|By Kathy Bergen, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 18, 2005 - NEW ORLEANS -- The men and women who run the nation's gleaming convention hotels tend to possess a disarming charm that almost, but not quite, masks a steely resolve to keep their hospitality machines purring softly.
Michael O. Smith, who until this month ran the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, is no exception, except that his resolve was tested to the extreme this year when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the 1,184-room smoked-glass tower, blowing out windows in some 600 rooms and in the soaring atrium.
Asked about Smith's handling of the crisis, Sally Forman, a spokeswoman for New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, uttered three words.
"Oh. Oh. Oh."
Actually, it was more like, "Ohhh. Ohhh. Ohhh."
"He was just a hero," she said moments later. "He came through for us in a big way. He saw how desperate we were ... and he was completely in control."
Smith and his staff led 3,800 guests and stranded city residents to safety in third-floor ballrooms. They played host for days while the heat was ungodly, the water was not running and the power was intermittent.
They orchestrated the delivery of provisions at a time when the city was plunged into chaos. They assisted the military in evacuating the adjacent Louisiana Superdome, which meant directing more than 25,000 desperate and weary New Orleans residents through the Hyatt to awaiting buses.
And until the hotel totally closed for repairs this month, the Hyatt served as the nerve center for a shattered New Orleans. Though closed to the public after the storm, for the next three months it provided operating space and meals for the mayor, fire and police personnel, the 911 service, the energy utility, the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. And Smith turned over his living quarters to Nagin.
"I'm so proud that we absolutely, positively, had no casualties, no one was injured, no one is dead," said Smith, 48, who began working for Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels & Resorts some 27 years ago, busing tables while working on his bachelor's degree in business administration at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.
Some refused to leave
That lack of casualties was by no means guaranteed.
Though hotel staff evacuated guests from 900 guestrooms on the eve of the hurricane's arrival, some 37 guests refused to go--that is until the storm began blasting out windows in the early morning hours of Aug. 29.
Then, "There was yelling and screaming over the top of the atrium. People were screaming, 'Help, help,'" recalled Smith.
Hotel security and firefighters charged up the stairs of the 27-story hotel to rescue the holdouts.
"This is the last thing we should've had to worry about, but if they stayed in their rooms, they'd probably be dead," he said. "For the next couple of days, I never let them forget it."
Later in the week, there were other scary moments.
When authorities told Smith they planned to evacuate the Superdome by marching people through the second-floor tiled walkway running through the hotel, he initially balked.
"I was afraid for my own people and my guests," he said. "So they gave me 150 National Guards[men], armed with guns, and they formed a border through the second floor."
Staff rose to challenge
Still, Forman said, the exodus easily could have devolved into chaos without the help of the Hyatt staff. They worked alongside the military, providing water, snacks and chairs for the most vulnerable, including pregnant women, children and the elderly.
Also that week, when a police-escorted convoy carrying provisions from other Hyatt properties made it to the hotel in the wee hours of Sept. 1, there were fears the four trucks would be looted before they could be unloaded, Forman said.
"Hotel staff got on the public address system and said, 'We need every capable human being to help now,'" she said. "They had hundreds of people form a human chain from the truck to the third floor," passing the goods hand to hand.
Smith's pride in the handling of the crisis is tempered by an acute awareness of the severe crises faced by many of the hotel's 400 employees. While Hyatt is providing financial and job-placement assistance, many are coping with the deaths of loved ones, the destruction of their homes and the scattering of their families.
"These guys have nothing, and it's eating me alive," said Smith, who this month became general manager at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.
Though he's a dapper dresser in Giorgio Armani suits and Ferragamo shoes, Smith is no stranger to hard times. He grew up in a drug- and gang-infested neighborhood of Goldsboro, N.C., one of six kids raised by a single mother who worked as a domestic.
At age 27, as he was leaving for work as the banquet manager at the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati, he collapsed on the street with a brain aneurysm.
"They said I probably would not work again," he said. "But I was out of the hospital in a month and back to work in 2 1/2 months with Hyatt."
On one of his last days in New Orleans, Smith took a moment to reflect on what helped him through the crisis.
Partially, it was an understanding of perseverance.
And, partially, it was his wife, Yolanda, who was at their second home near Charlottesville, Va.
"She was the saving grace at the end of the day," he said. "Every night we'd have these long conversations. My wife is my Sigmund Freud."
Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune
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