Hotel chains work to assess Hurricane Katrina damage

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WASHINGTON -- On Aug. 30, several hotel chains were working to gather news on the condition of their hotels following Hurricane Katrinas onslaught Aug. 29.

Packing winds of 100 mph or more, the killer hurricane cut a swath through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Georgia Aug. 29, as it continued its campaign northward.

The impact in New Orleans was severe, as the hurricane downed power and telephone lines, while flooding as much as 80% of the city.

Through it all, hotels in the area did their best to stay operational and provide shelter.

At the Country Inn & Suites hotel on Magazine Street, employees typically welcome and care for guests who visit New Orleans from around the country. But on Aug. 30, the guests at the 155-room hotel were mostly the families of the employees.

As Hurricane Katrina barreled down on the Big Easy, employees brought their children, wives, husbands and other loved ones to Country Inn for shelter.

When Hurricane Katrina finally hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, about 100 people were still at the hotel, including five guests.

Due to conditions in New Orleans that included the loss of electrical power, downed telephone lines and severe flooding, direct news from the hotels was problematic.

The only available news on conditions and damage came from the headquarters for the hotel chains, which served as a clearinghouse of information.

Betsy Day, spokesperson for Country Inn & Suites, a Carlson hotel brand, said she was in contact with the Country Inn on sporadic basis, since the telephone lines and power were off in much of the city.

Country Inn is one of three Carlson Hotels in New Orleans. The other two, the Radisson and the Park Plaza, were closed.

We do have an electrical generator at our Country Inns & Suite hotel, but of course we are using it sparingly, said Day, who works out of Carlsons main office in Minneapolis.

The few times the generator was on, hotel employees took the opportunity to power up their wireless phones to report in with updates, Day said.

Overall, the hotel sustained minor damage from the wind, said Day. They did not even have windows broken. I believe thats because it is a five-story hotel. The other hotels [in the city] that were hit harder were much higher. So we are very thankful for that.

Several blocks away, the 1,184-room Hyatt Regency New Orleans was also providing shelter to an array of people including employees, their families, the media and the citys mayor, Ray Nagin.

Most were situated in a ballroom that was converted into a makeshift dormitory. A few were in guest rooms.

The hotel had sustained damaged in the storm, according to a statement from general manager Michael Smith.

The severe winds, some clocked as high as 140 mph, blew out the windows from several hotel rooms, which likely suffered water and wind damage, a Hyatt spokesman said.

We are assessing how to move forward with business, he said. The hotel will be operational again, but we are assessing when and how.

Choice Hotels International, meanwhile, was attempting to assess the damage -- if any -- to its 16 hotels in the New Orleans area.

Anne Madison, Choices vice president of corporate communications said she was unable to touch base with many of our properties due to the telephone circuits being down in the area. Were continuing to try and make contact. Thankfully, we havent yet received any reports of injuries to hotel staff or guests.

Madison said field staffs were making hotel visits wherever possible. In most cases, we dont yet have word on which properties will need to remain closed for repairs for an extended stretch of time.

Madison did get reports on properties in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, which were also impacted by the hurricane.

Two hotels -- one in Mobile [Alabama], and one in Helen [Georgia] -- have indicated they will likely be closed for the next six months to make repairs, she said. In Alabama, our properties in Mobile, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were evacuated. We have yet to receive any damage reports for those properties.

Similarly, Madison said in Mississippi, a number of properties in Biloxi have closed due to flood damage. Our properties in Hattiesburg also suffered water damage and the loss of power and water.

Larry McCrae, chairman of Best Western International said there was little information about the condition of some 36 Best Western hotels that wound up in the crosshairs of Hurricane Katrina.

We are just not able to contact many of them, McCrae said. There is no telephone. There is not cell [phone] service. Theres no power.

Some hotels, he said, had reported damage.

McCrae said he had heard an unsubstantiated report that one Best Western hotel in the New Orleans area had been completely destroyed.

We are very, very concern for our hotel operators and their staff, their families and their guests, he said.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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