New Orleans hotels open up to relief workers


HARVEY, La. -- The 140-room Best Western West Bank here, a city across the Mississippi River and about five miles from downtown New Orleans, does not have a single vacancy.

Although it suffered considerable damage when Hurricane Katrina punched its way through the city and other parts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, the hotel is nevertheless open and is home to 435 Red Cross and relief workers.

The hotels owner, Dawn Boteler, was among the first to return to the devastated area. The current staff -- the Red Cross guests -- make more than 17,000 meals a day. And each morning at 3:30 Boteler starts brewing 15 gallons of coffee, before the first workers leave the hotel at 4:30 a.m.

He even had [actor] Steven Seagal there the other night, said Charlie Helm, Best Westerns secretary/treasurer. Boteler said he was a super guy for coming down and trying to get everyone cheered up from whats been going on.

Helm has been working to keep in contact with the properties in an effort to assess how they are recovering and the possibility of their return to full operation.

But it has been difficult.

Best Western has approximately 38 hotels in the region. As of last week the company still had not established contact with three properties, and they estimated that at least three hotels are considered total losses.

Simply getting around to see the properties remains problematic due to the flooding, roadblocks and other debris.

And last week the threat of another powerful hurricane -- Rita -- was keeping New Orleans hoteliers and their corporate officers on edge.

La Quinta has eight hotels in the New Orleans area. Two of the properties still have water in them -- the water had dropped from about eight feet to two feet -- and four have become shelters for relief workers, a spokeswoman said. Another two, she said, were still being assessed.

Until the water recedes we cant get in there to assess the damage, she said.

The spokeswoman said that it is possible that the two hotels that suffered water damage could be, at some time, repaired and reopened. But as you can imagine, construction crews are hard to find, she said, given the fact that they are needed elsewhere to help restore the city.

And, she added last week: Now with ... Hurricane Rita, we dont know what to expect.

Nevertheless, hotel chains are working to locate employees and to reopen properties. Most are housing volunteers, contractors and other relief workers.

Inside the Quarter, hotels like the Royal Sonesta and the Sonesta Chateau sustained minimal damage. The Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street was open throughout the hurricane with a generator, and now it has running water and air conditioning. And it doesnt lack for guests: Relief workers, CNN crews, the FBI and the citys 911 emergency desk have all taken up residence.

Once the Chateau Sonesta gets its generator -- its supposed to be delivered any minute said spokeswoman Deborah Roker -- it will house Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel.

To contact reporters Michael Milligan or Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected] or [email protected].

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