- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When everyone else is trying to get away from a natural disaster, National Travel Inc. is trying to find ways to get thousands of relief workers in.

Since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast this week, the company has processed travel plans for more than 10,000 people the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending to the region to help recovery efforts. The number could reach 25,000 before it’s over, said National Travel President Ted Lawson.

“We take it kind of day-by-day,” said Mr. Lawson, whose company has been FEMA’s travel agent since 1999 and has made travel arrangements for several disasters, including the September 11 terrorist attack in New York City.

On Thursday, agents were working to hire charter aircraft and arrange travel for firefighters across the country who are under FEMA contracts to help in emergencies.

Planning for the deployment of thousands of people into the region started when Katrina was 100 miles off the Gulf Coast. Many of the 10,000 relief workers already have been sent to staging areas in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, waiting on orders to move into the region.

“When you know that there is going to be a disaster, you can position knowledge and people,” said FEMA spokesman Michael Widomski.

Mr. Widomski could not estimate how many people FEMA will ultimately need in the areas hit by Katrina, or what their transportation and lodging will cost.

“FEMA will be there for years working on this,” Mr. Widomski said.

Mr. Lawson said the figure could easily exceed $30 million.

Katrina is the largest single deployment for FEMA since Mr. Lawson’s firm started arranging the agency’s travel, he said.

“They are coming from all over the United States,” Mr. Lawson said. “Every state is involved, with probably the heaviest from the Midwest and East.”

As the nation’s disaster travel agent, National Travel does everything to ensure people get to where they need to be.

“We secure the rental cars, the hotel rooms, the flights back, or flights to other places. It’s a continuing movement,” he said. “With FEMA, everything has to happen ‘right now.’”

Mr. Lawson’s 55 agents work the phones around the clock to determine the latest status of hotels and whether they are accessible to relief workers.

“It’s a challenge because we really have to do our homework,” Mr. Lawson said. “We’re used to looking for obscure hotels.”

National Travel’s government clients also include the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and what Mr. Lawson calls “classified government accounts.”

Government agencies benefit by National Travel’s being located away from hurricane-prone areas and because Charleston is not an obvious target for man-made disasters, Mr. Lawson said.

And all the while, the company has to keep an eye on its other corporate and private accounts. Local travelers still represent a third of its customers.

“We try to apportion time for our leisure travelers, because we still have people trying to go on vacation, and we can’t forget them,” Mr. Lawson said.

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