Your True Character is Revealed in a Crisis - In conversation with Michael Smith

It is impossible to know how you will react during a crisis. It is especially difficult when you are in a managerial role and responsible for the lives and well-being of many other people. In the early morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. New Orleans had an extensive system of levees and seawalls to protect the city and while officials feared that there would be temporary flooding, no one anticipated what would eventually occur when the levees broke and approximately 80% of the city was under a significant amount of water. Michael Smith, General Manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans at the time, was in the middle of it all and admirably rose to the challenge of saving lives and facilitating what would be a harrowing ordeal until the Hyatt officially closed in December.

Let’s talk about your approach to crisis management. Using the Hurricane Katrina disaster will give us a very good example of how you deal with a major crisis.

“Two days before Katrina, I had returned from a sales call in Hong Kong and I was seeing all of the storm warnings. We had 3,800 people in our hotel plus another 100 people who showed up from a nearby shelter. Of the 3,800 people, 900 were hotel employees and their families. I began evacuating everyone the night before the storm. It was just common sense. On the 28th, over the loudspeaker, I asked everyone to leave their rooms and I put half the people in the ballroom and the other half in the exhibit hall. By 11 p.m., everyone was downstairs with the exception of a dozen people who refused to leave their rooms. Around 6 a.m., the hurricane made landfall and damaged the building on both sides. I grabbed first responders and our security team to get the remaining dozen people and bring them downstairs. The National Guard was already in place and had secured the hotel. At that point, I was just trying to figure everything out because nobody was trained for this.

“When the levees broke, we evacuated almost everyone over the next three days. By early Friday morning, only the 900 employees and family members remained. I had to wade across the dark, alligator, and snake-infested flooded streets to City Hall to coordinate and expedite getting my people out of the city, which took almost 60 buses. At 4 a.m., I told all my employees to gather their belongings and be ready to leave for the airport at 7 a.m. Many were crying because they had never been on an airplane or even been out of the city. At the same time, 33,000 people who were being evacuated from the Superdome had to funnel through the second floor of the Hyatt. It was chaotic but I got everyone out except myself, the engineer, and the security guys.

“The hotel stayed open for the next three and a half months, not for commerce but to support City Hall workers, feeding them meals every day while they worked to mitigate the hurricane damage. We had the National Guard and armed policemen onsite because the Hyatt was Ground Zero. Everybody was there, including the mayor, who had moved into my apartment in the hotel. We were under the most horrible conditions, and it was martial law because it had to be. We closed the hotel on December 15, 2005, and did not reopen until October 11, 2011.

“Managing my emotions was extremely difficult but my salvation is that everyone in our hotel got out safely. I’m proud of our team members. Many people in New Orleans didn’t have the means to leave, so we had to help them. On the five-year anniversary of Katrina, City Council and the mayor proclaimed six “Unsung Heroes” and I was one of them. There were opportunities for me not to come back, and one of the things that I get applauded for is that I stayed here. I felt that I could be a difference-maker, so that’s why I stayed in New Orleans to help with the recovery and make an impact.

“People say that stuff like this builds character, but I disagree. I think that situations like this reveal character. Your life experiences build character. All the things I’ve done in my life led me to be able to manage that situation. It shows my thought process, my perseverance, and my intestinal fortitude, but more importantly, it tells you that I know how to contribute and be successful, and I can bring a unique perspective to any Board or classroom.”

Thank you for sharing, Michael.

Connect with Michael on LinkedIn.

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