Going All Out for Guests
It's not "Hotel Rwanda." But it is Hotel New Orleans.
The 500-room Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street was booked for the weekend Hurricane Katrina struck two weeks ago. General manager Hans Wandfluh put out what he called "a sincere recommendation" that guests leave before the storm. Nevertheless, 94 remained.
"It never entered my head to close the hotel and force them out. You don't do that kind of thing to people," he said. "There was a time to go. But, at a certain point, it was time to stay and hunker down."
He figured that if things got bad, everyone could take shelter in the concrete-tube stairwells.
But when the city started to flood and lawlessness broke out, it was a different matter.
Wandfluh found he could communicate by voice over the hotel's fax line to its Boston headquarters. People there ordered two buses two days after the storm. The guests got on, along with two workers and their children, bound for Houston. A core staff remained in the hotel -- and an elderly, German-speaking couple, the last guests.
Wandfluh is Swiss by birth, 6-foot-2 with a head of white hair and a commanding presence. He will be 70 years old this week, the oldest manager by far in the 24-hotel Royal Sonesta chain. He's run the Bourbon Street hotel for 26 years. And he speaks German.
"It was enough for them to be in the storm," he said of the couple. "To leave in a bus in the middle of the night -- I think they froze."
A few more phone calls routed around the country, help from the German consulate and a travel agency in Houston, and Wandfluh dispatched the couple to Baton Rouge in a car. There a German-speaking woman took them home for the night and then put them on a plane to Houston, where they caught another plane home.
Wandfluh's hotel, meanwhile, is coming back to life. It is generating its own electricity and serving two meals a day, family style, to 35 staff members and a few journalists.
His home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where Katrina's eye hit, is gone, a flattened concrete pad decorated with shards of his porcelain collection.
"I find I do better when I don't think about it," he said.
-- David Brown
Out of Sight, Out of Touch
Uncle Ralph had been trapped in a loft above his nephew's woodshed for 11 days when New Orleans police detectives Paul Toye and Jules Martin found him on Wednesday. Ralph Kinney, 82, the uncle of officer Don Kinney, said he was in the house when the water came rushing in. He broke down a wall to get out and then scrambled up a ladder to the top of the shed.
"The water was rising so fast. It was a nightmare," he told his rescuers.
Kinney hadn't had contact with the outside world since the storm hit and did not understand why everyone was acting as if there was an emergency. His house had been blocked by fallen trees, cars and downed power lines on four sides. As it was, it took Toye and Martin more than an hour and 15 tries to make it through the maze of debris.
As he looked out at the highway on the ride back, Kinney said that he was looking forward to using his electric razor.
"Not much traffic today."
The officers were silent.
Kinney kept talking. "What are we on? Lakeforest?"
"That's under water. We went on it on a boat today," Martin replied.
"Y'all find any dead bodies?"
"Yeah, quite a lot."
"What?" he asked pointing at a long line of green trucks and cars.
"Texas Parks and Wildlife. They're here to help."
"Where are we going?"
"To Harrah's." The new headquarters of the police. "To do a little gambling."
A preoccupied Kinney nodded. "I forgot to check the mailbox to see if Don had any mail."
-- Ariana Eunjung Cha
Some Vows Can't Wait
Leo Tate never took his eyes off his bride, Annie Lee. Beside them, Donna Mathis cried as she said her vows to James Nelson Jr.
Less than two weeks after surviving Hurricane Katrina, the couples were married at the North Tri-Ethnic Community Center here Friday night. They are among 205,000 refugees staying in shelters and private housing in Texas.
"We were thinking how we needed something to rejoice in, something to cry happy tears over," Mathis said. "We can start our lives over, and we'll be together."
The double wedding was arranged in just two days by shelter volunteer Annie Alvarez.
For Lee and Tate, the wedding was 27 years in the making. The pair were high-school sweethearts in New Orleans and later had a son, but the timing never seemed right to tie the knot.
Tate married and had a daughter, then got divorced. Lee got married but became a widow, then married a second time and divorced.
After reuniting in June, Tate and Lee decided to marry in December. But then Katrina hit. They were rescued and taken by boat to the Superdome, where they spent five days.
Last week, they arrived at the Fort Worth shelter and quickly bonded with the 70 others staying there. They decided to marry in front of the people they call family.
Mathis, 27, and Nelson, 22, had been friends in their native New Orleans for two years and started dating seriously this year. They got to the Superdome before the hurricane hit, then spent several days there with little food or water.
They arrived in Fort Worth last week, but Mathis's 2-year-old daughter was in another part of Louisiana with the child's father. Shelter workers finally located her a few days ago.
Mathis said once baby Sabria was back in her arms -- Mathis's 13-year-old daughter Brianesha was already with her in Texas -- she decided the wedding couldn't wait.
-- Associated Press