Hotel chains keep the faith amid Katrinas wrath


J.W. Marriott Jr. believes New Orleans will rise again. He appeared to have little doubt about it as he spoke to reporters a few days after Hurricane Katrina ferociously pounded the Big Easy into submission, destroyed its precarious life-support systems and left it battered, broken, powerless and in shambles.

This is a most distressful and concerning time for us, he said. Obviously, it is the biggest natural disaster ever to hit our country. [Nevertheless] the long-term outlook for New Orleans is very positive.

Marriott is chairman and CEO of the Marriott hotel chain, which has 15 managed and franchised hotels in the New Orleans area. All were affected by Katrina. All but two, the JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton, were already closed by the time he spoke with reporters.

Marriott officials had called a press conference to update the media on the conditions of the hotels, evacuation plans for guests and employees and plans for eventually reopening.

Though the company had helped evacuate thousands from its hotels, more than 300 guests and employees were still in the Ritz-Carlton, where water from Lake Pontchartrain had created a four-foot-deep lake on Canal Street in front of the hotel.

Those people had to be transported by raft to the JW Marriott a few blocks away, where motorcoaches waited to take them to Baton Rouge.

Plans for reopening will have to wait.

Against the backdrop of destruction and flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, reports streaming out of New Orleans in the days following the storm painted a stark picture of unimaginable devastation, as people, unable to evacuate before the storm, were left stranded in New Orleans without food, water or medical supplies.

The deteriorating conditions resulted in lawlessness in the streets as the citys beleaguered mayor, Ray Nagin, begged for help.

Marriott officials even hired a cadre of armed guards to ensure safe passage of their guests and employees from the city.

The images were far removed from the New Orleans many of us once knew.

This was not the inviting city that welcomed some 8.4 million visitors each year. Not the dynamic city where seven hotels, including a new Marriott, were currently under construction. Not the grand, playful, mysterious, romantic, risqu? city that never took itself too seriously, where people embraced any excuse to party in the streets.

This was a new New Orleans.

Overall, the tsunami of human misery in Katrinas wake has left many, including me, wondering whether anything will survive of the old New Orleans we once knew, even as the prospect of a world without the Crescent City seems unfathomable.

What if New Orleans were to fall victim to yet another hurricane? After all, the season is far from over.

But I had to admire J.W. Marriotts confidence amid all the uncertainty.

Like other chains, Marriott is already planning to reopen closed hotels.

In fact, Marriott officials said that once the city says it is safe to return, they are prepared to bring in an army of engineers and others to get the properties up and running.

The Ritz-Carlton once again will hold court on Canal Street.

And after days of limited action, the federal government finally began mobilizing significant aid to the city, which, according to experts, has a long, long road toward recovery.

Some suggest it may take years.

Still, New Orleans has a history of overcoming unimaginable tragedies, including a plague that once nearly wiped out the population.

And then theres Americas love of the Crescent City.

When this country gets mobilized and decides it is going to do something, it gets it done, Marriott said. Whether it is 9/11 in New York, Pearl Harbor or back to the San Francisco earthquake or the Chicago fire, we get it rebuilt, and we do it in a hurry.

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