Evacuations to hotels come with own set of hazards

Hyatt loses at least 175 of its windows
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
By Rebecca Mowbray
Business writer

Nearly 3,000 guests at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans had a frightening evening Sunday as Hurricane Katrina blew out more than 175 windows in the high-rise hotel.

"The glass was crashing everywhere. It sounded like a hailstorm," said Leslie, an Algiers resident wearing a blue New Orleans Athletic Club T-shirt who declined to give her last name. "Now it looks like the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma."

"There were beds flying out the windows," added Juli, another hurricane refugee from Algiers who wouldnít give her last name.

Juli said she sneaked back to her room after the hotel had safely relocated guests to a windowless ballroom on a lower floor Sunday night. She awoke to find the curtains from the neighboring room whacking the outside of her window. On Monday, those curtains were flapping against tufts of pink insulation left exposed by cracks in the modern buildingís once sleek black exterior.

While the Hyatt was probably in the worst shape of any downtown hotel, locals who sought refuge from Hurricane Katrina in downtown hotels discovered that the practice of so-called "vertical evacuation" is not without its hazards - or discomforts.

On Monday afternoon, Hyatt guests camped out on blue and gold hotel bedspreads in the ballroom. Many sat dazed in the oppressive heat, unable to go back to their rooms to retrieve toothbrushes, books or snacks because of safety concerns while hotel engineers surveyed damage in the rooms.

Hyatt spokeswoman Susan Oakland said the hotel began evacuating guests to the ballroom Sunday at about 10:30 p.m. as a precaution against Katrinaís strong Category 4 winds. No one was hurt in the relocation, which Oakland said went as planned.

"We do not anticipate guests returning to their rooms this evening," she said Monday.

Evacuating to hotels has become a controversial practice this hurricane season, as many hotel operators began to question whether they really wanted to be responsible for hundreds of guests without power and water for an extended period of time if the city flooded. Public safety officials decry the practice, but many locals love to avoid the traffic jams and spend the storm throwing back cocktails. And hotels long have viewed housing locals in a storm as a valiant community service.

Although they were bored sitting in the beige ballroom, many guests said they were grateful that the hotel had kept everyone safe in what could have been a dangerous situation.

New Orleans resident Gordon W. Martine sat on a folded hotel bedspread and closed his eyes Monday afternoon. He had nothing but compliments for the hotel and its guests.

Martine and his wife, Marie, checked into the hotel because Marie had just had surgery to remove three discs a few days earlier. When Marie had to go back up to her room for medical reasons Sunday night and got stuck, three firefighters carried her down 14 flights of stairs before the roomís two windows blew out.

"Iíve been very impressed with the service," Martine said.

Lakeview nurse Lisa Buchanan, also sitting on the ubiquitous blue Hyatt bedspread, was tired from trying to sleep on the floor with a herniated disk and annoyed that she hadnít been told when she would be able to return to her room, which lost its window. But no matter how grouchy, Buchanan said vertical evacuation was still worth it to avoid the stress on the highways.

"Iíd rather evacuate to a hotel than be bumper-to-bumper in traffic," she said. And however primitive the conditions, she appreciated that the Hyatt took guests for the storm.

"At least they didnít put people on the streets."

At other hotels, the mood was similar. Steve Daney, former chef at Rendon Inn who now lives in Fayetteville, Ark., had come back to New Orleans to try to sell his house when he got caught by Katrina and checked into the Astor Crowne Plaza.

Daney, who rode out Hurricane Betsy in New Orleans, was philosophical about the past 24 hours.

"At 5 years old, itís fun to sit through a hurricane. But when youíre an adult, you start thinking about other things: your life, your house, your family," Daney said.

Daney tried to pass the time by watching television, but he had to turn it off when the national news kept talking about whether high-rise buildings would be able to withstand the storm.

"Iím not the strongest religious person youíll ever meet, but Iíll tell you, I prayed. I prayed for that sucker to go to Gulfport," Daney said.

Outside the Inn on Bourbon, Kirk Hayes Sr. took his first break late Monday afternoon, sitting across the street at a closed bar smoking a cigarette and drinking a 7-Up. Hayes, the Ramada hotelís engineer, had stayed up all night checking elevators and generators.

"We took a hit, but she stood her ground," Hayes said of the 150-yearold building. "Everything worked out, and everyone came out alive.

Thatís what Iím happy about."

Reporters Frank Donze and Mary Judice contributed to this report. Rebecca Mowbray can be reached at 504-826-3417 or at rmowbray@timespicayune.com.