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This story has been updated.

It was a harrowing choice Krystal Vital had to make. The mother of five could keep her family shivering under blankets inside their home, waiting hour by hour for the lights to come back – or she could overdraw her bank account for a night at a motel.

She looked at her 5-year-old, whose face had turned bright red from the cold. Then she booked a room at the nearby Alamo Inn & Suites on Commerce Street.

It’s been almost three days since the snow fell Sunday night, and her home on the East Side still has no heat, no Wi-Fi, and no water.

Her family is one of many across San Antonio that have been forced to seek shelter in motels and hotels after a historic winter storm slammed into the city and cast it into freezing darkness.

“We’ve been full every night,” said Rick Vazir, who owns and operates the Alamo Inn and Suites along with his wife.

While shoveling ice from the motel driveway, he said almost everyone staying at the motel has come from the surrounding area. The motel is on the southern edge of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood, in a zip code that suffers one of the lowest average household incomes in the city.

“It’s a rotten deal,” Vazir said of his guests’ plight. “These people are displaced. They don’t have warmth. Many have no money.”

A similar pattern has played out across the city.

Alamo Inn & Suites is located at 2203 E. Commerce St.
Alamo Inn & Suites, 2203 E. Commerce St. Credit: Waylon Cunningham / San Antonio Report

Michelle Madson, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association, said in an email that hotels across the city have been “extremely busy” to keep guests as safe and comfortable as possible. “Demand has quickly risen,” she wrote, “and hotels are making every effort to house as many people as possible with limited access to staff and delayed deliveries on essential items.”

Intermittent blackouts, inconsistent access to water, and a dwindling supply of food have put strains on staff to accommodate guests at the four hotels Robert Trailkill oversees for Zachry Hospitality, including the Hilton Palacio del Rio, which overlooks the River Walk.

“We’ve all seen an influx,” said Thraikill. “The problem is, we’re impacted in the same way.”

Thraikill has taken to making soup and pasta dishes that guests can microwave.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said.

Some hotels have simply shut down. The Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk announced Tuesday that it was temporarily closing due to a lack of running water, with guests being relocated to other Drury hotels across the city.

Many hotel websites show few availabilities in the city, though Madson, from the lodging association, urged those looking for a hotel room to call the property because booking sites might be out of date.

For many families, finding an available room isn’t the biggest challenge. It’s money. February’s blackouts and freezing weather come as poverty has climbed dramatically in recent months, brought on by a pandemic still in full swing.

And in light of the increased demand, reports of price-gouging by hoteliers and other businesses have emerged throughout the state.

In an effort to protect local residents from such practices, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued a joint emergency declaration Wednesday night. The order prohibits businesses from charging more for such services as groceries, gas, and hotel rooms than they would have on Feb. 11, days before the snow first covered San Antonio Sunday night.

“I know that we’ve gotten word already from some of our residents that they are gouging prices,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said Wednesday at an emergency meeting with City Council, CPS Energy, and SAWS. “They were told they could get $77 a night, and then they were talking $199 to get out.”

City Attorney Andy Segovia said price-gouging complaints can be submitted to the Texas Attorney General’s office. Call 800-621-0508 or file a complaint here.

Vital, the mother at the Alamo Inn, lost her job when the restaurant she worked at shut down in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Her husband’s contracting work has dried up.

“We have to go home tomorrow,” Vital said, standing in the open doorway of her room. “We can’t afford another day.”

The convention center and other locations are open as warming centers.

Additionally, the Bexar County Office of Emergency Management is promising reserved hotel rooms for individuals who have electric medical equipment that needs a power supply. Call 311 for details.

Government Reporter Jackie Wang contributed to this story.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.