When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana the Hilton New Orleans Riverside was sheltering 4,500 people. Thanks to the bravery, dedication and skill of the Hilton team, every one of those guests was kept safe through the storm and its frightening aftermath.
Hurricane Katrina proved to be the ultimate test of the staff and leadership of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. This is the story of how the hotel not only kept its guests safe, but became the model of how a hotel should operate in a disaster.
“I guess it started the Friday before Katrina.” Hotel Manager Fred Sawyers was too engrossed in budget concerns to have time to check hurricane prediction sites on the Friday before Katrina. He meant to do so but just didn’t get to it; the category 2 hurricane was predicted to hit Florida anyway. Food and Beverage Director David Blitch walked into Fred’s office around 5:00 pm and said, “We have a problem.” The path of the hurricane not only had shifted westward toward New Orleans, it had begun to grow stronger. In the absence of then-General Manager Paul Buckley, Fred was in charge. He called a 5:00 operations meeting to discuss plans and to notify management that they were going into “hurricane mode,” enacting a plan they had developed after previous hurricanes. Just as they had done the year before during Hurricane Ivan, the hotel management decided to open the Hilton at a reduced rate to New Orleanians for so-called “vertical evacuation.” The term refers to the practice of many locals who check into hotels during storms with the assumption that they will be safer than in their homes. By the next morning, the Hilton had taken about 800 new reservations, to bring total reservations up to 1200 rooms, and Katrina was still gaining strength. Not wanting to tax the hotel’s resources in what was then predicted to be a dangerous category 4 hurricane, Fred called Director of Revenue Management Felicia Wano and told her, “close us down, that’s enough locals.” Fred returned Saturday night to prepare his house for a hurricane, little realizing he would not return for nearly a month, when the six feet of water that ruined his Lakeview home had subsided. He and his wife packed their bags and three cats and prepared to ride out the storm at the Hilton. Just before leaving, Fred had a bad feeling about the storm and asked his wife Jayme to head north instead of accompanying him to the hotel. Jayme argued, but finally agreed to drive to Little Rock. “In retrospect it was the best decision I made – I didn’t have to worry about the well-being of my family,” says Fred. That decision would allow him to remain calm later when cracks in the hotel cascaded water into the building, the city of New Orleans fell to massive flooding and anarchy, and the hotel had to evacuate guests under dangerous Fred Sawyers and Larry Imhoff order supplies and uncertain circumstances. after Hurricane Katrina
An Incomplete Story Author’s note: After I interviewed one person about what happened at the hotel during Hurricane Katrina, I naively thought I had the whole tale. But it became clear that no one person knew the whole story. Instead, each person I spoke to contributed a different perspective, a different piece of the puzzle, and also pointed to others who deserved a share of the credit. Pulling together this confusing tangle of perspectives began to give me a sense of the extraordinary teamwork that made an impossible situation work. Although this article pieces together stories from various departments, it is itself incomplete. I could not possibly speak to everyone involved, or recognize every heroic deed performed here during and after Hurricane Katrina. Nor does this story address the bravery of those who weathered the storm elsewhere, but returned to rebuild despite losing their homes, their city, the structure of their lives. In a way, it reflects how a hotel should work on a day to day basis. None of us makes the whole story, but we do the best we can with our part – and somehow the pieces fall into place.
This special edition newsletter was written and edited by Lisa Dare Photos courtesy of David Blitch Cover satellite photo courtesy of Wikipedia
After 5:00 am “things got bad really quickly,” says Fred. The long, intense hurricane lasted until noon, with a brief respite around 10:00 am when the eye passed over New Orleans. Windows in two of the guest rooms blew out, most likely from debris flying from the top floor of the World Trade Center, but all the guests remained safe, and were even served a hot buffet breakfast. Around 6:30 am the power went out for good. There were back up generators but they could only run emergency lighting. Without any airconditioning in that humid, hot August, the hotel would become stiflingly, dangerously to some, hot. Later, Fred had to make the decision to limit the water pressure in the hotel to save generator power for lights and one elevator used to transport handicapped guests. The hotel became not only miserably hot but smelly. The breezeway that connected the main building and Riverside building had windows blown out and guests had to be directed through service hallways with no lights to get to the main building for meals – a dangerous and tricky problem that the staff handled well, guiding guests through a maze of back halls. Catering Manager Beth Tusa says “we know things about the hotel we never knew before…and I’ve been here 20 years.” The hurricane dislodged the entire main building third-floor pool cabana and threw it against the glass, breaking it and throwing glass and water down to the second floor, where Fred and some firefighters were crossing – forcing them to run for cover. The worst of the damage happened in the health club. The roof of the health club started to peel back, allowing water to pour into the area where 450 team members and families were staying on inflatable beds. The evacuation from the health club to the first floor ballrooms was wet, dark and dangerous, but everyone made it out safely. Fred knew the hotel buildings could structurally stand up to the storm winds because he had been assured of that by Chief Engineer Larry Imhoff, a veteran of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside since it opened in 1977. However, the water that was invading the hotel from various bits of damage was causing serious problems. It flooded the phone lines so eventually PBX had to be shut down and all the phone lines failed; it flooded the health club and made its way to lower meeting room floors, ruined the sales office and front desk, forcing the removal of massive amounts of computer equipment and, worst of all, caused elevators to fail. Without elevators in the 29-floor building, many older and infirm guests could not come down for meals. Hilton team members walked the many flights of stairs to bring them food. Eventually, when these guests started leaving the hotel, team members had to carry them down the stairs - some of them in wheelchairs. The water also flooded the public address system, forcing the staff to find creative ways of communicating with guests. Team members had passed out information with hurricane advice before the storm. Now without a functioning copy machine, they spent hours sending voicemails to rooms in batches, and eventually switched to using signs on an easel outside of the makeshift cafeteria. The communication helped keep guests calm and informed. Continued on page 4
Health Club Shelter On the first week of Patrick Meuche’s new job as Health Club Director, Mark Volterre kept harassing him. “We have to talk about the hurricanes,” Mark told him repeatedly. Patrick put it out of his mind during that busy week, figuring there was not much to talk about. How could a hurricane in any way relate to his job? When they finally did get to the subject, Mark dumped an enormous manual on Patrick’s desk describing the Hilton’s standard operating procedures in the event of a hurricane. Only then did Patrick realize that the health club might one day become a shelter filled with team members as well as their families and pets. When Patrick came in the Saturday before Hurricane Katrina for an important tennis tournament he brought his overnight bag with him, expecting to stay for the weekend. As soon as the tournament ended Patrick and his small staff, assisted by Engineering, began inflating the hundreds of rafts they stored in the health club. The health club had purchased the rafts years before when they realized there would never be enough cots during a hurricane. On Sunday morning people began trickling in to the makeshift shelter; by nightfall there were more than 450 people living in the health club. Late Sunday night Patrick called a meeting for the people from his staff who volunteered to work during the storm. He told Mark Volterre, Stacey LeBlanc, Nicholas Chetta, Gary Emery and Corey Clarke that “it’s going to get rough and ugly out there…we’re going to lose power and air-conditioning.” Patrick says, “One of my main concerns was that even during a normal storm it sounds terrible in the health club.” Before the health club staff turned the lights out at 9:00 pm on Sunday they addressed the groups of people staying in the shelter, warning that the power would probably go out and that the storm would sound much worse than it actually was. Patrick wanted the guests to understand the situation so they would remain calm; this strategy would later backfire when people were actually too complacent in the face of emergency. The storm arrived and Patrick began to worry about the tin roof of the health club. He decided to meet with Hotel Manager Fred Sawyers to form a back-up plan for the refugees in the club. While they were determining where the evacuees should be placed, Mark called from the health club. “We gotta get them out of here,” he yelled at Patrick. “The roof is peeling off, it’s going!” Continued on page 5
Continued from page 3 When it later became clear that the city of New Orleans needed to be evacuated, team members visited with guests oneon-one to explain the situation. Guests were told that it would be smarter to leave the city if they could, but that they were welcome to stay at the hotel. Team members also reassured them that there was plenty of food and water, and that the Hilton would not abandon them. “Cut off from the world” After the hurricane, communication within the hotel was not the only problem; without televisions the information that made its way into the hotel from the outside was spotty and often inaccurate. On Tuesday a rumor circulated that a ninefoot wave would soon overtake the Hilton; luckily, Larry Imhoff “had a good head on his shoulders; he just didn’t see it happening,” according to Fred. Fred also sent someone to talk to manager Pat Shimon at the Doubletree. He got on the roof and could see water – but it was not moving. Fred and Larry were reassured, but knew that even three feet of water could cause serious problems, particularly with the generators. “The thing that frightened me the most happened on Tuesday night.” Fred felt secure in the situation until Tuesday night. Corporate Hilton was sending supplies and having enough food and water was never an issue. So far the Hilton had been spared the flooding that had overtaken 80% of the city. “But on Tuesday night looting started to break out and the lack of control in the city became obvious,” said Fred. “The thing that frightened me the most was when the National Guard, who were staying with us, came to me at midnight…they were relocating across the river to Algiers. If they got flooded in here, they wouldn’t be able to help us.”
Rain from the health club roof leak pours through the ceiling tiles
It became clear to Fred that the city was out of control and that government officials were not in a position to help them. He would have to rely on the people he trusted to get the job done: the Hilton Corporation.
Comfort Food On Monday night, Executive Chef David Woodward made everyone from the culinary department get up at 2:00 in the morning. He wanted to have a hot breakfast prepared for the more than 4500 guests staying in the hotel before the power went out. The culinary department worked throughout the night and placed the last food in warming trays just as the hotel lost power. At the height of the storm, while the tall building swayed in the ferocious winds, guests ate a hot, free breakfast in the ballrooms. The Hilton New Orleans Riverside never ran out of food or water; instead, guests ate plentiful and tasty meals during the storm and its aftermath. The Hilton had prepared hurricane menus for five days for food supplier Sysco, who in turn loaded up the necessary items for those menus on trucks. When the Hilton made the call, Sysco sent refrigerated 18-wheeler trucks filled with prepared foods, plastic dinnerware, ice, and approximately 20,000 bottles of cold water. When the power went out on Monday morning most of the gas cooking appliances shut themselves down as a safety precaution. Culinary team members toiled in the 130degree kitchen by flashlight over the two jet light gas burners normally used for crawfish boils. The first-floor kitchen became flooded and operations had to be moved to the third floor banquet kitchen. In the absence of functioning elevators, team members from purchasing and the culinary department organized a human chain up the stairs to move all the food supplies. By Tuesday afternoon, the 18-wheelers with fresh supplies arrived and the Hilton served cold cuts, prepared salads, and other items that did not need to be cooked. But the memory of team members working in the steamy kitchen to prepare meals has become Hilton legend. Guests eat a hot meal in a meeting room after the hotel loses power
“It’s not about the hotel anymore.”
Health Club Shelter
At around 2:00 am on Wednesday morning, Fred placed a call to Area Vice President Andy Slater on the only functioning phone line in the hotel. “Andy, it’s not about the hotel anymore. It’s about getting people out,” Fred told him. Andy began to arrange the evacuation, securing about 25 buses to evacuate anyone left in the hotel on Wednesday afternoon. HNOR began the process of organizing the evacuation and securing the hotel. After lunch the HNOR staff gathered the remaining 800 people at the hotel into the Hilton Exhibition Center and explained the situation: the buses were going to evacuate everyone to Baton Rouge where a Hilton team was arranging for rooms and transportation out of the city. “And then we waited.” Once everyone was gathered into the HEC, team members assigned them to buses and arranged them in groups so they would be ready for a speedy and orderly evacuation. The stifling heat and pitch black of the HEC made for an uncomfortably long wait, but everyone bore it well, knowing that the buses were going to rescue them by 9:00 pm. Without cell phone contact, Fred had no way of knowing exactly when the buses would arrive or where they were. 9:00 came and went, then 10:00 and still no buses. “We finally got word around 11:00 that the buses were at the Hilton New Orleans Airport but they were refusing to come to the city,” says Fred. Reports of rampant violence and chaos in New Orleans had made the drivers afraid to enter the city. Fred, who had been communicating with guests on his bullhorn, remained positive, calming them by assuring them that the buses would indeed come. Secretly, he was not sure they would make it there before day break. Regional Director of Loss Prevention Paul Frederick and HNOA Executive Manager Craig Mouney set to work persuading the bus drivers that they could not leave the Hilton evacuees stranded. “I knew some people were beginning to lose hope.” Fred knew they could not wait until daylight for the buses. Some of the guests were panicking or losing hope, and he had to get them out. Security Director Joe Lopinto, a retired NOPD police captain, convinced some of his officer friends to meet the buses on the Crescent City Connection and escort them behind the convention center to the Hilton. The bus drivers again faltered; only when Hilton Airport’s Assistant Food and Beverage Director Michael Marquis and Assistant Director of Engineering Gerald Osborne volunteered to accompany the drivers to New Orleans did they agree to come. Joe Lopinto and the officers drove out to meet the buses at the toll plaza on the other end of the Crescent City Connection, only to be told by the National Guard that the buses were not allowed into the city and needed to wait for orders from the government. After a heated 45-minute discussion, Joe convinced the Guardsmen to let the buses cross the bridge. Fred finally got word around 2:30 am that the buses were on their way. “I’ll never forget how happy I was seeing the headlights indicating that the buses were here.” The situation was far from over, however. Looters were spotted around the hotel and there was fear that they might overtake the buses. Managers and the two police officers left in the building guarded the driveway with guns and waited for the buses. When the buses finally began to arrive, another problem presented itself. Some of the buses got separated from the convoy, which had driven without Continued on page 6
Evacuees flee the health club Continued from page 3 Patrick bolted up the back stairs, one of only two ways into the health club. The elevator was not an option, so all 450 evacuees would have to make their way down the stairwell. The evacuees did not seem to realize that there was a problem with the roof, as they could not distinguish the noise from the other violent sounds outside. Apparently Patrick’s warning for them to remain calm worked too well. The health club staff convinced people to leave, but many insisted on keeping their sleeping rafts. This presented a serious safety hazard in the cramped stairwell, which had turned into a virtual wind tunnel when a part of the roof near it peeled back. Desperate to get people through, Patrick took a razor to their rafts. Mark, Patrick, Stacey and other staff escorted the people down the stairwell onto the third floor. It was a tedious process, because some of the people were elderly and slow-moving, and the rafts initially hindered progress. Just as the last group cleared the stairwell, the poolside cabana came loose and shattered the glass by the escalator. The three broke into a run, terrified the glass and debris were going to hit them. They managed to dodge the broken glass and made their way down to the first floor ballroom. Although the health club suffered extensive damage during the storm, everyone staying made it through safely.
lights the back way behind flood walls to the hotel. Fred worried that the buses would not be enough but kept this information to himself. “It wouldn’t do any good to tell people,” he thought. The rest of the buses finally did arrive but they drove to the Hilton by way of Convention Center Boulevard with their lights on alerting the masses of New Orleanians who had gathered to wait for rescue. Some of them followed the buses to see what was going on, but were turned away by police officers recruited by Joe Lopinto. Fred knew that there were barely enough buses to evacuate the hotel; if the buses were overtaken by people desperate to get out of the city there would be a confrontation. The orderly staging of the evacuees took on a frantic new pace. “We loaded about 800 people in 45 minutes.” Security officers, Purchasing Director Steve Stanton, Executive Chef David Woodward, Marketing Director Eric Janecke and others threw the passengers’ luggage onto the buses and herded them and their pets out in 45 minutes. But they still had to go to the Doubletree for their evacuees. Unfortunately, they had given up hope that the buses would arrive and had fallen asleep. They were roused and loaded, and the buses finally left, followed by the staff members in cars. The convoy made its way, again without lights, behind the flood walls out of the city. The evacuees arrived in Baton Rouge at the Embassy Suites around daybreak. The Hilton corporation and the Embassy Suites management had food and rooms and doctors waiting, as well as buses to Dallas, San Antonio and Houston or the Baton Rouge airport. “The Hilton Corporation did an amazing job of pulling all of this together,” said Fred. “Everybody who stayed was a hero.” The letters the hotel received in the weeks after the hurricane were full of praise for the staff and leadership of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. “There were so many heroes,” says Director of Revenue Management Felicia Wano. “Everyone who worked at the hotel took on a mission and... made a difference to somebody.”
Looking Back at 2005 This has been a year of change, and a year of discovery. There are obvious signs of changes for the worse: sooty grey wastelands where there were once thriving neighborhoods; the near-absence of children in the city; the astonishing quiet that fills up New Orleans every night, quiet in a city known for music and an exuberant nightlife. There are changes for the better: neighborhoods banding together, the kindness that so many strangers have shown, the chance to pull our schools from their stagnation and to do things a little better. And for many, a mixed bag full of sorrow, joy, renewed zest for life, despair, gratitude, anger. I doubt there is one New Orleans soul untouched by each of those emotions. Times of crisis either rip people apart from each other or bring them together. And the Hilton family has proved itself to be just that: a family of people who can depend on each other. Just as the Hilton New Orleans Riverside depended upon its team members and leadership to keep our guests safe and comfortable in the storm and its aftermath, team members have been able to depend on the Hilton. The hotel kept not only all the guests safe, but the team members and their families and pets who chose to evacuate to the hotel. When water and food were scarce in the city, and ice non-existent, the hotel had already made plans to have truckloads of these crucial items delivered. Fred Sawyers remembers realizing that help was not on the way to New Orleans, and that he would have to depend upon the Hilton Corporation to do the job of protecting and evacuating the stranded guests and team members itself. When the remaining 800 people arrived in Baton Rouge they found doctors, free rooms, and food waiting for them. They were also provided with transportation to the airport or buses to three Texas cities. The commitment did not end there. After the storm, each team member was paid for five weeks of work; those who came back to work during that period were paid extra. The Hilton Hotels Corporation also donated a $400 tax-free contribution to each team member. In contrast, Wal-Mart paid its displaced employees for three days. Despite huge financial losses from the storm, the Hilton New Orleans Riverside found room for all team members who wanted to come back, so long as they were willing to work in a department that could use them. The Hilton New Orleans Riverside also housed over 200 team members and their families, providing meals for all seven
Looking Forward.... December 27, 2005 Dear Team Members: A new year is upon us. Sadly, I’m sure very few of you will look back on 2005 with any fondness – the effects of Hurricane Katrina are still with us, and likely will be well into 2006. But I’m writing today to tell you that you should look back on 2005 with pride. Prior to Katrina, thanks to your efforts, we were well on our way to a banner year, quite possibly “All Green” on the Balanced Scorecard. Remember the Balanced Scorecard? We were beating our competitors, beating our financial goals, were green in Team Member loyalty, and were trending from yellow to green in Guest Loyalty. Then disaster struck. Yet once again, you demonstrated Hilton Pride and came together to help our guests, fellow TMs and their families make it through Katrina. Despite great personal sacrifice and hardship, you found your way back to the Hilton and helped us clean up and rebuild. You served emergency workers, your coworkers and their families as we all sought to overcome this tragedy. You were heroes. And so, we enter 2006 with hope and the bonds of shared experience. To my way of thinking, no team could be stronger. We face the challenge of rebuilding together – rebuilding this hotel, this city, and our lives. Personally, I can’t imagine a more meaningful and important task, and I’m certain we can do it. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy. But this team has shown how great it can be – before, during and after Katrina – and it will show greatness again. How do we do it? One day at a time. Each day, commit yourself to being the best you can be in whatever role you play. Remember our Ten Points of Service and the Language of Service, and apply it each moment you are here. Remember that what you do matters – it makes a difference in the peoples’ lives you touch. Treat every guest (and every Team Member) like your best friend. Take pride in everything you do. Take care of yourself and each other, as you’ve always done. Smile even when it’s hard. Laugh when you feel like crying, or better yet, make someone else laugh. Don’t succumb to self-pity, but don’t be afraid to ask for help either. Above all, keep the faith. And day by day, we’ll get there - we’ll get our hotel, our city and our lives back. Do these things, and I guarantee you, we’ll all look back on 2006 and say “What an amazing year!” Thank you all, and God bless you,
Looking Back at 2005 (cont.) days a week. The Hilton used its own resources to establish a team member assistance center. This center became instrumental in providing guidance for team members trying to navigate a tangle of government and private aid programs, as well as providing information about the city. It brought the Red Cross and FEMA right to the hotel to better serve team members. Echoing the sentiments of many team members, Beth Tusa sums up her hurricane experience: “I’m glad I did this for myself, I’m glad I did it for the Hilton, and I’m glad the Hilton was here for us after.”
Katrina Heroes Tony Abadie Lionel Adams Cynthia Ackerson Dinora Aguilera Celeste Anding Robert Abbott Donald Amadee John Asselstine Nicole Atwood Warren Avist Nolan Batiste Kenneth Bearden Duane Beasley Glen Benitez Cathy Bingham David Blitch Dora Boles Wayne Boudreaux Chad Bourg Raymond Bovia, Jr. Jay Bowman Sean Brodie Micheal Brown Rosalyn Brown Ennis Calvey Evelina Canicosa Hung Cao Theodore Carey Robert Carpenter Patricia Ceasar Neurun Chao Victoria Christen Sun Jun Cho Marylyn Clark Reagan Clay Fernell Colbert Amr Costandi Kim Costandi Chris Curry Eddie Cutno Sabrina Dabney George Dale
Maria Lorena de la Torre Anthony Dennis Gloria Dixon Doug Dunlop Donald Dwyer Gary Emery Rony Espinal Michael Fink Lisa Finley Gretchen Fisher Lucien Fortune Wendell Frazier Chad Gilchrist John Gilbert Gloria Dixon Dana Gilmore Stacie Glorioso Ana Gomez Carlton Gray Charles Gravois Lecia Grossley Dennis Hall Arthur Harris Theresa Henry Tammy Hickox Douglas Higgins Bobby Hinton Jim Hogberg Clois Hunter Larry Imhoff Kenneth Jackson Monique Jackson Joseph James Eric Janecke Carl Johnson Useph Johnson James Johnson Marlon Johnson John Johnston Hope Larios Roger Lawson Stacey LeBlanc
“Everyone who stayed was a hero...each person took on a mission and made a difference to somebody.”
Trung Le Loan Lenz Steve Lenz Charlotte Lewis Jerry Lee Lewis Kevyn Lewis Joe Lopinto O’neal Matirne Delores Magee Lisa Melancon Shean Metoyer Carrie Meyer Patrick Meuche Siobhan Michel Marcela Moresco George Muhs Luis Munoz Celeste Myers Edwin Narcisse Boi Nguyen Danny Nguyen Hong Nguyen Ky Nguyen Ngoc-Mai Nguyen Truyen Nguyen Johnny Noble Leslie Ogden Joe Palermo Schewanda Parker Lisa Pedone Arleen Petersen Minh Pham John Potts, III Patricia Reese Kimberly Reid Nedra Ricard Nicholas Riley James Robinson Deidre Rodriguez Sharon Rodriguez Maurice Rollins Robert Romance
“The Hilton will become the yardstick against which all other properties are measured.”
Elisia Ross Fred Sawyers Glen Schmidt Jill Smith Reginald Smith Sherman Smith Sylvester Smith Tiffany Soles Allen Solomon Steve Stanton Charlotte Shahlaei Judith Sirit Kenyell Taft Joyce Tang Tommie Taylor Clifford Terry Jim Thibodeaux Carlos Toledo Reginald Tolliver Rose Mary Tubbs Beth Tusa Butch Undag Mary Beth Villa Gloria Vereen Mark Volterre Mary Vuong Felicia Wano Calvin Ward Cathy Ward Michael Warren Damien Washington Rosalind Washington Wanda Watson Laurie Watt Lawrence Westley Cedric Williams Stephanie Williams Sterling Williams Terrance Williams, Sr. Gina Wilson Eddie Witchen David Woodward