Hero: This Hotel Manager Saved 300 People During Katrina
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When many people think of Hurricane Katrina, they think of New Orleans — but the Big Easy wasn’t the only place devastated by the storm. Ten years ago, right as the hurricane came ashore, it made a sharp right turn and headed straight for the Mississippi Gulf Coast — plowing into towns like Pass Christian, Ocean Springs, and Biloxi.
Few people in Ocean Springs, Miss., expected Katrina to be so strong.
Donna Brown, the hero of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Photo: Mario Framingheddu.
“We’d lived through other hurricanes before,” Donna Brown, the manager of the Gulf Hills Hotel, said. “But, as the hotel is on high ground, we always were full during the storm alerts from neighbors. Every room was full that night. But nobody expected it to be as bad as it was.”
The Gulf Hills Hotel, which housed over 300 people after Hurricane Katrina. During the storm, the entire golf course and everything surrounding the hotel — with the exception of the hotel itself — were underwater. (Photo: Courtesy of Gulf Hills Hotel)
As the water started to rise, Brown ordered everybody inside. During the major surge — with a wall of water coming toward the hotel and everything surrounded — she saw a family struggling to survive.
“It was a family from down the hill,” Brown said. “Four elderly adults and two dogs in a small boat. One man was trying to lead the boat, the dogs were in the boat, and the others were hanging off the boat.”
Brown quickly organized a human chain and dragged the people to safety.
“They stayed with us for months,” Brown said.
The banquet hall normally hosted weddings, but more than 120 people slept on its floor for over three months after Katrina. People slept on old blankets at first, until Walmart donated pallets and cots. Because it wasn’t a designated shelter, the Red Cross and government agencies wouldn’t donate supplies. (Photo: Courtesy of Gulf Hills Hotel)
On Sunday, the people who lived at the hotel, who have dubbed themselves the Gulf Hills Hotel Katrina Survivors, are orchestrating a reunion.
Jim Franks, a senior research scientist with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Biloxi, stayed at the hotel for four months after his condo was ruined.
Jim Franks stands beside his hero, Donna Brown. (Photo: Paula Froelich)
“I showed up the day after and Donna took me in,” Franks said. “We all became like family.”
Donna refused to charge people for the first three weeks and “worked things out” with residents after FEMA payments kicked in.
“She is an angel,” Franks said. “A true angel. She saved us all — some of us physically, all of us mentally.”
People lucky enough to get actual rooms shared them with up to three other families. (Photo: Courtesy of Gulf Hills Hotel)
While most guests left after four months, one elderly woman ended up staying for a year. “She was frail and needed help and looking after while she got a place to stay, so we took care of her,” Brown said.
The waters came up to the second level of the hotel, covering the entire pool. (Photo: Courtesy of Gulf Hills Hotel)
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