By Tuesday of last week, with the floodwaters receding and the worst of the crisis over, a sense of normalcy had begun returning to the Marriott International Inc.'s New Orleans hotels.
The company had opened its Residence Inn in Metairie to employees and was getting ready to open its JW Marriott on Canal Street to emergency workers.
Employees were back to cleaning bathtubs and cooking food. Some took a break to shoot hoops after a long day. Others were gathered around a television to watch the Saints play a "home game" at the New York Giants.
But just as fast, the progress stopped. With another storm on the way late in the week, Marriott officials again evacuated their New Orleans operations and shut down nine hotels in Texas as well.
Over the weekend, there were no reports that Hurricane Rita caused major damage to any of Marriott's hotels along the Gulf Coast, company spokesman Matthew Carroll said Sunday. But he said the second storm "may have cost a day or two" for a company trying to re-staff, refill and restart its flood-damaged operations in New Orleans.
For executives, the aim is to get at least half of the company's New Orleans rooms open by next weekend -- a goal hampered by the fact that some of Marriott's 15 hotels are so badly damaged it will be months before they open. For employees, the effort to reopen goes much deeper than a renewed paycheck; it has helped replace lost homes and lifestyles by giving them a focus for their energy and a familiar place to stay.
"Sometimes you see people sad," said Yamila Galvan, director of services for Marriott's 494-room French Quarter hotel. "But we're keeping each other busy. There's lots to do."
Over the past three weeks, executives of the Bethesda company have been on a logistical roller coaster, running evacuation and search operations and clearing hotels of looters and stragglers while at the same time making mundane decisions such as whether to replace or simply sanitize bed linens.
While large banners hung outside the hotels urged workers to call an 800 number and "let us know where you are and if you need help," employees such as Galvan toiled inside over issues such as whether to put two or three bars of soap in a room, given limited supplies.
One of the biggest challenges to reopening the New Orleans hotels was finding and getting the workers back in uniform. Chris Rader, normally director of operations at Pere Marquette, a 280-room hotel in New Orleans, is now something of a human resources director charged with finding everyone and getting them back to work if they want.
About 400 of Marriott's 2,800 workers in the region remain unaccounted for. Many of the rest have been eager to return to routine, even though that has often meant shifting to a different hotel and a different job, as the company stretches available employees to staff the hotels it expects to open first.
Banquet workers have been cleaning rooms. Managers have taken over vacuuming and bed making. Information technology staff are at the front desk.
On Tuesday, employees at the JW Marriott in the French Quarter were dressed in red shirts with the Marriott name on the back, eating a hot lunch of fried chicken, salad, fruit and other entrees. A huge television was set up and turned to CNN -- or any news channel that was showing the latest about incoming Rita.
At one table of eight, workers were laughing, clapping each other on the back and taking pictures with a disposable camera.
It was impossible to tell sitting with them that each one had lost a home, and some had lost family members, in Katrina.
"We like our work and now we gotta give back," said Arlene Walls, a housekeeper at this hotel for 21 years.
"We're not homebodies," added Terry Fontenant, a banquet worker with the company for six years. "And here, we're standing up as one."
Inside the hotel, dozens of people were busy scrubbing toilets and tubs and remaking beds. Although the water only reached the front door, workers removed the first-floor carpet as a precaution against mold.
"It's almost like a renovation," said Galvan. She would know. The company had almost completed a $14 million renovation of that property when Katrina hit.
Two of the 21 guest floors had been readied by mid-morning Tuesday. Galvan expected 10 to be finished by the end of the day.
There are about 140 staff members in rooms at this Marriott, with 153 guests in 113 rooms. Some sharing rooms are family members. In other rooms, employees are bunking together. Everyone receives three meals a day.
When the hotel didn't have electricity, the employees worked just the first couple of floors and tried to start fixing them while guided by flashlights.
Joshua Brandon, the hotel's front desk manager, set up a remote desk almost two weeks ago in a side hallway. He has kept tabs on who is in the building and what hotel they are from. Much of the information was written by hand because the computer system wasn't working. But by Tuesday afternoon, the company's technology team had the system running again. Other Marriott employees were putting all the handwritten notes into the computers.
In nearby "Camp Metairie," as the Residence Inn in that New Orleans suburb has been dubbed, about 150 employees have moved in.
A week ago, John Trent, the general manager, was trying to find ice cream -- an unheard of commodity here these days -- to throw a party of sorts during the Monday night Saints game. His kitchen staff was unable to get it but did find cookies and other treats.
"Everyone here wants to get life back to normal," he said.
The employees come to the same area in the morning to eat breakfast and check out a handwritten chart that outlines their assignments for the day.
The hotels have about 10 people working each day, when there usually were about 30.
Some of the employees take a day off to meet with insurance adjusters or to catch a ride to check on their home.
"Their lives have been turned upside down, and you have to let them take care of their personal business too," Trent said.
Virginia Cruel has worked for Marriott for 25 years. She started as a housekeeper and now is director of services at Pere Marquette. Until just a few weeks ago, she worked at "the Big House" as everyone here calls the 1,290-room New Orleans Marriott, also on Canal Street, just blocks from Bourbon Street. She recently moved to Pere Marquette, but not before her coworkers and the company bought her a flat-panel television as a going-away present.
She found her house after Katrina flooded it with four feet of water. "The TV met me at the door," she said. "Three days straight, I cried."
But she's back and working at the various hotels near the Metairie Residence Inn, until Pere Marquette opens again. "I didn't want to sit down," she said.
Also at the Residence Inn was Dennis Moore, a Marriott loss-prevention officer. He lost four houses near Lake Ponchartrain, and yet he laughs when a colleague mentions it. "This guy cheers us all up," Randall Davis, another loss-prevention officer who came in from Texas.
Moore, who has worked at the company for 19 years, rocked on his heels with excitement, offering to show a visitor the only possessions he was able to retrieve from his home: plaques and awards given to him by his company. Some were warped, one with a signature from "Mr. Marriott" a little blurred by water, but Moore flipped through about a dozen, proudly showing what each was for, including two for saving the lives of guests who were choking.
His houses? Replaceable. For now, he just wants to go to work.
"Every day is a beautiful day when you're driven," Moore said. "I go with the flow. What can you do other than pray things get better?"
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.
Arlene Walls, left, who has worked at the JW Marriott in New Orleans for 21 years, has lunch with fellow employees Judy Williams and Veronica Johnson at the hotel.