In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, a seasoned hotel manager realized she needed to think fast. As the general manager of a mammoth Ritz-Carlton at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Myra DeGersdorff was in charge of more than 1,200 people. She needed to batten down the hatches. She needed security. She needed doctors. Anything, she thought, could happen.
The storm was worse than anyone expected. But DeGersdorff was ready. She enlisted a number of local cops to stay in a half-dozen of the hotel’s 452 rooms, and at any given moment there were at least “six or seven” officers on hand. She dispatched a team of “strong, tall” employees to barricade the exits with king-sized mattresses, and to “make sure those doors stayed locked,” she recalled in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. And she had set up an impromptu “MASH unit,” stocked with medicine from a nearby Walgreens and manned by more than a dozen doctors.
The preparation paid off. Though the hotel was packed, everyone there made it through one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history in one piece. And the very next year, in 2006, the company’s corporate office gave DeGersdorff the Ritz-Carlton President’s Award.
That’s why DeGersdorff was surprised to flip on the news this week and see a perplexing story about NBC News anchor Brian Williams and the hotel she once managed. His recollection of what happened there didn’t match hers. In interviews that surfaced over the past week that she had never seen, Williams said the hotel was anything but secure. In fact, he told Tom Brokaw last summer, gangs had “overrun” the place. He spoke of seeing a dead body floating past the hotel. Williams also once told a book author that he got dysentery during Katrina. During his stay at the hotel, he said he declined an IV and then “had no medicine, nothing.”
DeGersdorff, now a resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., was confused. She said there was more than enough medicine and doctors in the MASH unit.
“Maybe he misremembered,” she told The Post of Williams’s claims. “I’m not going to judge him, because it was such an unpleasant week and there were times to be concerned. … And when there is that kind of concern, you can misremember. And maybe he was out there, and it wasn’t impossible he could have encountered a body, but I don’t think it was in the French Quarter. The French Quarter only got inches” of flooding.
DeGersdorff’s comments provide a glimpse into what transpired at a hotel sucked into a controversy over now heavily scrutinized claims that Williams has made. The NBC crisis was touched off last week when Williams conceded that a military helicopter he rode in during the Iraq War didn’t take fire as he previously claimed. Williams has since declined repeated interview requests — a surprise given his eagerness to hold forth on his reportorial trials, whether in a low-tech chat with a student newspaper, or in a video talk with Tom Brokaw, or a conversation for a book on the media and Katrina.
Those interviews, in which he boasted of the dangers he faced while pursuing truth, are now the subject of criticism. Three individuals told reporters that gangs never infiltrated the Ritz-Carlton, despite Williams’s claims. And DeGersdorff agreed.
“There absolutely was looting in the French Quarter,” DeGersdorff recalled. “But I wouldn’t say they were gangs. … They were primarily individual looters or two or three buddies attempting to break into camera stores; it was unpleasant.” She said that “on more than one occasion,” the looters tried to get inside the hotel. At one point, they did “breach a door” but were “immediately” chased out. There were “maybe one or two of them,” she said.
This contrasts with Williams’s recollection, as recounted to historian Douglas Brinkley for his 2007 book, “The Great Deluge.” According to Brinkley, Williams told him that “armed gangs had broken into the 527-room hotel, brandishing guns and terrorizing guests. Williams, in fact, had seen his first corpse floating down Canal Street from his eighth-floor window earlier that day. Then fever consumed him.”
At some point — it’s unclear when — Williams said he camped out in a stairwell on a mattress. That surprised DeGersdorff. “I can tell you that at no time did any of my people report any sightings of any bodies,” she said. “I witnessed no bodies floating. … He may have simply misremembered. But I can tell you no one broke out in the hotel with dysentery. I did have mattresses in the stairwells, sure. Did he walk into a stairwell and lay down? He could have, but Ritz-Carlton doesn’t invite its guests to sleep in the stairwell, so we certainly didn’t give him access.”
Williams said he finally made it out of the hotel to climb into a waiting SUV. According to Brinkley, he saw “a gang was waiting on the streetcar tracks in front of the Ritz, ready to ‘smash and grab,’ as Williams put it, to take the vehicle.”
More than such specifics, what DeGersdorff contests is the general impression Williams imparted of the Ritz-Carlton. She said that mood of danger doesn’t reflect what happened.
“None of the guests were in danger of being harmed,” she said. “And none were.”
Williams said Saturday that he will step aside as anchor of his nightly NBC News broadcast for “several days” as a result of the controversy generated by his comments about his reporting during the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.