As Hurricane Laura was headed for Gulf Coast of Louisiana and East Texas, local individuals, charities, businesses and the city partnered to support evacuees through donated supplies, hotel rentals, and information about the community.
Organizing for Donations
Inside the J.B. Wells Expo Center, three card tables lined end-to-end were stacked with donations of snacks, water, masks and tourism guides for those who had chosen to wait out Hurricane Laura in Gonzales.
The effort was headed by Gonzales Main Street Director Liz Reiley and Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Daisy Shescke Freeman. They started organizing donation collections on Aug. 26 – a day before Laura made landfall.
Once the call for donations was heard, local businesses and individuals answered. The Gonzales Convention and Visitor’s Bureau supplied bags and informational pamphlets laying out the many things to do in the city while waiting out the storm.
“I hope that this will at least get some of these people here, and they'll stay here to visit things in downtown and discover some of our history and our uniqueness,” Reiley said.
In addition to the donation of items, some local businesses offered cash donations.
“I do have one business that's actually said they wanted to give money. Instead of money, I suggested that they give gift cards to Main Street businesses,” Reiley said. “That way we're kind of promoting our business as well as supporting those businesses.”
After collecting donations, Reiley and volunteers from the Gonzales Lions and Pilot Clubs met at the J.B. Wells Expo Center to stuff 300 bags with donations.
“We're already getting reports from our partners in town, you know, that they've been out enjoying the community,” Tourism Director Ashley Simper said. “And so that's a great thing, because that's helping to ease the stress of the situation that they're in, having to evacuate. We hope that they're here enjoying themselves. You know, this effort that's been putting together guys just really an incredible effort between the city and chamber and all these community partners. I'm just I'm so thankful to be part of it.”
Pilot Club member Scottie Baker said that as the club could not make monetary donations, she was donating her time to help bag donations.
“Anything we can do, since we’re broke this year,” Baker said. “We can help, but we're broke. So it’s manpower until we have a fundraiser.”
Giving in a season of difficulty
Tourism director Ashley Simper said the community’s response was particularly generous, given the impact of COVID-19, which has caused an economic downturn.
“This is not an easy season for our locals or our business owners and for them to still step up and give to help others and their community is, I think, it just shows the heart of Gonzales,” Simper said.
In 2017, Simper and her family weathered Hurricane Harvey with her sister-in-law. Having been an evacuee herself, Simper said she understands what it’s like to be constantly confronting the unknown as the mother of a one-week old infant during a hurricane.
“You have to leave your home and pack your animals and kids, and we're happy to have them here again,” Simper said. “I mean, that's a silver lining in the middle of a really stressful situation.”
“But then you have the stress as you're watching the news, watching this hurricane making landfall and you're just wondering, 'what am I going to go home to? Is my home still gonna be standing? Are the windows blown in? Is my home going to be flooded, or we do we have power, how long are we going to be out of power? There's several, just different things that are going through people's minds that they're worried about. Anything that can be done to ease that stress, and that burden on them is a blessing.”
The impact of evacuee hotel stays was significant in a time when hoteliers are struggling. According to data provided by Simper, hotel stays increased by 27% during hurricane Laura. However, it was not a large enough bump to significantly impact losses caused by COVID-19.
Waiting out the storm
For the Delasancha and Urquiza families, waiting out the storm at the Best Western located off of East Sarah DeWitt Drive was a matter of ensuring the safety of their families. They had come from Baytown, a suburb on the eastern side of Houston, to shelter. As for what they were going home to, they weren’t worried.
“I was expecting the worst,” Blanca Delasancha said. “I thought they said it was gonna be a category 4, but then it looked like a 2. It was category one, but nothing happened, my son said that it's not even raining.”
Ruby Urquiza also said she was going home to relative normalcy.
Hurricane Laura comes just a month and a half after Delasancha and her husband, Henry, both had COVID-19.
“We bought water, we bought canned food,” Delasancha said. “We got ourselves prepared too; we stayed home, we didn't go out, we used masks. I was the one to go and buy stuff, like to the store and then come back, come home, wash my hands and wash everything that I bought.”
“I had been taking precaution, but we got it got a month and a half ago, something like that. It did nothing to him. It didn't bother him at all. He gave it to me though. And then he tested positive but there was nothing wrong with him. I was the one I only had a cough, but it wasn't a bad cough like they're saying that sometimes you can catch.”
Their stay in Gonzales was a “friendly” one. Delasancha said hotel owner Neal Patel even brought them lunch.
“I like it so far, the stores are close and everything,” Delasancha said. “He's (Neal Patel) very friendly. He brought us chicken boxes. I mean, they don't have to do that. He gave us lunch, two boxes of chicken each.”