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At a New Orleans hotel, the usually mundane becomes luxurious

NEW ORLEANS—It's the place where you can get hot scrambled eggs, when there are no eggs, where the phone lines occasionally work, when there are no phone lines, where the elevators even go up and down, sometimes.

The Hyatt Regency in downtown New Orleans has joined a long line of hotels around the world in which journalists, government officials and emergency personnel have congregated to weather a crisis and manage—or cover—the response.

The day after several hundred hurricane evacuees managed to leave the building, along with most of the employees, the Hyatt on Saturday began to resemble the bunkered-down hotels of war zones: the Mille Collines in Rwanda, the Commodore in Beirut and the Palestine of Baghdad.

There's trash in the halls, urine in the lobby, shattered glass on the escalators. One entire wall of windows was blown out during the storm. Many of the toilets are backed up. The rooms are sweltering.

It's the nicest place in town.

The hotel staff has dwindled to 20 management-level employees who spend their days responding to guests' crises and coming up with remarkable little luxuries, such as a wireless Internet connection in the boarded-up lobby or hot scrambled eggs and grits for breakfast.

But there are too many crises to leave the employees much time for luxuries, such as the New Orleans zoo director who was caged in the elevator for three hours Saturday when the generator died. Hyatt employees used a crowbar to open the elevator.

"These guys at the Hyatt are incredible," said just-freed Robert Foreman, of the Audubon Society, which runs the city's zoo and aquarium. "They're doing everything humanly possible to help the people here."

The mayor, police chief and fire chief are all staying here, along with a hundred or so police officers from various agencies and some 150 National Guard troops. Dozens of journalists from around the country are camped out in rooms and hallways. CBS's "60 Minutes" set up in the center of the closed restaurant to film an interview with the mayor.

They're all general manager Michael Smith's responsibility.

"The whole week has been an ebb and flow: You get power, you don't have power; you have elevators, you don't have elevators," Smith said. "We had 125 people who walked in the building and the next day needed medicine."

Smith got it. He found cash in the safe to give enough money to go someplace safe to all the employees who left Friday. And he scrounged up the crowbar to free the zoo director.

Smith had 3,800 people holed up in the 1,200-room hotel during the storm, including 150 stranded tourists and hotel employees and their families.

During Katrina, people were shepherded into third-floor ballrooms, some with their pet dogs. Some guests signed liability waivers allowing them to stay in their rooms, then had to be rescued during the brunt of the winds.

Most guests were able to leave Friday, but Smith soon had to deal with a new problem.

The people being evacuated from the Superdome streamed through a second-floor walkway connecting the hotel to the stadium to reach the buses that would take them out. They left behind trash, and with no facilities to relieve themselves, the second floor now smells pretty bad.

"I look around the hotel and see feces and urine and trash, and the place smells," Smith said. "In my wildest imagination I would never have imagined this. I'm numb. It's like a war zone. I see (National Guardsmen) downstairs—17 years old, with a rifle—guarding my hotel, and I'm wondering if they're going to pull the trigger."

Hyatt officials in Atlanta and Houston drove truckloads of supplies in Monday and Wednesday, getting police escorts, one of the things the Hyatt doesn't have trouble finding. Hyatt's executive assistant manager for food and beverage, brought in from the corporate offices in Chicago, set up trash containers in the hallways.

"The hotel, all things considered, has held up remarkably well," said Rod West, the regional manager for Entergy, the electrical company. He's staying in the hotel along with other Entergy brass as they try to restore power to the city. West said he expected to stay for a while, months even.

"They've really done a phenomenal job here," he said. "They're getting us what we need, under the circumstances."

Smith plans to continue doing that for months if West and the others need it.

"I'm here as long as the city needs me," he said, as an employee pulled him away to respond to another crisis.


(Nesmith reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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