ROXANA HEGEMAN (Associated Press)
Kansas City Star
September 15, 2005
WICHITA, Kan. - The words, "Honk if you are a refugee," are scrawled in shoe polish across the back window of the broken down 1997 Chevy van parked at a repair shop.
Glass artisan Justin Smith was still in pretty good spirits when he wrote those words before leaving his wife and two children at their slightly hurricane-damaged home in Mobile, Ala., to head to Eugene, Ore., where he had work waiting. His family was to join him when they got government hurricane aid or he made enough to come get them.
"I had enough money to make it to Oregon to be able to work," he said.
Smith got as far as Wichita before his van broke down Wednesday. Unable to come up with more than $1,000 to fix it - and running out of money to pay for his hotel room - he turned to the American Red Cross for help.
The Red Cross, in turn, sought help from Corporate Lodging Consultants, a small Wichita-based booking firm. As Katrina evacuees began running out of their own funds, the Red Cross asked Corporate Lodging to quickly develop a plan to keep another influx of evacuees out of the burdened shelter system.
Smith is now one of more than 150,000 Katrina evacuees scattered in some 42,000 hotel rooms across the nation being helped by the transitional housing program for evacuees, called the Special Transient Accommodations Program, developed and administered nationwide by Corporate Lodging Consultants.
"This program saved us," said Michael Carroll, director of Red Cross relief operations in the Houston area.
Corporate Lodging Consultants, which has fewer than 100 employees, was already well known to the Red Cross, which has often used its services to find accommodations for its relief workers in disaster areas.
"When I was confronted by the sheer scale of the disaster, I was thinking, 'My God, where are we going to put all these people?," said Red Cross spokesman David Rudduck. "To see this has been implemented is very reassuring to us die-hard Red Crossers."
With no motel rooms available in heavily affected areas, many of the evacuees are in hotels in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. But evacuees are being housed in hotels in 46 states, some as far away as Hawaii, according to CLC officials.
All the company had was the relationships it had built with the hotels over years and its extensive database, said George Hansen III, CLC CEO & President. It was up to the hotels to trust CLC's assurances that they would get paid for the Katrina evacuees.
"What we told hotels is if they have evacuees and they can't pay, keep them," Hansen said.
Working around the clock during the Labor Day weekend, more than 30 CLC employees wrote computer code, bought computers, set up faxes. Just 44 hours after the Red Cross first contacted it, the firm had contacted 20,000 hotels using a 13-page "blast fax" of instructions and list of qualifying zip codes for victims.
"The Red Cross came up with a brilliant idea, which will turn out to be historic: let the hotels qualify the victims," Hansen said.
Had the Red Cross tried to control the program, people would still be sleeping in their cars, said Tim Downs, CLC's executive vice president of operations.
The program has proved so successful, that the Red Cross said it has extended the initial 14 days it would pay hotels for lodging Katrina evacuees to 28 days. Some of the evacuees were already at hotels but had maxed out their credit cards, while others were coming from shelters.
The vast majority of hotels have deeply discounted their rates, with many rooms costing just $25 or $30 a day, CLC said.
"The American Red Cross put the bureaucracy aside to help the people. ... it is the one success in the last two weeks," Hansen said.
ON THE NET
Corporate Lodging Consultants: http://www.corplodging.com