Hilton houses Katrina workers

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Wednesday, February 1, 2006

NEW ORLEANS--Service manager Mike Breecher no longer has to run the New Orleans office operation from his home in Baton Rouge, and he no longer has to hitch a trailer to his car to truck 3,000 pounds of batteries into the city. Things, he said, are slowly getting back to normal at the SimplexGrinnell office here.
As he looks back over the five months since Hurricane Katrina slammed The Big Easy, Breecher says he's thankful for the generosity of his coworkers, who "made donations and sent boxes of clothing and toys" to New Orleans, and also to Hilton Hotels, which provided rooms and meals for displaced workers enabling them to keep working immediately after the storm.
"When the hurricane hit, most technicians lost their homes and had to leave the area," said Mike Lohr, director of service marketing at SimplexGrinnell. Workers took refuge with friends and family outside of the city or went to work temporarily in the Houston office. Most, however, wanted to be back in New Orleans where their services were greatly needed.
"There was an extended period of power outage, flood damage, humidity, mold and other kinds of environmental damage to businesses," Lohr said. "We needed to get back in [to our customers' buildings] to make sure the fire and life safety systems were functioning properly."
Housing for workers was a major issue until Hilton Hotels, a business partner with two properties in the city, offered to help.
"They bent over backwards for us. They got two rooms for 30-day blocks that enabled us to bring some workers back from Houston," Lohr said.
Various technicians used the rooms over three months. The rooms cut down on the travel time for technicians who alternated between stays in the hotel and stays outside the city with friends and family.
Because of a curfew, emergency workers, such as the SimplexGrinnell technicians, had to be escorted into the city by Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel. Commuting into the city was "a disaster," Beecher said. "You couldn't get into the city on the interstate without a special permit."
The Westminster, Mass., SimplexGrinnell office contacted "the existing base of customers to see if they were okay and to see about getting their system checked out," said Chris Woodcock, director of marketing for SimplexGrinnell.
Many businesses are simply gone, Beecher said. Yet, New Orleans is planning a scaled-back Mardi Gras celebration this year and surviving businesses, including Beecher's group, are working overtime, "to get commerce going again," he said.