As Louisiana officials implore thousands of people in southwest Louisiana to flee ahead of Hurricane Laura, they are faced with a daunting task: Safely transport potentially hundreds of residents infected with COVID-19 to other parts of the state.
With the pandemic still raging in Louisiana, hotels and motels have emerged as a lifeline for tens of thousands who are fleeing the southwest corner of the state, and they have become the linchpin of the government’s preparation for the hurricane.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration had booked 1,705 hotel rooms for people who need government assistance in evacuating in 16 hotels in Baton Rouge, Houma, New Orleans and Shreveport. As of Wednesday afternoon, the state had about 1,040 people in hotels.
Mega-shelters that traditionally house evacuees were still being used, but Edwards said putting people up in hotels, where they can stay isolated with their families to limit the spread of the virus, was first priority. The federal government signed off on the plan to house people in hotels and motels and will reimburse the state.
“This is very, very different,” Edwards said. “We’re going to take advantage of all the space available at hotels and motels that we can contract.”
The vast majority of people evacuating to hotels and motels are not seeking assistance from the state, Edwards said, and instead were leaving on their own.
But the Department of Transportation and Development was sending buses to ferry hundreds of people – using far more trips to allow the buses to fill up with fewer people – away from southwest Louisiana, said DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson. The agency was also sanitizing buses and providing masks.
“We need to treat every individual out there … as if they have COVID,” Edwards said Tuesday evening.
In New Orleans, several hotels were asked by the state to set aside hundreds of rooms for evacuees, including the Sheraton and Marriott hotels on Canal Street and the Hilton Riverside. Each were asked to set aside 200 rooms.
Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, declined to say which hotels the state struck deals with, saying the state didn’t want people showing up expecting a room. Evacuees must coordinate with local emergency officials to get evacuated.
Steele said the state was constantly looking for more hotels to set aside rooms, an effort to stay “two or three steps ahead” of the need.
GOHSEP said it will cover "two or three nights" due to Hurricane Laura evacuation. Evacuees are registered and provided a wrist band from the parish they came from as they are processed by the Department of Children and Family Services.
The governor acknowledged that the demand for rooms could grow rapidly if the storm lays waste to large swaths of southwest Louisiana, as predicted. And he noted the state will likely have to use mega-shelters, more at least as a transition before the state can find more hotel rooms.
The Maglothin family – Joe, Allison and little Joey – arrived at the Hilton Riverside on Tuesday night from their home in Orange, Texas, driving the 240 miles east after the threat of the storm was made clear by state officials.
"The news told us not to go west any more but to go east. We would have had to drive eight or nine hours west to get a hotel, so we drove the three-and-half hours east to get a hotel here," said Joe Sr., who works at a chemical plant at Port Arthur.
He said this is the fourth hurricane the family has been through since living in Orange but the first which has led them to evacuate.
"I was in the house through Rita and part of the second story of the house lifted off when I was in the bath tub. So, I said, 'I'm not going to stay for anything over a (Category) Two this time.'"
He said he's worried about his place of work as the sea wall in Port Arthur is 14 feet high, whereas the storm surge for that part of the coast is projected to be as high as 20 feet. The family plan to stay through at least Friday, using points Maglothin said he's built up from travel for work.
The hotel was already housing about 700 students from Xavier University because of the overspill from dorms caused by social distancing, as well as the 200 rooms set aside for evacuees being bused in by the state.
Meanwhile, Entergy Louisiana was among the utility companies, first responders and others that were stationing workers in hotels in Louisiana to respond to the storm. Entergy said workers from 20 states are coming to assist in restoring power, which was expected to be lost in large swaths of south Louisiana.
The governor noted the state is “competing” for space in hotels with those coming to Louisiana to aid in the recovery.
Rachael Burns, regional manager for the Q Hotels Group, which owns a string of Holiday Inn, Best Western and other budget roadside hotels in southern Louisiana, said their occupancy has gone from a COVID-depressed 20% to nearly full across most of their nine Louisiana hotels.
She said as well as individuals and families evacuating, the hotels have been seeing an influx of Entergy workers, first responders and workers being moved by petrochemical and other facilities to be in place for emergency repairs after the storm.
One grim silver lining: the state has hardly any tourists taking up space in its hotels because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Baton Rouge, hotels had been filled by Laura evacuees, first responders and government employees, said Scott Michelet, president of the Baton Rouge Lodging Association.
"We're going from a very low occupancy to a very high occupancy in the last few days," said Michelet, who serves as general manager of the Crowne Plaza Baton Rouge.
The storm surge from Hurricane Laura was expected to be among the worst on record, topping 20 feet in places and pushing 30 miles inland. That rivals the storm surge experienced during Hurricane Audrey, one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, which smashed into Cameron Parish in 1957 as a Category 3 storm and killed more than 400, pushing storm surge 20 miles inland.
As a result of those predictions, officials told the more than 200,000 people who live in Calcasieu Parish, as well as the several thousand who live in Cameron Parish, to flee.
Southwest Louisiana also happens to be one of the parts of the state that was hardest-hit by the summer surge in coronavirus cases. Hospitals in July reported being nearly overwhelmed with patients, and the rates of infections in Lake Charles and surrounding areas skyrocketed.
Staff writers Tim Boone and Kristen Mosbrucker contributed to this story.