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About half of the guest room windows were blown out of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina came barreling through the city five years ago this week. But the iconic hotel fought back.
Among the many businesses that have reopened with more spirit and life than before, one of the most inspiring is the planned reopening of The Hyatt Regency New Orleans. On August 29, 2005, it was reported that most of the windows on the north side of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans were gone and the building had suffered extensive structural damage.
The Hyatt was the most severely damaged hotel in the city, but last week celebrated a milestone event -- the ground-breaking ceremony that announced the hotel's plans to reopen for business in late 2011. The effect of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans was devastating, but five years later the city has recaptured its famous spirit and re-united with its travel market. While inspiring and exciting, the announcement is also a time for reflection.
"It's more sweet than bitter," said Michael Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. "We have the chance to rebuild so we're going to do it bigger and better than ever."
For $275 million, the hotel is labeled as one of the most significant hospitality re-developments to open in the area. Hyatt Regency New Orleans will open with 1,200 rooms and expanded meeting and exhibition space to more than 200,000 square feet, doubling the existing space. It is part of a larger economic development plan and will anchor city-wide changes including a new $2 billion medical center, new government buildings, and the new sports center and complex. The hotel is expected to generate tax revenue and create new jobs in the city, but it's also a welcome sight for tourists to New Orleans.
"The vibe here is extremely positive; people are still volunteering and doing things," said Smith. "This hotel, in my opinion, is truly the gem of the south."
While the Hyatt has certainly been a beacon of hope during the city's rebuilding efforts, other New Orleans hotels have contributed to the revitalization of the city in various ways, including through community programs and volunteer projects.
The Marriott Convention Center was one of the success stories from the storm. The hotel first opened on July 11, 2005, only a few months before Katrina and was subsequently shut down on Aug. 29, 2005.
"The hotel was set up for success," said Joe Blanchek, general manager of the Marriott New Orleans Convention Center hotel. Then came word of a hurricane, and Blanchek and his staff went to work.
"We prepped the hotel as normal for a storm. We encouraged guests to evacuate, and at 11 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 29, we started cleaning up. We thought it was a Category 3 storm -- at that time, the police didn't know the levy's had broken and a lot of people didn't know what was going on. Then we noticed people wandering down to the Convention Center. By that time, the [hotel] was sealed and people were waiting for the green light to go home, but then we got word that the city had flooded."
Two days later Blanchek locked up the hotel, which had been looted and then taken over by the National Guard, and walked away.
"We re-opened on Nov. 6, 2005, and have been going strong ever since," said Blanchek.
But what's even more interesting than the high occupancy rates and increased tourist dollars in New Orleans is the continued desire to help, said Blanchek.
After Katrina, the Marriott company (which includes the Ritz-Carlton brand) established disaster relief funds to help employees. The donations were so grand, said Blanchek, that the hotel today is using the excess funds to help rebuild areas of the local community with staff and guests.
"Since Katrina, the [hotel] staff have been putting their lives back together. We've used some of the funds to build playgrounds, help the schools and donate to teachers funds," said Blancheck. The Marriott corporation has also set up a program with the University of New Orleans to help educate kids on life's basic fundamentals and survival skills, including interview techniques, proper etiquette and resume building.
As for the people of New Orleans? The vibe is captivating.
"There's a lot of buzz in the city," said Char Thian, director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels of New Orleans, "Five years later, this is an introspective time, but New Orleans is a very resilient lot. We pick up and we keep moving forward."
As for the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, the hotel spent $150 million to restore the French Quarter digs, which now features a new restaurant, meeting space and lounge, and according to Thian, "the hotel has a warmth and smile, grace and charm, that is symbolic of New Orleans."