Temporary home to a burgeoning influx of Hurricane Katrina evacuees and relief crews, cities hundreds of miles from the devastated Gulf Coast are reporting little or no room at the inn — and are scrambling to accommodate travelers with existing reservations.
Many lodgings within driving distance of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts "are bursting at the seams," says the American Hotel & Lodging Association's Joe McInerney. "One of the problems is that workers coming down have no place to stay.
"People can't go back home, and if they've got a hotel room, they're going to keep it as long as they can afford it."
In Houston, where the Astrodome will serve as a shelter for more than 20,000 refugees displaced from New Orleans' sweltering, storm-damaged Superdome, most of the city's 55,000 hotel rooms have been sold out since Katrina took aim at the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts last weekend. Rooms also are filling up in San Antonio, Austin and other areas farther west, says Pat Miller of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association in Austin.
Memphis, 395 miles from battered New Orleans, has received more than 10,000 refugees since the hurricane hit. The new arrivals now account for nearly 25% of the city's 21,000 hotel rooms, which "are pretty much at capacity," says Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"People are running out of money. They thought they were leaving for a few days of unplanned vacation. Then it was, 'I'll need to extend my stay by a few days.' And now, they don't know when they'll be able to go home or what they'll be going home to," Kane says. "They're starting to look for schools and jobs and transitional housing. ... It's almost like they've been through a war."
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism is using state welcome centers to guide people needing a place to stay to available shelters and hotels. Prohibitions on pets at state cabins and lodges have been waived, and refugees are eligible for discounts ranging from free workouts at Little Rock's War Memorial Fitness Center to half-price admission at the city's zoo.
"Just as an example, we have a family of 26 from New Orleans using seven of the cabins at Lake Chicot State Park," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the Associated Press. "Staff at all our state parks are contacting Arkansans who had made reservations for the Labor Day weekend to see if they'll give up their rooms, cabins and camping spots to those from Louisiana and Mississippi who already are in them."
Throughout the region, hotels are advising incoming guests to call ahead, even if they have confirmed reservations.
"As more and more people flee the impacted areas, hotels are trying to assist in relief efforts by providing shelter to people who have nowhere to go," says an advisory posted on the Web site for InterContinental Hotels, whose brands include Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Crowne Plaza.
"As a result, many are overbooked, especially in areas with a huge influx of evacuees, including Alabama, Arkansas, east Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but as we work through this time of crisis, we hope you can understand that our immediate concern is helping those affected by this tragedy."
Says Kess Connelly of Marriott, which has evacuated 2,200 people: "We are actively contacting guests with upcoming reservations to explain the difficult circumstances and the status of our hotels." The chain reports that 22 properties in New Orleans, Alabama and elsewhere in Louisiana are closed or unable to take reservations.
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., where virtually all of the city's 2,200 hotel rooms are occupied by Katrina evacuees, many University of Alabama football fans are giving up rooms for this weekend's sold-out season opener with Middle Tennessee State.
The school's athletic director sent an e-mail Wednesday to more than 50,000 football supporters and season-ticket holders asking them to release their reservations, and "at least 75%" have responded in the affirmative, says Beakie Powell of the Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But in Tallahassee, Fla., hundreds of storm refugees are making way for football fans arriving for two games this weekend. According to Guy Thompson of the Leon County Tourist Development Council, displaced evacuees are being directed to area Red Cross shelters instead.