New Orleans Ritz-Carlton Manager (Politely) Rebuts Williams on Katrina

February 11th, 2015 7:30 AM

In case you missed it, The Washington Post reported Tuesday on Myra DeGersdorff, the manager of the Ritz-Carlton hotel where Brian Williams stayed on the edge of the French Quarter in new Orleans. Her account of Katrina and his were very much in disagreement, although she tried to be diplomatic, as you would expect someone to be in the hospitality industry.

Terrence McCoy reported:     

The storm was worse than anyone expected. But DeGersdorff was ready. She enlisted a number of local cops to stay in a half-dozen of the hotel’s 452 rooms, and at any given moment there were at least “six or seven” officers on hand. She dispatched a team of “strong, tall” employees to barricade the exits with king-sized mattresses, and to “make sure those doors stayed locked,” she recalled in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. And she had set up an impromptu “MASH unit,” stocked with medicine from a nearby Walgreens and manned by more than a dozen doctors.

The preparation paid off. Though the hotel was packed, everyone there made it through one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history in one piece. And the very next year, in 2006, the company’s corporate office gave DeGersdorff the Ritz-Carlton President’s Award.

That’s why DeGersdorff was surprised to flip on the news this week and see a perplexing story about NBC News anchor Brian Williams and the hotel she once managed. His recollection of what happened there didn’t match hers. In interviews that surfaced over the past week that she had never seen, Williams said the hotel was anything but secure. In fact, he told Tom Brokaw last summer, gangs had “overrun” the place. He spoke of seeing a dead body floating past the hotel. Williams also once told a book author that he got dysentery during Katrina. During his stay at the hotel, he said he declined an IV and then “had no medicine, nothing.”

DeGersdorff, now a resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., was confused. She said there was more than enough medicine and doctors in the MASH unit.

“Maybe he misremembered,” she told The Post of Williams’s claims. “I’m not going to judge him, because it was such an unpleasant week and there were times to be concerned. … And when there is that kind of concern, you can misremember. And maybe he was out there, and it wasn’t impossible he could have encountered a body, but I don’t think it was in the French Quarter. The French Quarter only got inches” of  flooding.

DeGersdorff’s comments provide a glimpse into what transpired at a hotel sucked into a controversy over now heavily scrutinized claims that Williams has made.

Like others in town, DeGersdorff rejected the notion of gangs in the Ritz-Carlton, as Williams claimed:

“There absolutely was looting in the French Quarter,” DeGersdorff recalled. “But I wouldn’t say they were gangs. … They were primarily individual looters or two or three buddies attempting to break into camera stores; it was unpleasant.” She said that “on more than one occasion,” the looters tried to get inside the hotel. At one point, they did “breach a door” but were “immediately” chased out. There were “maybe one or two of them,” she said.

This contrasts with Williams’s recollection, as recounted to historian Douglas Brinkley for his 2007 book, The Great Deluge. According to Brinkley, Williams told him that “armed gangs had broken into the 527-room hotel, brandishing guns and terrorizing guests. Williams, in fact, had seen his first corpse floating down Canal Street from his eighth-floor window earlier that day. Then fever consumed him.”

At some point — it’s unclear when — Williams said he camped out in a stairwell on a mattress. That surprised DeGersdorff. “I can tell you that at no time did any of my people report any sightings of any bodies,” she said. “I witnessed no bodies floating. … He may have simply misremembered. But I can tell you no one broke out in the hotel with dysentery. I did have mattresses in the stairwells, sure. Did he walk into a stairwell and lay down? He could have, but Ritz-Carlton doesn’t invite its guests to sleep in the stairwell, so we certainly didn’t give him access.”

Williams said he finally made it out of the hotel to climb into a waiting SUV. According to Brinkley, he saw “a gang was waiting on the streetcar tracks in front of the Ritz, ready to ‘smash and grab,’ as Williams put it, to take the vehicle.”

More than such specifics, what DeGersdorff contests is the general impression Williams imparted of the Ritz-Carlton. She said that mood of danger doesn’t reflect what happened.

“None of the guests were in danger of being harmed,” she said. “And none were.”

This is not the first time Douglas Brinkley has taken the word of a liberal telling tall tales for his “history” books. In 2004, Brinkley had to revise the tales John Kerry told him about his Vietnam War heroism.