Corps looking, can’t find hotel rooms for hurricane|[8/31/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 31, 2006

Hoping to get a jump on the next Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District has been trying to get a guarantee of motel rooms in Vicksburg or Baton Rouge since May – but has struck out.

&#8220We’re trying to be more proactive this year,” said Henry Camburn, the contracting officer charged with negotiating reservations. &#8220We’ve called just about everybody that we knew and the bottom line is nobody really wants to contract with us.”

That means a better plan for housing Corps personnel if relocated again from New Orleans, as was done a year ago, is not in place.

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Katrina, which hit Aug. 29, 2005, left the federal engineers and support personnel no choice. New Orleans was uninhabitable. The approach to moving here to work with the Vicksburg District of the Corps was ad hoc, Camburn said, cobbled together in the immediate aftermath of an unprecedented emergency.

&#8220It’s not how do we usually do things – that was a first. It was basically flying by the seat of our pants,” Camburn said.

To avoid a repeat, the Corps began calling hotels to ask about contracting a lease for rooms in May, about a month before hurricane season officially began. When it found no takers, it began taking out ads.

One that ran last week asked for a hotel willing to block 17 rooms, with an advance contract that would become operational in the event of a Category 3 or higher hurricane. Hurricane Katrina was classified as a strong Category 3 because of wind speeds around 125 miles per hour at landfall.

The ad also said, &#8220Period of occupancy will vary and is dependent upon conditions following the hurricane,” and later, a &#8220minimum guarantee is negotiable.” Again, no takers to date in either location, Camburn said.

&#8220There’s no physical way to do that,” said Michael Hudson, manager of Hampton Inn and Suites on Clay Street, who wasn’t sure whether his hotel had been one of the businesses called by the Corps. &#8220We’d be happy to block out a group of rooms, but you have to have a form of payment.”

Neal Surty, manager of the Relax Inn on Walnut Street, said he needed billing information in advance before blocking rooms, to bill no shows who fail to cancel 24 hours in advance for the first night. Many times, evacuees will block several rooms in a town, and use just one, he said.

&#8220I lose a customer, plus my rooms stay empty sometimes,” Surty said. &#8220We cannot hold a room like that.”

Any interested hotels may still respond by Sept. 14. Camburn said he expected the Corps to continue the effort to keep a certain number of rooms open in coming years, and stressed such a deal would have to be voluntary on behalf of the private sector.

&#8220The bottom line comes down to, in my opinion, people are in business to make money,” Camburn said. &#8220When you have everybody in the free world evacuating you’re going to make money. It’s hard for them to say, ‘OK, I’ll give you these 50 rooms at government rates for an uncertain amount of time at some undetermined point in the future.’”