Magazine

Dispatch: "Vertical Evacuation" At The Hilton


Fred Sawyers, 44, thought he was in for just another routine week as manager of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. When news came that a hurricane might pass nearby, he figured the giant 1,616-room inn would be a safe haven in a short storm for staffers and their families, as well as tourists and locals who wanted to find high ground. He says old Hilton hands even have a term for accommodating storm refugees in its 29-story tower: "vertical evacuation." Instead, the Stanford University graduate who once taught English in Japan and worked in hotels on the West Coast before moving to New Orleans two years ago, survived the most harrowing week of his life.

FRIDAY, AUG. 26

A colleague, David Blitch, hands Sawyers a weather report, saying "Katrina is aiming right for us." With the general manager on vacation, Sawyers tells the staff to offer all comers half-price rates; the $95-a-night fee goes mostly uncollected.

SATURDAY, AUG. 27

Very quickly, half the hotel's rooms are booked up, and many are packed with extra family members. An additional 200 reservations come in. Meanwhile, about 450 employees and their families have taken cots into the health club. By nightfall, Sawyers counts some 4,500 occupants, plus various pets. He cuts off more reservations: "I don't want to overtax our resources."

SUNDAY, AUG. 28

After spending the night at home in a nearby neighborhood, Sawyers and his wife, Jayme, gather up their valuables and three cats and prepare to head back to the hotel. But he's uneasy about his wife staying. "Baby, I don't want you to come," he tells her. "I don't have a good feeling about this. I think you should evacuate." She leaves for Little Rock, Ark.

MONDAY, AUG. 29

By 5 a.m., the rain is thundering down, the wind is howling, and the sky is growing dark. On an open-air third level of the hotel, a cabana rips loose from its moorings, shattering a glass door and exposing an area that's being used to serve meals. "Now that's compromised," Sawyers says. Water covers the floor, and the wind roars.

As the storm intensifies, the aluminum roof of the health club starts peeling back. The water pours in. Employees with flashlights guide the 450 people there through darkened hallways and stairwells to the first-floor grand ballroom.

Returning to the third floor, where people are grabbing breakfast, Sawyers shouts at guests to stand clear of the windows, where some are watching the storm rage. Only a few rooms have their windows blown out, but he worries that he'll have to treat wounded guests, cut by flying glass. Members of his staff close the blackout curtains and hunker down for six hours of a raging storm. In the end, no one is injured.

Leaks begin sprouting from ceilings and exposed areas. Tiles fall 70 feet onto the marble floor near the front desk. "Nobody was hurt, but it was scary," he says. Then water threatens the computer systems. Larry Imhoff, a 72-year-old veteran employee who runs property operations, assures Sawyers that the building won't fail. Sawyers passes the message on in a personal call with the chain's co-chairman, Barron Hilton.

Sawyers and his staff continue feeding their 4,500 refugees, bringing food directly to those who aren't able to walk down the stairs.

TUESDAY, AUG. 30.

The rain has stopped, and roads nearby are passable. Sawyers has been encouraging guests with cars to leave. Thousands do just that. Executives want to know when he can book guests again.

Soon, however, there are reports that parts of the city to the east are flooding. Sawyers worries that there won't be enough diesel fuel to keep the generators going. He limits water for showers and flushing toilets to the early morning and evenings.

Some of the elderly and ill begin to fret about their lack of medicine. A group of emergency rescue workers, in town for a convention, try to calm them even though they can offer nothing for diabetes or heart conditions. "They were just sort of talking them down," Sawyers says.

WEDNESDAY, AUG. 31

By late Wednesday, the hotel population has shrunk to about 800. Individual stories of heroism abound. One employee, marketing director Eric Janecke, has carried elderly women down 16 flights of stairs because their rooms, without air conditioning, are stifling.

The fetid heat grows unbearable, with a heat index of 110 or so. Sawyers and others break out in rashes. They decide it's time for everyone to leave. Hilton executives arrange for 19 charter buses, paying wary drivers extra to make the trip from Texas.

Sawyers and his colleagues check each room and assemble everyone inside the hotel. They wait for hours. There's talk the buses can't get in because of lack of security.

Someone has a small portable TV, and they've heard news of looting. People begin to grow fearful of being attacked. A few police officers stop by once in a while, mostly out of loyalty to Joe Lopinto, a former captain who now heads the hotel's security detail. They chase at least one looter off, but an access door is shattered.

Finally, Sawyers gets word that the buses are en route and will take people to Baton Rouge, about 80 miles away.

THURSDAY, SEPT. 1

At about 3 a.m., the empty buses slip into the city in groups. The first seven drive behind the nearby convention center to avoid the angry crowd there and pull up behind a wall, headlights off. The others, though, mistakenly pass right in front of the convention center. Fearing that the buses could be overrun, Sawyers and his staff barricade a hotel corridor with benches. With four police officers guarding them, the 800 guests and staff are quietly loaded on in about 35 minutes. "We were all just praying that nobody would take sniper shots. It seemed like forever," he says.

Around 4 a.m., after securing the hotel as much as possible, Sawyers and his managers head out in their own cars, headlights off, toward Baton Rouge.

Today the hotel has power again but remains unoccupied. Armed security guards patrol the property. Sawyers is helping Hilton staffers willing to move find jobs at other hotels in the chain. And he's trying to make sure all 2,000 employees in the region get their pay. Even Hilton Hotels () Co-Chairman Stephen F. Bollenbach won't hazard a guess as to when the Riverside might reopen. Will Sawyers be around to help run it? He'll have to think about that.

By Joseph Weber in Chicago, with Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles


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