- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the sun rises on the hotels of New Orleans, doctors in scrubs pile into elevators, shoulder to shoulder with construction workers wielding their sledgehammers. The doors open, and they’re off to work.

Soon, children are tearing through the hallways, pushing toy trucks or playing tag as they get underfoot. A woman shuffles through the lobby wearing hair curlers and velvet bedroom slippers. A man lugs two bulging garbage bags up to his room; they contain all he has left.

The lobbies are bustling all day with everyone from FBI agents to real estate speculators. Later, in the bar, city lawmakers huddle over drinks to plot their next move.

Welcome to New Orleans’ new town square. Hotels that were at the heart of the city’s tourist economy have morphed into a combination homeless shelter, board room and Wild West saloon.

“The courtyard downstairs in the lobby, it’s like a large living room,” Jared C. Brossett, an aide to a New Orleans city council member, said of the Sheraton. He has lived there since losing his apartment. “You sit in the lobby and just look. It’s kind of surreal, really. You have to ask yourself sometimes, ‘How did I get here — living in a hotel?’”

Part of the reason is simple: The few hotels that stayed open through Hurricane Katrina quickly become oases of normalcy for the people trying to get the city back on its feet.

Even now it’s startling to drive through the mud-caked streets and into the valet parking lot of the Sheraton or the Royal Sonesta.

“My hotel is full of people who need to work here, but they don’t have a home,” said Dan King, general manager of the Sheraton, where rooms start at about $200 a night. “We’ve had to shift gears a little bit — we’re more like a dormitory now.”

Indeed, many hotel guests have put small kitchen appliances in their rooms. Bellhop carts normally reserved for suitcases often are filled with groceries. On the Sheraton’s eighth floor, management has installed coin-operated washing machines and dryers.

Of 140 hotels listed on the city’s official marketing site, 91 are open, but at least 21 are booked up for months, often on long-term contracts with private companies or with the federal government.

Some are calling the Sheraton the new City Hall. Several city council members live there, and the mayor holds meetings in a ballroom.

And it’s not just home to politicians. A whole host of other types walk the hallways: journalists, church group volunteers and disaster specialists, to name a few.

“To stand at Starbucks with two guys in fatigues carrying M-16s, it’s like ‘OK, this is now part of the new normal,’” said Laura Claverie, editor of NewOrleansOnline.com, the city’s tourism Web site.

Then there are just folks — New Orleanians aching to be back home, waiting for life to restart.

In the lobby, Jim Brooks sat alone smoking one day. His home was flooded beyond repair.

“It’s better than living in a refrigerator box under the bridge,” he joked. “As nice as the hotel is, I’d like to be someplace where I know I can settle in again.”

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