|By Janet Elliott, Houston
ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 3--AUSTIN -- Tired and stressed from evacuating her Bridge City home in advance of Hurricane Ike, Diane Purgahn couldn't believe it when the hotel clerk told her she would have to pay more than double the advertised price for a room.
Her two puppies were panting in her car and she was traveling with several other people so she agreed to pay $109 to stay at the Hotel Nacogdoches.
Her friend, Daniel Ducote, pointed out that the sign outside said rooms let for $49.99.
"The manager said that sign should have been changed three months ago," Purgahn, 51, said in a telephone interview with the Houston Chronicle. "I just felt like that guy was not being honest with us."
She and Ducote, who took a photo of the sign, later filed complaints that resulted in the first of what could be many lawsuits alleging price gouging during the emergency.
Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the lawsuits Thursday at a news conference and showed a video of Ducote, 26, and Purgahn talking about the incident. The film was shot Tuesday in the debris-strewn neighborhood where each used to live.
Purgahn was evacuating by herself because her husband is a first responder. The home they had lived in for a year is a loss.
The hotel overcharge may seem like a small thing compared with the loss of her furniture and mementoes, but Purgahn said she's glad Abbott is taking legal action.
"I thought it was unfair," she said. "You're trying to run. You've got your important papers, you've got the things you love. It's a horrible thing to have to run."
She said her room was dusty from construction, had a bad air conditioner and no TV.
The hotel's owner did not return calls Thursday.
Abbott also sued Super 8 Brookshire Motel for unlawfully increasing rates by 50 percent. He said both facilities also charged evacuees a sales tax in violation of an order by Gov. Rick Perry to waive the sales tax during the hurricane emergency period.
"They took advantage of the fear and the needs of people who were evacuating the Gulf Coast region, and they jacked up prices," Abbott said.
The manager of the Super 8 also did not return calls.
The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act prohibits businesses from taking advantage of a declared disaster by selling or leasing fuel, food, lodging, medicine or other necessities at an exorbitant price.
The law allows penalties of up to $20,000 per violation and up to $250,000 per violation for victims over 65.
Abbott said his office is investigating hundreds of other complaints of price gouging, mainly for lodging and gasoline.
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