Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton Turns Refugee Center in Ice Storm

Edward Spearman, his Atlanta-based tile import business shut down by an ice storm yesterday, did about the only thing he could do. He plopped down on a cushy sofa in front of a warm, split-wood fire with his 5-month-old son in his lap and answered e-mails -- in between tickles.

“Dit, dit, dit, dit, dit,” Spearman, 46, dressed in sweats and a long-sleeve t-shirt, said to the cooing baby after setting aside his device for a moment.

He wasn’t at home. Spearman was part of an exodus Tuesday night to hotels like the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, metro Atlanta’s swank business epicenter. They were fleeing what were expected to be mass power outages from ice-encased tree limbs crashing onto electric lines.

Geoff Meacham, 43, a biotechnology equities analyst for JPMorgan Chase & Co., took a lounge seat at the Ritz and ordered an egg-white omelet to go. He was headed next door to his office to get some work done. With three children ages 4 through 7 at home, he found that hard to do during the last storm Jan. 29.

“It’s just a really busy time of year to us, with the earnings season and a lot of deals,” said Meacham, who had driven his wife’s Land Rover SUV.

Historic Storm

More than 100,000 Georgians had lost power by late morning yesterday in the state’s second major winter storm in two weeks. The last storm left people stranded on the interstates for more than 20 hours and made national headlines, as residents blamed poor planning by state and local officials. Residents also recall winter storms in 2011 and 2000 that trapped people in their homes for days.

“It looks to be the worst ice storm in Atlanta since 2000, and that one knocked out power to 500,000 people,” said Rob Carolan, owner of Hometown Forecast Services Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Parts of northern Georgia and South Carolina could get more than an inch (2.5 centimeters) of ice, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. A half inch of ice is all that’s needed to take down power lines, Carolan said.

The Buckhead Ritz, which opened 30 years ago last month, was nearing capacity by Tuesday night, General Manager Erwin Schinnerl said. The staff was calling out-of-town guests with reservations to confirm whether they would make it to town so the rooms could be freed.

Poolside Movies

Rooms at the Buckhead Ritz-Carlton list for between $449 and $720 on the hotel’s website, depending on the size and without loyalty discounts or other specials.

“For many of our customers who live locally, we’ve become a refuge,” Schinnerl said.

The situation was even more dire two weeks ago, when rollaway beds became a necessity as stuck office workers from nearby buildings shared rooms. Schinnerl worked at the Buckhead Ritz in 2000 in another role when that year’s ice storm turned an expected slow day into a capacity event. They learned kids get stir crazy and parents need breaks, so the leadership team met this morning to plan movies, including one by the pool, and a game room.

The hotel planned ahead to get employees into work and put some up in rooms to provide uninterrupted guest service typical of an ordinary day, Schinnerl said.

Planes Grounded

Across the U.S., more than 3,400 flights were canceled as of late yesterday on the East Coast, including more than two-thirds of all arrivals and departures at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest.

Spearman and his staff at SpearTek Tile & Stone warned customers to send in orders early so they could be shipped ahead of the weather. The company imports marble, travertine and limestone tile mostly from Turkey and Italy and ships by tractor-trailer to retailers all over the Southeast. Employees were sent home for yesterday and today and Spearman will pay overtime tomorrow to catch up with the back orders. He hopes.

Ahead of the storm Tuesday night, typically congested Buckhead streets were eerily empty by 8:30 p.m. as residents heeded warnings to go home and stay put. A few restaurants entertained a handful of customers, while others sent staff home early. Inside the Ritz, a mother checked in her daughter and two preteen boys, both dressed in sport coats.

“We’re staying here because we don’t have a generator,” one of the boys politely told a concierge who asked where they were from.

Crowded Bar

At the bar, the wait staff could barely keep up with a bigger-than-usual Tuesday night crowd. Some were here for a conference and others were just settling in for a few days waiting for a thaw. A group in one corner watched local newscasters detail a storm.

Then came silence, as below-freezing temperatures descended on the still dry city and guests and even some hotel staff settled into their beds. By 6 a.m. yesterday, residents awoke to the tapping of ice pebbles blowing against the plate glass windows of their rooms. They pulled back curtains to reveal a layer of slushy white-gray ice covering the streets. A few cars still risked the conditions.

Downstairs, two young boys sat on chairs by the indoor pool, fixated on tablet computers while their father worked out inside the gym. Pebbles of ice continued to fall outside, coating lounge chairs. As the morning wore on, fewer and fewer cars crushed through the mix on the streets as the temperature dropped.

Walking Dogs

While some hotel residents braved the cold to walk their dogs -- the Ritz is dog friendly -- or grab a smoke next to stacks of freshly cut wood, others set up laptops on couches and tables in the bar, hunting for a dearth of available plugs. A staff member stoked the blaze with fresh wood. Another man read. Women in yoga pants pushed strollers to the dining room. Another family with kids sat looking bored on the floor of a conference center hallway. A concierge led two other children to a quiet table to do homework.

Spearman’s wife Nena, 35, joined her husband by the fire, their 7-year-old daughter in tow. The couple’s 18-month-old son was upstairs with the babysitter, who also came along. They planned to take the kids swimming and thought there might be a scavenger hunt planned. Nena was still somewhat frazzled by the rush to the hotel the night before.

“We’ve got enough stuff to stay at the beach for 10 days,” Spearman said as his wife laughed.

Across the street at the Westin, a group of Coca-Cola Co. executives who manage soft-drink concentrate operations held meetings. Although they were supposed to meet at company headquarters a few miles away on North Avenue, they took care of business at the hotel instead.

By late afternoon at the Ritz, as coffee and soft drinks gave way to margaritas and Sweetwater 420 beer in the lounge, guests found a letter under their doors that included a contingency plan should the hotel’s power quit and generators fail. It included the possibility of an altered menu and staff bringing illumination sticks to each room.

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