|By Cheryl Hall, The Dallas Morning News
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 18, 2005 - HOTEL HOME TO 633 GUESTS, 633 STORIES: Ray Hammer has a full hotel that he's urgently trying to empty.
But first he has to help his 630 guests at the Sheraton Park Central reconstruct lives ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Hammer, 47, is general manager of the Sheraton on LBJ Freeway and the adjacent Westin Park Central on Merit Drive. New York-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Inc. operates the hotels, which are owned by Irving-based FelCor Lodging Trust Inc.
Shortly after the levees broke -- in one of those instant-action, CEO-to-CEO phone calls -- Starwood and FelCor decided to house and feed employees of the Sheraton New Orleans, W French Quarter and W New Orleans and their families at the hotel.
The employees are also getting paid through September, and many of them will return to their jobs in New Orleans.
Mr. Hammer and his staff are helping their guests apply for government assistance and unemployment compensation, get medical treatment, find housing, enroll their children in schools and win new jobs.
Normally, the 430-room Sheraton Park Central, a victim of the High Five Construction zone, is only open when the Westin needs overflow space. Because Mr. Hammer uses Westin employees and contract staff for these sporadic occupancies, he got the shuttered hotel functioning in eight hours.
"We have a thing here called 'speed to market,'" Mr. Hammer says. "Whenever we want to do something, we just do it. Then we fix or tweak it. Our focus was to just get the folks in here and then worry about who needed what."
The weary survivors began arriving by the busload in the predawn hours the Thursday after the storm.
Mr. Hammer hosted a poolside welcoming party and noticed a little girl watching other kids swim. He told her he'd get her a suit if she needed one.
"She looked at me and said, 'It's nice to be dry.' That put it all in perspective for me."
Employees and their kin continue to stream in as word spreads that there's free safe haven in North Dallas.
They're surprised that Starwood would shelter so many. They'd be even more surprised to learn that a portion of this hospitality is coming from a company they've never heard of. FelCor doesn't own the Big Easy's Sheraton or W hotels -- it actually owns three competitors.
Mr. Hammer doesn't know what this is costing Starwood and FelCor. Frankly, he doesn't care -- as long his bosses don't.
"It might be interesting to know, but it really doesn't matter," he says. "We're going to do everything that needs to be done because it's the right thing to do."
So whose budget is this coming out of?
"Corporate," he answers with a smile.
One man, grabbing an early morning cup of coffee, explains that his wife's son is a Starwood employee. "I'm here legally," he says, as if he expects his presence to be challenged.
He needn't worry.
"We have associates, families and neighbors of nephews here," says Mr. Hammer. "It's a pretty wide spectrum."
But don't call them evacuees or refugees. Mr. Hammer insists that each man, woman and child is a hotel guest.
"Everything we do comes from the voice of the customer -- although it's not as if they say, 'You know what we need?' But if you listen and observe, you can figure out what needs to be done."
Mr. Hammer set up computers, then realized that many didn't know how to use them. Now there's staff to help.
He noticed guys dribbling basketballs in the driveway, so he had a hoop put up behind the parking garage.
"We had an apartment company in and leased out more than 30 apartments in two days," he says.
Early on, the hotel held a Dallas-wide all-Starwood job fair and filled every open position at the two Sheratons and four Westins here.
Mr. Hammer brought in a "secretary of housing" to find help with federal housing assistance.
Hotel vans shuttle guests to Reunion Arena, government agencies, job interviews, doctor and eye appointments, apartment complexes and, of course, to the nearest Wal-Mart.
Each morning, school buses roll up to take 91 children to Richardson schools.
More than 1,800 meals are prepared at the Westin each day and trucked across the street.
Doctors, lawyers, employment agencies, apartment locators, barbers, beauticians and check-cashing companies have donated services. The staff at nearby Medical City Hospital Dallas gave hepatitis and tetanus shots to nearly 200 people.
"All I've had to do is pick up the phone and ask," says Mr. Hammer. "No matter who I call about whatever I need, no one says no."
The families here fought through hell's gates to remain united. Yet everyone fears more disruption and separation.
Don Hurst, the 40-year-old official "Welcoming Ambassador" of the W New Orleans near the convention center, is here with his wife, Darlene Moore-Hurst, and their 6-year-old daughter; his in-laws, Alberta Iona and Arthur Moore; and his 10-year-old nephew, Mallik Bridges.
The Moores, both 63, want to return to the only hometown they've ever known.
Mr. Moore is worrying about their New Orleans home.
"Can you please tell them not to knock down our door?" he pleads, with a grip of a man who works with his hands. "We got no bodies in there, and the water will go away in time. I know because I stayed until Wednesday. We'll be OK if they just don't tear up the place."
"It'll be OK, baby," Mrs. Moore reassures her husband of 42 years. Then she says, "He wants to go back, so if we can, we will."
But Ms. Moore-Hurst, the chief executive of Michoud Credit Union at the Lockheed-Martin assembly plant, and Mr. Hurst aren't so sure. They've gone on the Internet, pinpointed their house and know that it's gone.
If they can work things out, they'd like to stay here.
David Carter, who mans the Sheraton's front desk in the evenings, says the one thing these guests want more than any creature comforts is someone to listen.
"I've heard so many, many stories," he says. "It's really hard to absorb all the stories."
Robin Parker, a 39-year-old mother of three and security supervisor at the Sheraton New Orleans, is helping with security here.
"It's been hell, to be honest," she says. "I was hoping to wake up and find that this would all be gone. But now I know we've got to move on."
Ms. Parker was on the job when the storm hit. Her children were with her ex-husband, Peter Parker, a New Orleans police officer who was on vacation.
As the floodwaters rose, Mr. Parker and the children sought refuge at a neighborhood La Quinta. But it was quickly submerged to the second floor.
Mr. Parker put the kids on a boat, made sure everyone got out of the hotel and then voluntarily returned to duty.
Ms. Parker, who was safe and dry downtown, didn't know his fate or her children's for three days. "We heard my ex-husband talking over the police radio saying he still needed to be rescued. He still had 93 people with him."
Ms. Parker found her children in Lafayette and hitched a ride there with a policewoman.
She has no home, no car and no permanent job. But she has her kids and high hopes.
Her story really isn't any more remarkable than anyone else's staying in the hotel.
Mr. Hammer acts like a tough-love principal as he makes his morning hallway rounds.
"What's your plan for today?" he asks warmly.
"Are you going to school today? Why not?" he gently challenges a preteen girl, who looks at him as if he has three heads.
"You missed the bus? How'd that happen?" he chides a high-schooler who's a head taller than he is.
He's operating under deadline pressure. The goal is to have everyone checked out of the hotel by Sept. 30 -- two weeks away.
Last week's priority was determining where each guest -- employee and non -- stood as far as FEMA, housing, employment and an expected checkout date. Those lagging are being given more case management.
About 20 rooms have been vacated as people find permanent lodging. Four buses with about 55 employees headed back to New Orleans, where the Sheraton partially reopened last week.
But others are just checking in. One W employee made his way from a shelter in Austin to Dallas on Wednesday.
Guest count as of Friday was 633, about where it was the first week.
On Tuesday, Dan King, the general manager of the Sheraton New Orleans, left New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. He came to Dallas for a Sheraton "family reunion" and steak dinner.
"I'm telling them to come on back," he says.
Mr. Hammer doesn't know what's going to happen at the end of the month -- and if he does, he's not saying.
After two and a half weeks of going full throttle, he's both tired and exhilarated.
"We're in the service industry that helps people all day long," he says. "But this is a whole different kind of help with a whole different level of satisfaction."
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