Hotel Katrina

While the feds fumble, hurricane survivors find relief thanks to a Dallas hotel owner and friends

Katie Neason sat with her sisters Helen, Dorothy and Pat in the dining room at the Quality Inn, her expression grave. The day before, the four sisters had watched in horror as their native New Orleans was consumed by the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Now, on an incongruously sunny Tuesday in Dallas, more than a dozen of their family members were upstairs packing, preparing to leave the hotel on Market Center Boulevard and check into a public hurricane shelter.

"It wasn't right to stay in a hotel and not have money to pay for those rooms," Neason recalls thinking. "Some of the family could have afforded to stay and some could not, but we had made the decision to all stick together." The conversation at the table was about the uncertainties of the future. Would they have showers at the shelter? Could they park nearby? Where would their bags go?

Suddenly a man they didn't know stepped up to the table. He was short and stocky, with unruly brown hair and a guileless face dominated by a pugnacious jaw. "Is there anything that I can help you all with?" he asked. Neason's first thought was "Who is this?" Her second was "Do we really look that desperate?"

Dave Peterson risked his business--and became a hero.
Mark Graham
Dave Peterson risked his business--and became a hero.
Donated supplies poured in from all over the country, 
including two truckloads from North Dakota.
Mark Graham
Donated supplies poured in from all over the country, including two truckloads from North Dakota.

"No, we're just getting ready to leave," she told him. The man introduced himself as Dave Peterson, the hotel owner. He'd overheard their conversation. "Look, I don't care what happens," he said. "I don't care who has to pay the bill, but as long as you and your family have a need, you all aren't checking out of this hotel." Neason was dumbfounded. "I said, 'But our families are upstairs right now packing!' That little man just shook his head and said, 'Well, you just tell them to stop, because you don't have to go anywhere.' And I just started crying."

Thus began one of the most remarkable chapters in the entire saga of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster unprecedented in modern American history. The decision Peterson made that morning to allow his suddenly destitute guests from New Orleans to stay on would place him at the head of an informal relief operation that, unlike many government efforts, worked to near-perfection. At Peterson's Quality Inn, individuals, church groups and companies large and small would unite to resettle hundreds of displaced victims.

"People were kicking them out of hotels up and down the street," Peterson says. "I was looking at them and I said, 'I can't do it, I can't kick them out.'" Initially he reduced rates and then stopped asking for payment altogether. "We had no idea what it would cost," Peterson says. "We had no idea where the money would come from--none of that was worked out." When he noticed evacuees hoarding their breakfast pastries, he ordered his staff to prepare three free meals a day. A permanent housing service, a job fair and a computer lab were organized at the hotel days or even weeks before such services were established at government shelters.

"We took a stand, and then we turned around and looked for what was needed and found it and provided it," Peterson says. Peterson, 50, and his wife Anne, 37, along with co-owners Chuck and Marilyn Sutherland, risked financial ruin to help the hurricane victims, without ever needing to be asked.

But while what happened at the Quality Inn all followed from Peterson's altruistic impulse, it was a massive and spontaneous outpouring of public support that allowed him to succeed. After helping serve that first free dinner on Tuesday, Anne went home and composed an e-mail titled "Making a difference." She sent it to 160 of her colleagues at Landmark Education, a company that offers leadership and personal growth training.

"I expected--well, I don't know what I expected," she says. "I figured maybe 20 or 30 people would clean out their closets. By Thursday afternoon, my phone was ringing nonstop. After a while I was like, 'I can't field all these calls,' so I put out another e-mail that just said, 'Anything you have just bring it to the hotel.' That was kind of the beginning of the end of my normal life." The e-mails were forwarded around the country and eventually around the world, and soon the Petersons were no longer wondering where donations would come from. The main question became what to do with it all.

The staff at the 246-room hotel had already done a certain amount of preparation. Almost every year, hotels in Dallas see an influx of Gulf Coast residents evacuating ahead of a storm, and the Quality Inn's location near downtown, as well as the free breakfast included in the $75 room rate, made it a logical choice. In fact, Neason and the entire extended Womble clan (her sister Helen's last name) had made Peterson's hotel a regular destination, treating the yearly storm evacuations as a weekend getaway. The predicted severity of Katrina meant that the house was fuller than usual, but nothing they couldn't handle.

Kenric Neville grabbed the last open rooms at the Quality Inn just hours before the hurricane came ashore in Louisiana. Unlike the Wombles, the four-car, 10-person Neville caravan had taken a circuitous route to Dallas. "We started off trying to get a hotel booked in Monroe, Louisiana," Neville says. "We had it confirmed, but by the time we got to Monroe, they gave it away. The same thing happened to us again in Shreveport." As the first reports of landfall began to air on the news networks, the Nevilles unpacked in Dallas, exhausted. "Nobody brought anything extra," Neville says ruefully, but then adds, "My wife did have the foresight to bring all our important papers."

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