JUST ONE WEEK after Category 4 Hurricane Laura roared ashore at Lake Charles, Louisiana, Vimal Patel was at ground zero inspecting the damage at his company’s Staybridge Suites hotel. It was extensive.
“Lake Charles is the center of all the damage and we have a property here that seems to have structure damage pretty bad. We just found out after the engineer did a walk through. The roof is completely gone,” said Patel, president of Qhotels Management in LaPlace, Louisiana. “We’re going to have to open up a lot of walls and assess the damage.”
Considering the damage and the fact that the area will not have power and water for at least two more weeks, Patel said it will be some time before that hotel reopens. At the same time, Qhotels’ properties in other Louisiana markets were seeing a spike in business from evacuees and emergency workers.
“My hotel in LaPlace, which is the outskirts of New Orleans, and one in Dawsonville which is in between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and then a couple of them in Houma, which is south as well, those areas were not affected by the hurricane,” Patel said. “One of my hotels was housing evacuees. And there were a lot of others, especially the energy crews from the electric company were staying as well.”
Shelter from the storm … and the coronavirus
Most hotels in the New Orleans area are filled to capacity with the more than 9,000 evacuees that have fled to the city, according to the Times-Picayune. In an effort to avoid housing hundreds of people together in school gyms, creating a super spreader scenario in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state had entered agreements with 16 hotels provide emergency accommodations. Those plans fell apart when Laura took an unexpected course, Department of Family and Children Service’s spokesperson Catherine Heitman told the Times-Picayune.
“Originally, we had thought the hurricane was going to hit in southeast Louisiana so we identified hotels in the southwest for potential evacuees, but then we had to reverse course,” as the storm centered on the coast south of Lake Charles, she said.
Patel has been taking steps to keep his new guests as safe as possible.
“We have to make sure to keep the cleaning policy in place, make sure that we are we are still sanitizing the high touch area points and guests are wearing masks,” he said.
They also are keeping their housekeeping staff from entering the customers’ rooms to minimize contacts with the guests. They provide masks when necessary.
“Most of the guests I think are self-conscious and have their own mask, but in the event somebody doesn’t have or lost it we are able to provide it for them,” he said.
In Houston, which escaped with little damage from the storm, hotels also were filling with evacuees, said Raj Das, vice president of development for Palace Inn Franchising. At least, that’s what Das is seeing on the east side of town closest to the impacted areas and the highway on which they came.
“We’re not seeing it as much on the west side and closer to the central area of Houston but it’s definitely still affecting the hotels on the east side of town,” he said.
Das said previously he felt the environment in his hotels is still safe because they are exterior corridor, minimizing the amount of time guests can congregate in public together. Like Patel, Das has instructed the housekeeping staff to avoid entering the rooms until guests leave.
“If a guest doesn’t need service, then we’re asking them to just make sure to let us know so we’re going in their rooms,” Das said.
It’s not permanent
The crowds could have been much worse if Laura had hit Houston instead, Das said.
“In the 200 square mile radius that got hit, there’s probably only 70,000 people that were affected versus if that same 200 square mile radius got hit in the Houston area, there would have been a million people affected,” he said.
Patel said the flood of high occupancy generated by Laura is already ebbing.
“We did see some temporary spike in the other markets but how long will that last? We don’t know. Between yesterday and today, there were a lot of the utility crews who were staying have checked out of the hotels in LaPlace,” he said.
Also, Patel said, as the outer skirts of the damaged areas see power restored there will be a shift as evacuees either return home or move to hotels closer to Lake Charles.
“The two-and-a-half-hour-drive [between LaPlace and Lake Charles] for me has turned into a five hour drive each way simply because of the traffic and this heavy machinery and the equipment being transported,” he said. “So, I think as the power utility comes up and the rooms come open in neighboring towns, people are going to start shifting closer and closer to Lake Charles.”
Helping hands on hold
In past hurricanes, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston hoteliers came together to provide relief to victims of the storm. Patel said, so far, he is still trying to take care of his own, specifically the approximately six staff members still staying at the Lake Charles hotel.
“What we are doing with my hotel is that we are bringing our staff food and supplies from our corporate office,” he said. “Someone from our offices is making a trip down to the Lake Charles, bringing food, bringing gas, bringing some office supplies.”
Das said he has not heard of any organized donation drives yet.
“But I’m sure there’s going to be some headway in that, so as soon as that comes down, I’m sure a lot of our hotels would be ready to support it,” Das said. “We’re pretty active when it comes to supporting the community.”
Das also is concerned about delays in distribution of FEMA funding emergency funding for people who lost their homes. Evacuees can use the funds to cover their hotel costs.
“We’ve tried to open it up in Houston at a few of our properties. We have people waiting to get the rooms, they’re just not approved yet,” Das said. “It’s a fantastic program for anybody who lost their homes.”
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards did recently approve registration for the funds in five Louisiana parishes impacted by Hurricane Laura, Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis parishes.
“I want to encourage anyone from these five parishes to apply for assistance today,” Edwards said. “For the people in other parishes that were impacted, but not yet approved for aid, please know that we will continue damage assessments and do expect additional parishes to be authorized. We will fight for all Louisianans who were in Laura’s path to get the assistance they need to recover and rebuild.”