Islanders reaching out to Gulf Coast - A `kindness of strangers"

By Mary L. Grady

Two Islanders have been working phones and computers to help employees and guests at a hotel in downtown New Orleans.

Gordon Ahalt and Jack vanHartesvelt are executives for Kennedy Associates Real Estate Counsel in downtown Seattle. The firm is a registered real estate advisory firm that manages investments for government and corporate pension funds.

One of those investments is the Loew's Hotel at the edge of the Warehouse District in the heart of downtown New Orleans. The hotel, its employees and guests took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina.

Ahalt said that employees at the hotel had been making preparations in the days before the storm raged through the Delta.

``Well before the storm, employees and guests had been encouraged to leave,'' Ahalt said. ``But many were not able to leave, so the hotel prepared for the worst.''

As the storm approached, hotel staff stocked up on extra food and distributed flashlights to guests. They filled bathtubs with water and emergency generators with gas. They boarded up the windows. Ahalt estimates that about 130 people remained at the hotel as the storm hit land.

``We were in uncharted waters,'' he said. ``After the storm hit, we had to consider the notion that we did not know how many of our 200 employees were even alive.''

But 100 checked in during the first week, he added.

When the levees broke and martial law was declared, it was time to go. The people left together in a caravan of cars belonging to guests and employees.

According to Ahalt, the travelers siphoned gas from other cars not knowing if or where they could get more.

But the biggest problem was finding their way out of the city. The obvious evacuation routes were jammed, he said.

Frustrated, Ahalt said that he and others even tried to get the media covering the disaster to see if they could provide information via their television cameras on helicopters.

The caravan was able finally to get out of the city and then re-sorted as people headed for Texas or points east.

But as guests and employees at the hotel got out, other fears remained.

For several days the building has been watched by armed security guards. But as of Tuesday, Sept. 13, Ahalt and vanHartesvelt were hoping they could do without the security.

As the flood waters slowly recede, the building has stood empty, boarded up and locked.

It is a $70 million-plus investment that grosses an average of $2.5 million each month for the company.

The 300,000 square foot, two-year-old hotel has 280 guest rooms, with dining and meeting facilities and a spa. Ahalt believes that the building is not badly damaged. The hotel is 8 feet above sea level and was not flooded.

The ceiling fell in the dining room, probably because something set off the sprinkler system, vanHartesvelt speculated.

It could have been worse.

As the 100 mph-plus winds blew the rain sideways into the building, guests pitched in by stuffing towels everywhere.

``It is `thanks to the kindness of strangers,''' he said. ``The guests helped save the building. They saved the company millions of dollars.''

``We know who all of those people are -- we are going to find them and invite them and their families back for a visit on us,'' he said.

Neighboring hotels and businesses pitched in to help each other too.

The Harrah's Casino across the street is the second largest land based casino in the world.

``As the looting started, we reached out to them,'' he said. ``We knew there was just a couple of people there to protect the facility and the cash -- probably a lot of cash.''

During the first several days, there was just a single land line phone at a nearby hotel that several hotels and guests shared, Ahalt explained.

Images from a rooftop security camera nearby were also shared.

``The trick now is the aftermath,'' vanHartesvelt said. ``You want to save the season.''

``July and August are not the busiest time of year for the hotels in the city,'' he noted. ``I am sure that business (for the fall months) has gone elsewhere now.''

The owners are now focused on getting the building back in shape so it can house people who need to be in the city to rebuild.

The owners are worried about water damage and mold.

The Seattle group had ordered an electric generator, one big enough to power the entire building. But the military commandeered the unit as it came to the city for other needs.

But not to be deterred, they rented another unit with a tanker truck full of gas to run it.

vanHartesvelt used to be the head of development for Westin Hotels. He has been through at least a dozen hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Overcoming nature is a matter of course.

``When this hotel (Loews) was under construction, we had to take the cranes down twice because of hurricane warnings,'' he said.

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