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In wake of Hurricane Harvey, former El Paso mayor recalls last time city housed evacuees

The City of El Paso said it’s prepared to take in as many as 1,500 evacuees from Hurricane Harvey.

It’s still unclear when evacuees could begin to arrive in El Paso, but it wouldn’t be the first time the city lent a helping hand.

Former mayor John Cook said El Paso took in about 2,000 evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

“I could remember vividly [former Texas] Governor Perry giving me a call saying ‘mayor, we might be sending some of the evacuees from New Orleans in your direction,” Cook said.

The city used the Judson F. Williams Convention Center in downtown to house those evacuees. City manager Tommy Gonzalez said the city is looking at four possible sites to house evacuees, one of those being the convention center.

“We think they’ll come in waves, so we’ll be able to receive them as they’re coming in,” Gonzalez said.

Cook said 12 years ago, many of the evacuees only came with the clothes on their back.

“We triaged them for people who needed special medical treatment or special dietary needs,” Cook said. “My wife and I actually greeted every evacuee as they came in the loading dock of the convention center.”

Cook said the most important thing was making them feel comfortable.

“We looked after peoples’ spiritual needs. We had people from three major faiths come, and they were there to console,” Cook said. “We had a cell phone company that came in and had free cell phones for people to use to contact their loved ones.”

Cook said he thinks the city will take what it learned 12 years ago and apply it if need be.

“I have a lot of confidence that there’s enough people on city staff who were part of those experiences who will bring that to the table and make sure we do the right thing,” Cook said.

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