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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lodging firm finds rooms for volunteers

BY JERRY SIEBENMARK
The Wichita Eagle

Matt Rogers and other workers at Corporate Lodging Consultants Inc. are accustomed to responding to disasters across the country.

But the EF5 tornado that wiped out much of Greensburg on May 4 was different for Rogers and his Wichita-based employer because the disaster was in their backyard.

"It meant a whole lot more," said Rogers, director of rapid response for Corporate Lodging. "It just put a little pep in what we were doing."

What Rogers and Corporate Lodging were doing was trying to find rooms for the hundreds of American Red Cross volunteers who have been descending on Greensburg in the days following the tornado, which killed 10 people in the town 110 miles west of Wichita.

Corporate Lodging, whose primary business is to provide lodging management services to companies, has had a contract with the Red Cross since 1998 to provide lodging for the organization's volunteers and staff, said Kyle Rogg, Corporate Lodging's senior vice president for business development.

The challenge that Greensburg posed was its distance from a large city. It and the neighboring small towns have far fewer hotel rooms than what a metropolitan area offers.

Corporate Lodging's search turned up hotels in Medicine Lodge, a bed and breakfast in St. John and a dormitory at Pratt Community College.

"When we get in a situation like this, we look for anywhere and everything," Rogers said.

Rogers said when he got to the area the day after the tornado, he found that more than 65 Red Cross volunteers were sleeping on cots in the basement of a Pratt church. Their only place to bathe was a makeshift shower set up in a janitor's closet.

"After seeing that, it was, 'We've got to get you guys out of here,' " Rogers said.

Corporate Lodging has arranged for more than 350 rooms for Red Cross volunteers and staff working in Greensburg, or in support roles at regional offices in Topeka and Kansas City, Rogg said.

A Red Cross spokeswoman said there are Red Cross volunteers from "dozens of states" working in Greensburg.

While the sparsely populated region surrounding Greensburg posed challenges to finding lodging, the company was able to handle it, said Rogg and George Hansen, Corporate Lodging's president and chief executive.

Chalk that up to its work on past disasters, especially Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

That's when Corporate Lodging got steeped in the disaster relief lodging business. The company was called on by the Red Cross to help victims of the two hurricanes get into and pay for hotel rooms.

That program was later turned over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which led to a contract last year to provide lodging preparedness services for FEMA.

The run-up to that contract involved putting in place a system of procedures, equipment and more staff to improve and build upon Corporate Lodging's disaster work.

Hansen said Katrina taught him and the Corporate Lodging staff how to be "ready for something huge."

"You should be better at a smaller disaster if you're prepared for something large," he said.

That philosophy may be put to test again soon. After a relatively calm hurricane season last year, this year is shaping up differently.

"We don't anticipate such a calm season this year," Hansen said.

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com.

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