Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Story from New Orleans Hotel

I wrote this article after spending the night in a Canal Street hotel while the city was still engulfed in chaos less than a week after Katrina hit. A shorter version of this unedited draft was published in The Times-Picayune.

Business writer

From a second story balcony overlooking a wrecked Canal Street, Patrick Quinn and the last of his senior hotel managers laid out their plan for reopening the Astor Crown Plaza Hotel.
First, they will bring in a bigger generator to get lights and air-conditioning working in the 512-room, four-star property at 739 Canal.

Then they will bring a crew into the city to clean the hotel. And line up vendors to deliver supplies.

Lastly, and perhaps most critical, will be getting fresh water flowing through the hotel's plumbing. But there is no way of knowing when the city will restore the service.
"One of the toughest things for us will be that there will be some things beyond our control," Quinn said.

If everything works as planned, the Astor could be housing soldiers and federal emergency workers within weeks, he said.

"It's going to be hell, but we'll just take it one step at a time," said Bruce Perone, the hotel's food and beverage director.

It was a surreal session played out at 11 p.m., Saturday, amid the ruin and death that now fills New Orleans.

It seemed almost preposterous to have the discussion when mere survival for some people still trapped in the city remained uncertain a week after Hurricane Katrina struck.

But Quinn's optimism offered evidence that at least some of the city's leading business people are determined to return and lead an economic resurrection.

Every half hour or so, a truck passed along the neutral ground of Canal below the balcony carrying four heavily armed soldiers. Just before midnight, automatic gun fire erupted a block and a half up the street from the hotel when a security truck focused its spotlight on a building.

Overhead, helicopters buzzed over the French Quarter, shining bright spotlights on the deserted streets below. The only other sound came from humming generators that fed electricity to the handful of downtown hotels still occupied.

Even the insects seemed to have abandoned the city.

The night sky was filled with a canopy of stars normally made invisible by the city's bright lights.
But amid the grim reality gripping New Orleans, Quinn and his managers could see the seeds of a rebirth.

If anyone can pull it off, he probably can.

Quinn is one of the most successful hoteliers in the city, opening a string of high-end properties over the last 16 years that fed off a booming tourism and convention business.

But the tourists and conventioneers won't be returning to the City that Care Forgot anytime soon.

"One of the biggest issues six months and a year from now will be will the customers come back," Quinn said.

"Conventions are going to be terrified of booking here during hurricane season," Astor General Manager Peter Ambrose said.

So Quinn is turning his entrepreneurial sights on what likely will be the city's biggest industry for the coming years: reconstruction.

Despite the massive challenges, he held out hope his businesses and his hometown.

"I've never even thought about the alternative of rebuilding," he said. "I've seen places like Pensacola (Fla.) and Destin (Fla.) devastated by hurricanes and a few years later they were back.

"A lot of people go through adversity, and they put it away and move forward," he said. "New Orleans is a great town, and it needs to survive."

Quinn's eyes might be focused on the future, but the remnants of his staff that have remained at the Astor won't soon forget their harrowing last seven days.

Ambrose and Perone saw the weather forecast pointing the menacing storm at New Orleans, and they believed it.

The managers started preparing for the worst possible outcome on the Friday before landfall. They filled dozens of garbage cans with 2,000 gallons of water. They made 8,000 pounds of ice and stuffed it into kitchen freezers. The increased their stockpiles of food. And they collected medical supplies.

They didn't want any guests to come to the three-year-old hotel but they knew they would come anyway so the managers prepared.

By Sunday night, nearly 2,000 were hunkered down at the Astor. Many simply showed up at the front door, desperate for safe lodging during the storm.

"We encouraged them not to come, but they kept coming," Quinn said.

Once the storm moved through, managers started moving guests out of the city, but transportation was limited and the evacuation took days.

Through it all, the Astor's executive chef, Gaetan Croissier, and sous chef, Kurt Wolf, prepared three meals a day for everyone. They made the most of what they had, making beef stew tenderloin steak, coffee each morning and peanut butter and bagels for breakfast.

"We have eaten well. Those guys are amazing," Perone said.

The kitchen's freezers still held frozen meat on Sunday, nearly a week after the disaster, thanks to the stockpile of ice collected before the storm.

The guests included 20 people in wheelchairs, an elderly man with a feeding tube, a woman who gave birth by Cesarean section the night before the storm hit, and a 400 pound man with a bad heart who was confined to his room and had to be fed and cleaned.

As conditions in the hotel worsened last week, the staff recruited guests to help cook and clean. A minister in the group organized daily 10 a.m. prayer services that represented all faiths present among the guests.

Many of the guests left the hotel in the first days after the storm, but as the situation in the city became more desperate the remaining guests refused to seek transportation from the Superdome or the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Ambrose said.

Quinn ordered a fleet of buses to pick up the guests on Wednesday, but the vehicles were seized by federal authorities when they arrived in the city. A second fleet arrived Sunday afternoon, under armed guard, and finally removed the remaining guests. About 20 hotel staffers remain in the building.

"We saved a lot of people's lives, I swear to God," Perone said.

He and Amborse said they won't leave the Astor unless authorities force them out.

"This is our livelihood. This is what we do," Perone said. "We came here to protect our futures."

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