Laurie Ebarb’s apartment in Spring at first managed to escape Hurricane Harvey untouched.
But almost two weeks later, after she avoided any flooding or power outages, the water from Harvey that collected on her roof has the ceiling dripping and has her worried it could fall any minute.
“We’re going to have to get out,” the music teacher at Elrod Elementary said. “It could collapse any time. All of us are going to have to move somewhere.”
Exactly where is unclear. Like the thousands displaced by Harvey, Ebarb and her family are turning to FEMA for assistance. As of Wednesday, more than 56,000 people in Houston and the Gulf Coast had been placed in FEMA-funded hotel and motel rooms through the federal agency’s Transitional Shelter Assistance program, which provides vouchers for displaced residents to stay in hotels that voluntarily agree to take on applicants. Evacuees are allowed to stay initially for 14 days, with up to 30 days of residency if needed.
In Houston, 27 hotels offer rooms for FEMA vouchers, ranging from standard hotel rooms to extended-stay lodgings that include amenities like kitchens and countertops. Mike Waterman, the executive vice president of Houston First, a local government agency that manages city-owned buildings like the George R. Brown Convention Center and controls Houston's tourism branch, has been working with FEMA officials to place families.
Houston First and FEMA have tried their best, Waterman said, to keep families close to their defunct homes, but with the sheer demand for rooms, and limited occupancy, families have been placed in cities like Galveston and even as far away as San Antonio.
And vacancies are limited. Ebarb and her daughter, who brought her own daughter to Ebarb's apartment after the house flooded, did not find a hotel after hours of calling on Thursday. FEMA spokesman Peter Herrick said the agency has heard from other Harvey victims who can’t find available rooms, but that the agency can’t compel hotels to open up rooms for survivors because hotels participate in the program voluntarily. Herrick urged residents to expand their search and continue to reach out to hotels listed on the site.
“It’s going to probably be a wasted day,” said Ebarb about her search efforts.
Many of Houston’s downtown hotel rooms have been filled with first responders, FEMA representatives and National Guard members since last week, said Waterman, but those spots will likely be filled by the next wave of tourists visiting Houston for upcoming conventions. Waterman said the timing of Harvey, the weekend before Labor Day when typically no conventions are held, offered one of the storm’s few bright spots because local hotels were not booked by out-of-town guests.
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As conventions return to the city, with 500 members of the Texas Society of Association Executives arriving on September 17 and 5,000 scientists from a geophysicists society coming September 22, Houston’s next step is clearing out George R. Brown, which is holding about 1,500 evacuees after sheltering more than 10,000 at its peak. Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes to end emergency shelter operations at the convention by next week, with officials considering moving some evacuees to the vacant Star of Hope shelter in East Downtown.
The proposed spot would house about 300 people, leaving a large number of displaced still in need of shelter. Evacuees would have to rely on options like the FEMA-funded hotels, but Turner has also considered asking landlords to give up vacant apartments for publicly funded interim housing, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Ebarb, the Spring resident in search of new housing, is also wondering where Harvey victims will go. As she drove around neighborhoods that flooded near her apartment complex, she looked in awe at the piles of wrecked furniture and debris along the street.
“It makes me wonder, where are they going to put that stuff?” she said. “Where are those displaced going to go?”