Shelter from the storm

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Dec. 31: A neighborhood devastated by recent tornadoes in Garland, Texas.
Dec. 31: A neighborhood devastated by recent tornadoes in Garland, Texas. Photo Credit: Dennis Drenner/American Red Cross
Danny King
Danny King

"We lost everything," Jean said in a voice as flat as the Texas plains. Standing in the parking lot of the Hyatt House Dallas/Richardson with the hum of the Central Expressway in the distance, the middle-aged woman who didn't give me her last name said she was too busy to talk that morning but might find time to talk later if I gave her a call.

After one try by phone, I figured I wouldn't hold her to it.

My first hotel stay was as a 4-year-old visiting a Marriott in Philadelphia with my family for my cousin's bar mitzvah.

My most recent stay in North Texas was also for a family visit, and more than a few of my fellow guests at the Hyatt House were undergoing their own rite of passage, but it was a far less joyous one.

On the night of Dec. 26, a tornado touched down in the town of Sunnyvale, about 15 miles east of Dallas, and made its 13-mile trek northeast toward Rowlett at about 40 mph.

Our first warning was received as my kids and I sat in our rented car in the parking lot of a Tom Thumb supermarket in Richardson waiting out the sort of deluge we rarely see at home in the Golden State while my wife finished buying groceries.

Once the National Weather Service interrupted the radio broadcast with the tornado warning that was then about 35 miles to the south, we snapped to attention and, my wife now back with us in the car, hightailed it along the unsettlingly empty suburban streets to our second-floor room at the Hyatt House.

Once I heard the tornado-warning sirens blaring in the distance, I figured that reading the paper by the window wasn't the best idea. My father-in-law, now something of a local, suggested via text message that we should get to the place with the most walls separating us from the outdoors, implying that the hotel's first-floor hallway would be our best bet. But the hotel manager begged to differ, suggesting to a fellow guest that one of the stairwell areas on the buildings flanks would be superior because of the stronger construction. Sorry, Pops, but we went with the manager's advice.

After about 90 minutes semi-calmly kibitzing (daughter, calm; son, semi-) with a fellow guest and temporary stairwell occupier from Arizona as strong-but-not-scary winds blew outside, we returned to the comfort of our room grateful for the lack of drama as well as for a new travel story to tell the folks back home in earthquake country.

And then the news reports started rolling in on the local television affiliates about the tornado, which did some of its most extensive damage just eight miles southeast of us. The winds that would reach more than 166 mph would eventually kill 13 people. The tornado, which measured as wide as a quarter of a mile, either tore up or leveled almost 1,500 homes. A burly, mustachioed man being interviewed on TV next to his destroyed home in Garland would nearly break down on camera while quietly recalling how he had been unsure whether he'd be able to protect his family as the tornado zeroed in.

By the next morning, the hotel's parking lot, which had been quiet all holiday week, was about two-thirds full.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association doesn't keep statistics on what kind of hotel revenue is generated in the U.S. each year from natural-disaster victims or the insurance adjusters trying to help them get back on their feet.

Still, the U.S. averages about 1,200 tornadoes a year that cause about $400 million in damage and, more jarringly, kill about 60 people, according to a 2013 Lloyd's of London report. And with the Lone Star State marking the southern terminus of what's commonly referred to as Tornado Alley, Texas hoteliers are no strangers to accommodating victims of a twister.

"We have pretty crazy natural disasters," allowed Jenny Boyd, director of sales at Hyatt House Dallas/Richardson. "Tornadoes, we get at least once a year, but they tend to happen in the springtime."

And while the timing of such disasters is haphazard, the influx of their victims to hotels like the Hyatt House is no accident. Boyd said the Hyatt House has agreements to provide discounted rates to insurance companies such as State Farm, Liberty Mutual and Travelers. And while Boyd declined to estimate what percentage of the hotel's annual revenue stemmed from displaced guests, she said the combination of the insurance agreements, the proliferation of suites and kitchenettes at the hotel and its pet-friendly policy had drawn about 20 displaced families to the 130-room hotel, not to mention a handful of insurance adjusters. More than three weeks after the disaster, about half of those families remained.

While a two-story hotel adjacent to a freeway doesn't conjure images of an exotic location, it proved to be a welcome site for Bill Sigsbee as he and his family tried to get their life in order. Sigsbee, who'd lived in his Garland house since 1998, was at home with his wife and daughter on the night of Dec. 26 when his son called from nearby Irving to give him a heads-up about the tornado warning.

"I looked outside and saw blackness, so I said, 'Let's head to the bathroom,'" Sigsbee recalled. "Within two or three minutes, we heard a train coming through the living room. When we came out, the roof was gone."

The surprisingly congenial Sigsbee, who described the experience as "a little surreal," was led to the Hyatt House by a friend and fellow Garland resident whose home was also destroyed. Sigsbee, who said he planned to stay in the Dallas area at least long enough for his son to finish high school, said staying at the hotel gave him a chance to talk to some other tornado victims, noting that the family downstairs from his suite was from Rowlett. Meanwhile, Boyd said that some hotel staff members brought in toys and games from home to help keep the kids busy as the parents sorted through the aftermath and figured out their next move.

Still, anyone expecting extensive socializing in the hotel's breakfast buffet line or any sort of grand therapy session would have been disappointed by the numbing reality of the situation, hospitality notwithstanding.

"They're getting a really good deal, and I'm sure they're grateful that they're alive, but obviously, they're starting over," Boyd said. "They pretty much keep to themselves."

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