As Hurricane Laura bore down on the Texas Gulf Coast, Port Arthur native Ronzell Gonzales waited in a car outside a San Antonio Fire Department site near the AT&T Center. 

Fire officials had set up the reception area Tuesday in an empty lot at 200 Gembler Rd., preparing for what local leaders originally expected to be around 50 Gulf Coast residents displaced by the approaching storm. But by around 10 p.m., about 20 charter buses and dozens of vehicles had arrived, forming lines that some waited in for more than an hour. 

Officials in Port Arthur, Galveston, and other coastal cities began issuing evacuations ahead of the hurricane’s landfall. Forecasters expect Hurricane Laura to slam into the Texas-Louisiana border late Wednesday or early Thursday as a major hurricane, capable of producing winds over 110 miles per hour. 

A storm surge could push as far as 30 miles inland in some areas stretching from San Luis Pass at the southern tip of Galveston Island to the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, according to the National Hurricane Center. Some places could see up to 10 inches of rain over multiple days.

Hurricane Laura is expected to make landfall late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. Credit: Courtesy / NOAA

The mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Laura is the first Gonzales can recall in his 33 years living in Port Arthur. If he didn’t have to leave, he probably would have stayed, despite his home being in an area prone to flooding.

“During Harvey, it was like an ocean there,” he said, referring to the 2017 storm that brought record-shattering rainfall to cities such as Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur. 

This time, officials are coping with a hurricane layered on top of a coronavirus pandemic that makes mass shelters risky. Instead, officials are making more than 225,000 hotel rooms available across the state to provide shelter to evacuees, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. 

Gonzales and his fiancée, Zuleika Ramsaroop, and her daughter, Keylanis Rivera, hoped to find a hotel room where they could wait out the storm for three or four days. 

“We need all the help we can get because I don’t get paid until Monday,” said Gonzales, who works at a fast food restaurant. 

San Antonio has a long history of taking in people fleeing natural disasters. The city’s welcoming of those fleeing Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cemented its status as a safe harbor for coastal evacuees.

Passengers arriving by charter bus await shelter after evacuating from the Gulf Coast. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a briefing Tuesday the city is prepared to accommodate as many as 2,000 people seeking shelter but he expects far fewer to arrive.

“We don’t expect it to be a significant evacuation event, but we have shelter available mostly in hotels,” Nirenberg said. “There is a welcome area to assess people coming in to see if there’s any medical assistance needed and there’s obviously planning for that as well, but we aren’t expecting a huge influx.”

Those fleeing Laura should go to 200 Gembler Rd. to receive their designated shelter locations, SAFD officials said. The department is not disclosing shelter locations to avoid having people arrive without first checking in.

Earlier Tuesday, Abbott increased the number of counties in his disaster declaration to 59, anticipating damaging winds and severe flooding. In addition to San Antonio, emergency officials are opening reception centers in Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.

“Hurricane Laura is rapidly intensifying and poses a major threat to communities in Southeast Texas and along the coast,” Abbott said in a statement. “Texans in the path of this storm should waste no time preparing for the impact of Hurricane Laura and take immediate action to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.