People rest while waiting to board a bus headed for San Antonio at an evacuation center in Corpus Christi, Texas on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP) Nick Wagner AP
People rest while waiting to board a bus headed for San Antonio at an evacuation center in Corpus Christi, Texas on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP) Nick Wagner AP

National

Thousands were fleeing Harvey. This Texas hotel started nearly tripling room prices

By Jared Gilmour

jgilmour@mcclatchy.com

August 29, 2017 07:46 AM

UPDATED August 29, 2017 10:07 AM

When they checked rates online as Hurricane Harvey was strengthening and about to make landfall in Texas, a room with two queen beds was between $120 and $149 a night.

But when a KXAN TV crew from Austin showed up on Saturday to get a room at that same hotel—a Robstown, Texas Best Western Plus, 20 miles from Corpus Christi—the clerk at the front desk quoted a price nearly triple what the crew had seen online: a staggering $321.89 a night, according to KXAN.

The TV crew cried foul, and pushed back against the price. Eventually, the clerk admitted the room rates were much higher than usual. “Weekends start at $149, sometimes we start at $189,” the clerk told KXAN.

“But, why is it so much?” KXAN reporter Wes Rapaport asked of the $321.89 charge.

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“Because people are calling to take rooms,” the clerk said, according to KXAN, adding that “we need to (inaudible) the price. I don’t have any control on the price.”

The next morning, the TV crew again confronted a hotel clerk. They got a clerk to confirm that room rates were normally around $119 a night—but they still couldn’t get an explanation for why rates had skyrocketed.

“It’s not that I’m jacking up the price, it’s because I have no control over that,” the clerk said. And the clerk also confirmed that 18 other hotel guests paid the much higher rate of $289 before tax, just like the TV crew.

Hotels aren’t the only ones guilty of price gouging as Houston grapples with continued rainfall and flooding from Hurricane Harvey, the most powerful storm to hit Texas in more than 50 years. Over the weekend, more than 500 complaints of price gouging were lodged with the Texas attorney general’s office, according to CNBC—including $99 cases of bottled water, gas at $10 a gallon and hotels tripled or quadrupled in price.

"These are things you can't do in Texas," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told CNBC in an interview Monday. "There are significant penalties if you price gouge in a crisis like this."

While interviewing Attorney General Paxton on Sunday, the KXAN TV crew handed over the invoice the hotel had given them, which Paxton had his office start looking into.

“We had a team go out immediately and we found out there was some truth to the claim that there was price gouging going on at the hotel,” Deputy Attorney General Jim Davis told KXAN on Monday.

It only took three hours for Davis’ team to discover that 39 other Best Western Plus guests faced similar price gouging, according to KXAN, and the hotel promised the attorney general’s office it would refund guests the amount it charged them above normal rates.

Best Western Hotels & Resorts told KXAN that it told its hotels not to price gouge, and was working to resolve the problem.

“In advance of the storm, we proactively advised hotels on prohibitions against price-gouging and communicated our position as a brand that compassion be exercised during this time of crisis,” Best Western spokeswoman Courtney McCurry told the TV station. “We take reports of price-gouging very seriously and immediately contacted the property in question when we learned of this report. The hotel advised they would be reimbursing guests on Aug. 28 all amounts charged in excess of their average daily rate for this time period.”

“Texans know right from wrong. This is an easy one: don’t take advantage of people who are vulnerable because they’re running away from a flood or affected by a hurricane,” Davis told KXAN.

Anyone who thinks they’re a victim of price gouging can document it a pass it along to authorities.

“If you see it happening, take a photograph. Use your cell phone,” Davis said. “Getting a photograph of a receipt like we got on Sunday is the fastest way for us to identify the location and the problem and get a quick resolution.”

Here's what Texas looked like on Sunday following Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday as a category 4. The system eventually weakened to a tropical storm, but hovered nearly stationary over the coast over the weekend. By Sunday, the Texas coastline was devastated — both from wind damage and flooding. The storm had dropped over 30 inches of rain in some areas by 4 a.m. Monday morning, according to The Weather Channel. Forecasts show the Houston and Galveston areas reaching rainfall totals of 50 inches before the system leaves the coast.

Ashley Jean Reese areese@islandpacket.com