The Norman Transcript

May 24, 2013

Checking In: Norman hotels team up to house a flood of tornado victims

By Zachary Snowdon Smith
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Norman hotels are used to big crowds. Whether it’s the extended family of every graduating senior at OU or tens of thousands of visiting Sooner fans, Norman always finds a way to house them.

But, this week, Norman hoteliers found themselves confronted by an unexpected crowd: thousands of Moore residents displaced by the tornado that ripped across Cleveland County on Monday.

“It’s like when you’re sold out for a football weekend,” says Stephen Koranda, head of the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau. ”Only, this weekend is going to last for 60 to 90 days.”

The Embassy Suites Norman’s 283 rooms were already mostly occupied by attendees of the Oklahoma Conference on Aging when displaced people began to arrive. It was difficult to tell the difference between Moore residents who might need extra care and highway travelers who had simply pulled off because the road was blocked, says Michael Vance, general manager of the Embassy Suites.

“As people were lining up, we were just working to maintain calm at the desk,” says Vance. “I was positioned in the lobby, talking to guests as they were coming in. ... Trying to tell people, you’re here, you’re safe, and we’ll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Hotels along I-35 were filled within hours, from the Embassy Suites down to the Holiday Inn. During this period of mounting pressure, the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau stepped in to serve as an information hub, telling hotels that were fully booked where to direct arriving guests. This information-sharing network reached hotels from Wichita Falls, Texas, to Tulsa.

“Instead of the front desk person at the Holiday Inn making 25 calls to find out which properties have space they can utilize our office as a liaison,” says Koranda. ”With the influx of customers, they have more to do than sit and make those phone calls.”

It’s not uncommon for hotels to share vacancy information during times of high traffic, says Koranda. It’s a quirk of the industry. Vance didn’t find it at all ironic to stand in the lobby of the Embassy Suites and direct prospective guests to competing hotels, he says.

It also helps that Norman hoteliers are accustomed to the heavy traffic brought by OU.

“A community that doesn’t have football, that doesn’t have university traffic — that community might panic in this situation,” says Koranda. “Hotels here are used to being absolutely jam-packed eight weekends a year.”

As of Thursday, all but about 20 of the displaced Moore residents at the Embassy Suites had found other places to go. Some smaller hotels, however, are still stretched to capacity. The Holiday Inn at 1000 N. Interstate Dr. has been receiving more than 2,000 phone calls per day and is still fully booked, says Patrick Whyatt, general manager.

Whyatt, who managed a Residence Inn during the 1999 Oklahoma tornado event, says that he sees the same patterns playing out now — as families displaced by the tornado find more permanent homes, hotels begin to fill up with insurance adjusters, FEMA agents and construction workers.

“It’s really a fluctuating situation right now,” says Whyatt. ”It’ll probably be a couple of weeks before things stabilize and you don’t see those peaks and valleys anymore. Until then, we’re just working to get people’s needs met.”