disabled vet and he has a comfort dog that’s about 45 pounds.”
Deslatte reported from Delcambre, Louisiana. Associated Press journalists Juan A. Lozano in Houston and Desiree Mathurin in Bay Shore, New York, contributed to this report.
Jake Bleiberg And Melinda Deslatte, The Associated Press